A Spike Lee joint
In 411 BCE, Aristophanes’ Greek comedy “Lysistrata” pushed the envelope. It’s about a woman who gathers the wives of soldiers fighting the Peloponnesian War with the one idea that just may achieve peace among lands: a sex strike. The women pledge an oath not to sleep with their husbands until they agree to stop fighting. Ultimately, it works. In 2015, Spike Lee adapted this timeless story and set it in modern-day Chicago—known as “Chi-Raq” for its warlike gang violence. His film, too, pushed the envelope. But it’s not always memorable for the right reasons.
In the adaptation, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is the girlfriend of one of Chicago’s biggest gangsters, affectionately called “Chiraq” (Nick Cannon). His Spartans, emblazoned in purple, are in a war with Cyclops’ (Wesley Snipes) Trojans, who proudly wear their orange. But when she sees the innocent daughter of a local mother (Jennifer Hudson) shot dead, the result of a drive-by shooting gone wrong, Lysistrata realizes she needs to wield what power she does have. So she gathers the girls from both sides of the street to pledge temporary abstinence from their men, until everyone agrees to put down their guns and stop the senseless gang violence. But the city of Chicago, gang violence Ground Zero, doesn’t give up the fight without…well…a fight.
The Spike Lee joint starts with a full version of Nick Cannon’s new rap single “Pray 4 My City,” a mindlessly-written song about his hometown of Chi-Raq. But it wouldn’t have been enough to play the song over shots of the city or even a montage of Lysistrata walking down a street. No, we’re subjected to a full display of every single lyric, for a full four minutes. Karaoke style. The film’s reliance on gimmicky graphics like this and unnecessary attempts at silly, absurd humor (like a soldier going mad from abstinence) would end up being its downfall. That, and an insistence on cramming gun violence statistics, Black Lives Matter references, and the names of black police brutality victims down our throats. I remember watching “Do the Right Thing” and loving how Spike Lee got his racially-charged message across loud and clear without shouting it or talking to us like a cable news pundit. The message of “Chi-Raq” is of vital importance, not just to Chicago but to the rest of the country. But sometimes, when you’re trying to make that point, less is more.
That being said, “Chi-Raq” does boast a script with some real juicy stuff. Written by Lee and Kevin Willmott, the screenplay recycles a lot of anti-gun rhetoric you’ve heard before (that I’ve used before), but also brings forth a bevy of ripe, new ways of telling this narrative of unnecessary violence. As a pillar of the community and mother of a gun violence victim, Miss Helen (a marvelous Angela Bassett) says about the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, “When white babies die and things don’t change, saving these black kids is way out of range.” You’ll notice the rhyming couplet. It’s used throughout the film. It’s one of the few quirks that “Chi-Raq” uses in its favor. Hearing the script read aloud so poetically by a cast of quality actors makes the points stick even more. And “Chi-Raq” does make valuable points. It has a strong argument in the gun debate. But too often, the message is buried in obvious attempts to get its point across. The story gets lost. Spike Lee’s powerful narrative would have carried the message. But some of the dialogue is stiffened by the unnatural statistics thrown amidst beautiful stream-of-consciousness verse.
Also lost in the shuffle are a few great performances. As the hilarious narrator, Samuel L. Jackson is right in his element. Teyonah Parris has a breakout performance in the lead role. She makes a name for herself. In his first film in over six years, Nick Cannon doesn’t miss a beat. He makes us believe in his thugness. Though we know the “America’s Got Talent” host and Mariah Carey’s ex-husband is anything but thug, we still buy it. Jennifer Hudson in a smaller role is miraculous. But the Oscar-winner is known for excelling in somber and dramatic roles. In one pivotal scene, John Cusack, as a preacher in a black church, deliver’s a rousing eulogy for a slain daughter that reminds us of the importance of this film. “Chi-Raq” is explosively important in both the gun violence and gender equality debates. Cusack delivers this message in one moving monologue. Sadly, the rest of the film doesn’t deliver the message quite so convincingly.