Outrageous, gaudy, clumsy, preachy, bawdy, bizarre and certainly topical, Spike Lee’s “Chi-raq” is a political protest and a pop-culture explosion.
Lee has essentially taken Aristophanes’ classic play, “Lysistrata” — in which women withhold sex from men in order to get them to stop fighting in war — and set it in modern-day Chicago, where black-on-black murders have spiraled out of control. Along the way, he uses all manner of bright, pop-up dialogue blocks, glitzy visuals and broad puns and slogans.
In this telling — and it is very much a telling, with Samuel L. Jackson along as a nattily dressed drop-in narrator — things begin with a rapper named Chi-raq (Nick Cannon), who runs the Spartan gang. His rival is Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), leader of the Trojans.
After a shootout at one of Chiraq’s show, in which one of Chiraq’s buddies is hit, he takes refuge in the bedroom of his sexy girlfriend, Lysistrata (Teyonnah Parris). But Cyclops sets their building on fire and another shootout occurs.
Now homeless, Lysistrata takes refuge in the home of the stable Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), an older woman who has seen street violence evolve over the years. Meanwhile, a young mother (Jennifer Hudson) finds that her 8-year-old daughter has been killed, hit by a random bullet in a drive-by. As always, no one saw anything.
Miss Helen encourages Lysistrata to take up an anti-violence campaign against the young gangsters; she and her fellow gangster girlfriends on both sides will begin withholding sex from their men until they lay down their guns. Soon the movement has gone worldwide, with women from Australia to Japan to Pakistan chanting the movement’s slogan, which for obvious reasons can’t be published in a family newspaper.
It’s a wild concept; unfortunately the over-the top execution is also wildly uneven. Lee effectively lays out the violent reality of growing up black in America, weaving all sorts of statistics and information into the script, written along with Kevin Willmott, while also dropping in the names of recent victims of racial violence. There’s no avoiding the real, dark underside of America he’s confronting here.
But scenes are disconcertingly uneven one to the next, and the decision to deliver the vast amount of dialogue in rap rhymes is both distracting and too often overdone, with conversations falling victim to cheap jokes. The women’s takeover of a local armory commanded by a general (David Patrick Kelly), who wears Confederate flag underwear, goes way too over-the-top, and by the film’s end, when Chi-raq and Lysistrata get down for a sex-off (whatever that is), things have gotten downright silly.
Which makes for strange contrast when, in the next scene, dozens of grieving mothers hold up oversize portraits of their dead children.
Still, only Spike Lee would be brazen enough to jumble a serious critique of racism and sexism and political impotence in a pastiche as colorful, crude, impassioned and goofy as this. “Chi-raq” is the most garish film about senseless murder you’ll see this year.
Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use
Running time: 118 minutes