The next time someone uses 25th Hour as an example of how great Spike Lee has been, please remind them that was 2002. And while that film remains a vital, dramatic look at post-9/11 America it is also the last time Lee has done anything of real cultural significance as a feature. Films such as Red Hook Summer and She Hate Me have tried, but were either too corny or too preachy to be effective, while Lee's for-hire work has also suffered. Lee has courted a ton of controversy for his latest effort, Chi-Raq, and it's in that controversy that Lee has regained the fire and passion that spurred his early career. Despite a tone that wobbles out of balance on occasion, it works as a stinging indictment of the gun culture and corrupt law enforcement system that plague this country. Something got Lee real mad, and when he's mad he's real good.
Forget all of the Chicagoans who haven't seen the movie yet still feel the need to complain; Chi-Raq doesn't minimize the Windy City's gang violence problem. Using music, satire, and dashes of broad comedy, Lee and writer Kevin Willmott make an impassioned plea for societal and cultural change. And no, it doesn't excuse African-Americans for the part they have to play, but calls on them to take responsibility as shepherds of that change. The way it makes these points is inconsistent, but the message holds firm throughout.
Based on Aristophanes' Greek comedy "Lysistrata", the film draws greater inspiration from Liberian activist Leymah Roberta Gbowee, who encouraged women to withhold sex from their men in order to bring about peace. Teyonah Parris (seen recently in Dear White People) play Lysistrata, a sexy and curvy Chi-Town girl dating a local rap thug meaningfully-named Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) because of his gang ties and penchant for gun violence. Lysistrata doesn't care about any of that; she's too far in lust to see anything beyond what's immediately in front of her. But after her man becomes the target of a rival gang (led by a wonky eyepatched Wesley Snipes) and the young daughter of a nearby mother (Jennifer Hudson) is gunned down in the crossfire, Lysistrata begins to wake up. With the encouragement of a stoic neighbor (Angela Bassett) she rallies the women with a cry of "No peace, no piece", to deny their men sexual pleasure until the violence stops.
"In the style of time, 'Stophanes made that shit RHYME!", shouts a jubilant Samuel L. Jackson as Dolomedes, our flamboyant guide/Greek chorus through. The screenplay does indeed use rhyming verse throughout, and initially it proves problematic in establishing a firm perspective because it's so distracting and out-of-place in the gritty, blood-soaked streets of Chicago. But it also adds a certain fairy tale quality that bolsters the film's ironic nature. That said; Chi-Raq is best when it sets aside the obvious attempts at humor and goes straight for the gut. John Cusack shows more fire than he has in years as Reverend Mike Corridan (based on a real-life person), who delivers a searing plea to the people of Chicago to hold their politicians and the legal system accountable. Not just about gun violence, the film encompasses a number of hot-button issues such as the for-profit prison system, police violence, and corrupt politicians. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is referenced repeatedly, and so is culturally-ignorant Presidential candidate Ben Carson who would rather blame his own people than deal with issues substantively. Often backed by Cannon's powerful anthem, "Pray 4 My City", Chi-Raq has an urgency and immediacy that Lee's films have lacked for far too long.
Interestingly, it's when dealing with the subject of sexual power that the film loses its way. Lysistrata is an intensely sexual figure and knows it, flaunting that power in the faces of horny and pig-headed men who challenge her. This includes an inept military, with Lysistrata seducing an aging, racist general one of the film's weirdest and least necessary turns. It also includes a men's club of chauvinists (led by the underrated Steve Harris) who come across as oversexed frat boys rather than enlightened challengers to the ladies' plot. There's no ideological counter to what the women are doing; everyone on the opposing side are presented as idiots, which may be what Lee and Willmott were going for but it does them no good in making a well-rounded case. And that is what Chi-Raq is aiming to do, when all is said and done. Tying sex and violence together through humor is an ambitious task that the film never quite pulls together.
With everybody from Isiah Whitlock Jr. (delivering his infamous "Shiiiiittttt" to overlong effect), Roger Guenveur Smith, Harry Lennix, Dave Chappelle, La La Anthony, and D.B. Sweeney making appearances. Lee has emptied out his Rolodex in putting together one of his largest ensembles yet. But it's Teyonah Parris and a surprisingly effective Nick Cannon who stand tall throughout, navigating the film's many narrative shifts effortlessly. While it may be necessary to keep Lee's recent filmography in mind when putting Chi-Raq in proper context, it's the most obvious proof that the director is inching his way back into top form.
Rating: 3 out of 5