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Provocatively using Aristophanes‘ ever-timely 2,426-year-old play Lysistrata as a way to address the ongoing plague of shootings on the South Side of Chicago, Spike Lee serves up an odd gumbo teeming with political activism, broad melodrama, verse dialogue, rap music, history lessons, comedic caricature, moral guidance and steamy sex (later withheld) in Chi-Raq.
Even if the now-veteran director lays everything on a bit thick, repeatedly makes many of the same points and lets things go on too long, he’s still found a lively and legitimate way to tackle an urgent subject matter that other filmmakers have found excuses to avoid. This is the first feature film out of the gate for the nascent Amazon Studios, which seems at least initially dedicated to working with interesting directors on projects the studios may not be inclined to take on. Far more people will end up seeing the film once it’s available at home, but initial theatrical runs in major urban markets beginning December 4 will effectively establish its public profile.
As far as big screen features go, in the decade since his last big commercial success with Inside Man, Lee has stumbled with several unlikely and/or ill-advised projects, from Miracle of St Anna and Red Hook Summer to Old Boy and last year’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, none widely seen. The least you can say about Chi-Raq, a title at which Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has taken offense, and too bad for him, is that it vaults Lee back into a position of cultural/political relevance similar to that which he held a generation ago, just as it sees him making some bold creative moves, especially with the dialogue, that are pretty fresh.
Lysistrata, of course, hinges on one of dramatic literature’s imperishable premises, in which the women of Athens undertake a sex strike as a way to persuade their men to end the Peloponnesian War.
In Lee’s film, the sassy and confrontational women concisely convey their demand in a simple slogan: No Peace No Piece (there’s also an alternate, less printable version). It’s easy to imagine how the boyz n the hood react to this idea, but it catches on, which frees Lee and his co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott to attach numerous affiliated and troublesome issues to their busy social agenda: black-on-black violence, gun control, bought politicians, numbness to violence, the commercial and moral gutting of neighborhoods, neglected vets and homeless and the untold other ills people live with in the shadows of a great city’s imposing downtown.
Serving as ringmaster/m.c./one-man chorus is Samuel L. Jackson’s Dolmedes, a neighborhood sage whose fancy pants outfits change with every appearance and whose rhyming raps philosophically frame the action and beguilingly massage the ear to welcome the rhythms in which the dialogue will be delivered for the next two-plus hours by the citizens of Englewood. The verse exchanges admittedly sound odd at first coming from the mouths of would-be rapper and Spartan gangsta Demtrius “Chi-Raq” Dupree (Nick Cannon) and his hot young girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) as they get it on before her apartment is firebombed by Chi-Raq’s rival, Trojan gangleader Cyclops (Wesley Snipes, sporting a bejeweled eye patch).
But after a few moments, the rhyming and phrasings begin to work their charm, in great measure because of their close proximity to rhythms of rap in particular and music lyrics in general. Some of the actors are better at delivering it than others, but overall it bestows the film with a kind of singular modern status and appeal, just as it connects with the venerable spoken word tradition.
Dolmedes‘ intro apart, the film’s opening is all sex and violence, culminating in the accidental drive-by shooting death of 11-year-old daughter of Irene (Jennifer Hudson). But then the spotlight shifts to local politics, general civics and, for the women, an innovative attempt to change the world by any means necessary, as Lee has always branded his films. Lysistrata, now camped out at the apartment of bookish veteran activist Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), initiates the No Peace/Piece movement, which starts locally but eventually goes global as colorfully seen on TV news snippets from around the world. Considerable time is given to a passionate sermon by a local activist priest (John Cusack), who would presumably be reflexively sympathetic to the abstinence technique but is fundamentally driven by the cause of social justice (the role is modeled on white Rev. Michael Pfegler, who leads Chicago’s black St. Sabina Church and was a consultant on the film). But with his reward money yielding no eyewitnesses to the crime, it falls to the women’s no-access policy to produce results, which proves more successful than the film’s ideas about how to fill the time during the three-month siege.
At this point, unfortunately, Lee and Willmott put undue emphasis on buffoonish low comedy, for which they have little feel. When the women decide to occupy the large nearby armory building, the effort is spearheaded by Lysistrata’s pretend seduction of the boss, the old white-bearded (and white) General King Kong (shades of Dr. Strangelove) who, quite unhilariously, is stripped down to his Confederate flag-style underwear and made to mount a phallic cannon and whistle Dixie before being hung out to dry.
This embarrassing sequence is shortly followed by equally base would-be hilarity featuring the city’s big business-obsessed mayor, who’s made to look like almost as big a fool as King Kong but sticks around for much longer. It may not seem entirely coincidental that these bad stretches both focus on white power figures, but that’s not the problem; almost equally lame is the silly comedy the director tries to elicit from Snipes, whose odd sniveling is as embarrassing as it is unconvincing. In these stretches, Lee proves pretty conclusively that broad comedy is not his strong suit.
The other issue with these interludes, as well as other more serious ones involving cast-off military vets and other homeless and hopeless men in the hood, is that they remove the central characters from the stage for too long a period. The narrative becomes too fractured and, as a result, the film loses momentum and focus in the second half. The climax, which is simultaneously both dramatic and sexual, may have seemed conceptually provocative on paper, but onscreen hardly represents a credible response to the ultra-serious issues hashed out over the previous two hours. Music, reconciliation, moral lessons learned and remorse properly expressed are all well and good ways to create a (relatively) feel-good ending to a wrenching story. All the same, a yawning gap lingers between the film’s resolutions to dramatic challenges and the dire real-life problems that remain beyond its reach.
As evidenced by the title of his most famous film, Do the Right Thing, Lee has always been a moralist and a teacher, and here he has two messages: “Be a good man,” as Bassett’s wise woman tells the fellow who finally fesses up to the shooting, and “Wake Up!,” as Jackson’s sage street-corner entertainer ultimately instructs the audience.
Better known for his comedy than for dramatic acting or singing, Cannon, in the street-tough title role, broods through most of the film while making the biggest impression with his physicality. By contrast, Parris is all spunk, sass and drive as his ever-resourceful girlfriend. One could build a whole movie around Bassett’s experienced organizer, whose worldliness mark her as someone who might well have left the neighborhood but whose sympathies and long-ago tragedy keep her on the South Side.
The vibrant and varied music, colorful costumes, huge cast of secondary and background figures and seldom-seen-in-movies locations provide a full sensory meal, even as the end result could have been more powerful and less discursive by losing perhaps 15 minutes of running time.
Opens: December 4 (Roadside Attractions)
Production: Amazon Studios, 40 Acres and a Mule
Cast: Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris, Jennifer Hudson, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix, D.B. Sweeney, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Spike Lee
Screenwriters: Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee, based on the play Lysistrata by Aristophanes
Producer: Spike Lee
Executive producers: Jon Kilik, Kevin Willmott
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: Alex DiGerlando
Costume designer: Ruth E. Carter
Editors: Ryan Denmark, Hye Mee Na
Music: Terence Blanchard
Casting: Kim Coleman
R rating, 127 minutes
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