Stop the sex, then you stop the guns, and then you stop the violence. Or something like that.
Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is getting absolutely sick and tired of her gang-banger boyfriend (Nick Cannon) taking advantage of her sexy body and using her just strictly for sex. After all, she wants him to stop all of the shooting, killing, and drug-dealing, but he just won’t. So therefore, Lysistrata steps up, bands her fellow friends together and start a revolt against allowing their men to use their bodies for sex. Because if these men don’t get their sex, then possibly, they may stop killing one another and things may be a whole lot safer in Chicago. Clearly, certain people aren’t happy about this, whereas others are, but mostly, it calls into question the rest of the community and how they’re willing to handle this whole change. Some people, like Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack), love it and wants to see all of the crime gone at last, whereas others, Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), doesn’t even care about the crime stopping and just wants his sex already! He may get it, after all, but he, along with the rest of his gang-pals, need to cut-out all of the shooting and killing if they want to get what they want.
Spike Lee has never been the most subtle writer/director out there in the world and for the longest time, that was alright – until it wasn’t. What seems to have been going on with Lee’s career as of late is that it doesn’t appear like he’s really fired-up or passionate about anything he’s making anymore. Sure, there’s clearly movies like Miracle at St. Anna, or more obviously She Hate Me, where it’s obvious that he has points to make and wants to say something, but he can’t keep himself away from getting all caught up in a bunch of other stuff, that eventually, it all just becomes a mess.
And although Chi-Raq finds Lee back to his old ways of being passionate about something, it’s still very much, in the end, a mess.
But an interesting mess is, in some ways, better than just a dull, uninteresting mess – which doesn’t seem like something Lee himself ever creates. This is why the idea of incorporating the Greek comedy “Lysistrata” into the modern day world and land of the violent and ruthless streets of Chicago, may seem rather weird at first, but eventually, it’s easy to get used to, even when it seems like certain dialogue comes off stranger and more stilted than others. That said, perhaps the most moving moment of Chi-Raq is when there’s no old-timey, stagey dialect anywhere to be found, in which John Cusack, playing a local priest, unleashes into a tirade about all of the murders, crimes, and guns in the world that he sees around him and it’s too hard to not get wrapped up in.
For one, it features Cusack’s best performance in the longest time (excluding Love and Mercy), but it also reminds us of the sort of power and beauty Lee’s “angry” writing can sometimes have. While he is most definitely preaching and yelling at his audience, he is also spelling-out truths about society that most movies tend to shy away from, or are too afraid of even bringing up. Rather than doing so and joining his weaker counterparts, Lee reminds the audience just what he’s talking out against and shows us why he is the first and last person to have a say on the matter.
And this is all to say that Lee has a lot to say in Chi-Raq, mostly all of which is great and uplifting to hear.
But at the same time, there’s also way too much going on around this central message. To say that Chi-Raq is “jam-packed”, would be an absolute understatement. Now, to say that it’s “filled with one too many subplots, all taking place in different movies, and seemingly having no way of connecting with one another”, then you’d be absolutely right, because that’s exactly what it is about Chi-Raq that makes it a hard movie to watch or get totally invested in. One second, you’ll see a character get plenty of attention and automatically assume that they’re the protagonists or characters you should be looking at the most, so you sit there, study them, get to know them, and take them all in – that is, until it turns out that Lee’s bored of them and their story, and is off to the next character/story to focus on.
This happens at least five or six times and after awhile, it begins to be a bit tiresome. Casting a wide net for your film when you’re tackling such a big issue as violence in America isn’t a problem, but to do so and not really offer up much development to any of these points you want to focus on, is. Maybe Lee could have benefited from getting rid of one or two subplots, and devoting more of his time and attention on other, way more important ones, but really, it still doesn’t seem like that would solve any of these issues.
In other words, Chi-Raq is the usual kind of mess we’re used to seeing with Spike Lee, but feels like more of a missed opportunity, and less like a piece to solve the puzzle he’s trying to put together.
The only one of the cast who gets the most eyes from the Lee is Teyonah Parris. Parris has been putting in some solid work as of late in pieces like Mad Men, or in last year’s Dear White People, but here, she really gets her opportunity to light the screen up. Not only does she have presence, in terms of her beauty, but she’s the one who handles all of the stagey material to the best of her ability and shows that there may be something of a pulse underneath this, what appears to be, something of “a type”. And while there’s a huge cast featuring the likes of Jennifer Hudson, Wesley Snipes, Nick Cannon, D.B. Sweeney, La La Anthony, Dave Chappelle and Samuel L. Jackson, basically replaying his role as Mister Señor Love Daddy, nobody ever gets nearly as much to do as she does.
This is fine, but really, it would have been nice to see Lee give each and everyone a chance to do more, as well as remind the audience why it is that Lee himself is such a master at getting these crazy ensembles together and yet, make them work so well together.
Consensus: Lee is firing on all cylinders in Chi-Raq, and while he definitely makes his voice heard and his points understood, they’re sometimes tucked underneath a mess that’s hard to wade through and not feel frustrated by.
5.5 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire