“Chi-Raq” Is A Loud, Laborious Misfire From Spike Lee

Cary Fukunaga’s recent “Beasts Of No Nation” marked Netflix’s first foray into moviemaking and, failed theatrical release aside, it was a definite victory for the streaming service. Although a creative near miss, it was good enough to rack up uniformly positive critical notices and strong streaming numbers.

Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” is Amazon’s counterstrike, a half-savvy, half-transparent move to keep up with an auteur of its own.

The score after round one: Netflix 1, Amazon 0.

Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” remains one of the best films of the 1980s (and for that matter, the 90s, since it was so culturally prescient) and he’s shown flashes of that brilliance since. But those flashes are scarce in “Chi-Raq,” an unwieldy and frequently tasteless mishmash of gang violence, socioeconomics, and sexual politics, all stirred up into a loose adaptation of 2,400 year-old Greek sex comedy Lysistrata.

It isn’t difficult to see how the film sees itself: as a seriocomic admonishment of both black-on-black violence and the system that enables it. But the movie (co-written by Lee and Kevin Willmott) is heightened to the point of vertigo. Emceed by Samuel L. Jackson who finds over-the-top and then goes several notches higher, the story is buried in explicit sex, dialogue written in verse, and broad comedy, all of which undercuts the real-life issues at hand.

Teyonah Parris (AMC’s “Mad Men”) stars as Lysistrata, resident of Chicago’s increasingly violent south side (hence the Iraq-infused nickname) and girlfriend to a young gangsta rapper who’s happily taken his city’s moniker. Demetrius “Chi-Raq” Dupree (a wildly miscast Nick Cannon) seems unfazed by the prospect of living out his own bullet-riddled lyrics, left unshaken by a shooting at one of his own concerts. Lysistrata isn’t nearly as cool with it, her fear and outrage compounded when she witnesses the aftermath of a young girl’s murder.

This is where the road splits for Spike Lee and his movie. Following a harrowing scene where a young mother (Jennifer Hudson) scrubs her own daughter’s blood from a sidewalk, the filmmaker pushes nearly all his chips toward comedy. (He’s insisted in the press that the picture isn’t comedy but satire, a dubious claim considering the source material.)

Lysistrata soon resolves that her best option to bring peace to Chicago is to withhold sex from Chi and to encourage her friends (and they, their friends) to follow suit. Their mantra – “No Peace, No Pussy!” – is repeated so often as to become a shadow of the gag it was intended to be, all while the male characters counter-protest just as loudly.

In fact, “Chi-Raq” all but corners the market on yelling, with at least 80% of its dialogue shouted at ear-splitting levels. The worst offender is an egregiously long, tonally jarring funeral sermon delivered by John Cusack as a south side preacher. As the film’s centerpiece, the scene’s gravely serious undertones clash loudly with the sex romp sequences that surround it.

Lee makes a modest effort to connect the script’s sexual dynamics to its politics – Lysistrata and company are all about challenging the patriarchy – but it’s clouded by the unrelenting comedy, most of which isn’t especially funny. Both Wesley Snipes and Dave Chappelle are ostensibly on hand for laughs, but one disappears early on to return more than an hour later while the other never does.

As the young black women of Chicago overtake a National Guard armory to make their point, we’re treated to a few under-choreographed dance sequences and sex-based jokes that miss far more often than they hit. And for all the bombast, the film’s ending is exceptionally meek, as if belatedly, sheepishly realizing it ran out of gas an hour before.

If anyone could make a concoction of such incongruous ingredients work, it would be Spike Lee. But by the time a grizzled National Guard Major in Confederate flag underoos hornily jumps atop an antique cannon in a scene that wouldn’t even be welcome as a DVD extra, the writing’s on the wall. “Chi-Raq” is a bust.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: December 4, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Amazon Studios
Director: Spike Lee
Screenwriter: Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott
Starring: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Hudson, John Cusack, Wesley Snipes, D.B. Sweeney, Harry Lennix, Steve Harris, Angela Bassett
MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use)