Filmmaker Spike Lee is always at his most interesting when he’s dealing with anger in some way. That doesn’t necessarily always mean that it’s going to amount to a good movie, as for every Do the Right Thing there’s a Red Hook Summer, but Chi-Raq sort of walks the line between those two. It’s one of the better films Lee has done in a few years, but it’s also ultimately too messy to work. Perhaps if he has taken a bit more time to hone it all and not rushed it to theaters this year for awards consideration (even though it’s mainly debuting on Amazon as the first big project of theirs, following in the footsteps of Netflix and Beasts of No Nation), since there’s definitely things to like here. Lee’s passion shines through as much as ever, while the admittedly odd premise for such a serious topic works better than you’d think. It’s just the overall messiness and slower moments that hold me back from actively recommending this, along with the hit or miss nature of the way the dialogue is delivered. I do think that if you love Lee’s work, you’re going to enjoy this a bit more, while if you dislike his flicks, you’re more than likely not going to dig this at all. I’m somewhere in the middle, which is possibly what leaves me so mixed on Chi-Raq. It offers up something different here in the thick of awards season, that’s for sure, but it’s just not quite on par with the other contenders. Chi-Raq is interesting, but it winds up being a mixed bag.
The premise is actually a modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, which will take some by surprise. It’s updated to modern day Chicago and begins with an introduction to the world by putting “This Is An Emergency” on the screen while a rap song plays from start to finish. We then are introduced to some of the cast, including one man greek chorus of sorts Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson), Spartan gang member/rapper Demetrius Dupree (Nick Cannon) or Chi-Raq, girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), rival Trojan gang leader Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), and Irene (Jennifer Hudson), a resident in town who sees her young daughter killed by a wild bullet during a gun battle. That’s enough for Lysistrata, who decides that to stop the violence in Chicago, she’s going to get all of the women, especially the lovers of the gang members, to go on a sex strike. Spurred on by neighbor Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), she begins rallying her troops, as it were. What’s initially laughed at by the men begins to catch on, including getting the attention of those beyond the gangs. From there, change seems poised to begin.
This isn’t the most successful ensemble ever pulled together by Lee, but it’s a pretty solid one overall in Chi-Raq. The cast handles the rhymes that the script is told in well enough (more on that later though), with Teyonah Parris especially doing strong work. Parris is pretty impressive, with even Nick Cannon doing better than expected. It’s nice to see Wesley Snipes, even if he’s a bit wild, with Angela Bassett adding some gravitas to the proceedings. Samuel L. Jackson is having a grand old time, while Jennifer Hudson isn’t utilized that much. John Cusack is solid as a priest, though his big scene kind of messes up the pacing. Also on hand is Dave Chappelle, David Patrick Kelly, Harry Lennix, D.B. Sweeney, and Isiah Whitlock Jr., among others. Like I said, it’s a solid enough ensemble, even if it’s one that doesn’t inspire too much in the way of overt praise. Parris is best in show, if you want to pick one cast member. This isn’t Lee’s best ensemble, but it’s not his worst either.
Along with his co-writer Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee set out to make this flick a modern day Greek play. I’m not sure he was completely successful there, as sometimes it sticks out like a sore thumb, but at other times it really does make things more powerful. His longtime composer Terence Blanchard lays things on a little thick and cinematographer Matthew Libatique has been better utilized in the past, but Lee does have his passion really on display. The direction beats the writing though, and that’s part of why this isn’t fully successful. At times, it just seems like a bit of a rush job. I didn’t dislike the movie, but I do kind of feel like it was a missed opportunity to make a great bit of social commentary.
Overall, Chi-Raq is what I sort of think is an interesting failure. Failure might be the wrong word, honestly, but Lee’s ambition exceeds his grasp this time out. Again, I really like that this is the key he’s working in, but it just can’t fully work. If you’re a fan of Lee, you definitely want to give this a shot, but you really should keep your expectations in check. I’m not recommending it, but you definitely can do worse in theaters. You can do better though, and that’s why I think Chi-Raq can’t quite become a fully worthwhile endeavor. Alas.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!