Chi-Raq - This Movie Raps Hard, Doesn't Quite Rock
Dir: Spike Lee
Starring Teyonna Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, John Cusack, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Dave Chappelle, Henry Lennix
Inspired by the stats that gun deaths in the city of Chicago are higher than those of Americans in Iraq, and strained through the sieve of a modern-day take on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Lee’s latest is a stylistic and ambitious look at the era of Black Lives Matter that, unfortunately, is too wide reaching and, indeed, over-reaching to ever find anything close to a consistent tone.
It’s opens brilliantly with the lyrics from the title track taking over the screen for the song’s duration – very probably the finest opening titles of the year (and this in an age when most eschew opening titles.) Then we are introduced to the nature of the piece via a snappily dressed Sam Jackson standing in for the ancient Greek chorus, informing us that what we are about to see will be told in rhyme – not of the rapping kind but the Greek style. And true enough we meet our modern day Lysistrata (a strong Parris) who – as in the play of old – leads a ban on sex, encouraging the women of Chicago (the Chi-Raq of the title, blending the American city with the war zone) to just say no, until their men, divided into two warring gangs, the Spartans and the Trojans, lay down their arms. In short – “No Peace. No Pussy.”
It’s a strong idea but Lee never fully manages to wrangle it successfully. So one moment he’s sticking with the Greek elements, to decidedly mixed success – an Oedipus gag just falls flat on its arse. At other times he’s creating stylised, almost musical moments and dance routines. And then stopping for ten minutes to let John Cusack deliver a fabulously impassioned piece of rhetoric as the local (unexpectedly white) gospel priest. (Cusack, for once, passes on the standard issue long black coat – but does get to replace it with a long black cassock.)
The ladies then take over a local armoury and hold it hostage and their movement is taken up all over the world, elements which show just how uneven Lee’s film is. It, at times, appears more as a thesis than it does a narrative. It’s deliberately absurdist, but never finds the balance such leaps of faith require. Which is a shame, because, as ever with Lee, there’s always things to admire.
It’s commendable in its anger and its politics – it’s just a shame it isn’t more balanced within its own universe. (It even appears to give up on the whole rhyming dialogue device for huge swathes at a time.)
Lee is always worthwhile, but this is not the man at his best. And he hasn’t really been that since around The 25th Hour and Inside Man.
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