We critics know all the ways to weasel out of giving an opinion when an artist asks “How did you like my movie/painting/album?” To avoid hurting feelings, we often say it was interesting. Challenging. Provocative. Or (my favorite) “Nobody but you could have done it.”
But on rare occasions, those are compliments. “Chi-Raq” is indeed interesting, challenging, provocative and consistently entertaining in its outrageous depiction of life in modern Chicago. And nobody in mainstream filmmaking today except Spike Lee could or would have done it.
The writer-director loosely adapts “Lysistrata,” the comedy by Aristophanes in which the women of Greece refuse to have sex with their husbands until combat between Athens and Sparta ends.
Unlike Aristophanes, Lee veers wildly from deadly seriousness to absurdist humor to a literal bout of preaching about America’s obsession with weapons and collective indifference. And it usually works, fueled by a sense of humor and a sense of outrage that intertwine almost perfectly.
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Our narrator, flamboyant Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson), sets the scene and occasionally comes back to act as a one-man chorus. Rapper Chi-Raq (former Charlottean Nick Cannon) runs the Spartans, a small but violent gang in Chicago’s small but violent Englewood neighborhood. He and Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), who leads the Trojans, have declared a war that has no point: They’re not trying to divide turf, and we don’t see them running any legal or illegal businesses.
Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), Chi-Raq’s woman, tolerates this stupidity until a drive-by shooting slays the 7-year-old daughter of a friend (Jennifer Hudson). Lysistrata and her crew meet with Aunt Helen (Angela Bassett), the neighborhood wise woman and mother of another murdered child. They convince the Spartan and Trojan woman to go on a sex strike with them. Eventually, the movement encompasses the women of Chicago and endangered cities around the world.
Occasionally, Lee goes too far – not toward bad taste, but toward useless exaggeration. A National Guard general named King Kong (perennial psycho David Patrick Kelly), who’s made up to look like Robert E. Lee and wears Confederate battle flag underwear, doesn’t raise laughs.
Yet most of the time, the zingers hit their targets. From the opening image (a map of the United States made entirely of weapons) to the final cry of “Wake Up!” (an echo of Lee’s “School Daze”), the film never stops throwing punches that land.
John Cusack, playing a Catholic priest who has grown up in Englewood, delivers a riveting sermon over the dead girl’s coffin that’s as emotional as anything you’ll see this year; he’s playing Father Michael Pfleger (here called Michael Corridan), the activist pastor at the real St. Sabina. It’s this mingling of reality and fiction – even fantasy – that keeps the film grounded yet never bland.
Jackson rants and orates as entertainingly as anyone in show business; Parris projects not just sex and sassiness but keen intelligence; Hudson and especially Bassett supply the unabashedly strong emotions the film needs.
Cannon has his usual sly good humor but shows acting chops we’ve never seen from him as the dead-ended, bull-headed but potentially vulnerable Chi-Raq. The character’s name also refers to the city, where more Americans have died by homicide since 2001 than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Its full, sardonic title is Chi-Raq, Drillinois – not a subtle way of putting things, like the film itself, but undeniably effective.
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes.
Writer-Director: Spike Lee.
Length: 118 minutes.
Rating: R (strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use).