As the news reminds us every day, gun violence continues to plague the United States, no matter where you live. Writer/director Spike Lee, always someone willing to speak up when others won’t, is addressing one aspect of the problem with his latest film, Chi-Raq.
Set on the south side of Chicago, Lee uses the ancient Greek play Lysistrata as the basis for his story. Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), sick of her boyfriend Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) and his gang always being at war with a rival gang led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), bands together with women on both sides to institute a ban on sex until the two gangs decide to stop fighting.
The film is a mash-up, using modern-day vernacular but delivering it in sometimes-tortured rhyme. For a film that’s mostly about sex, or the lack thereof, and violence, there’s remarkably little of either, although the talk about one or the other in explicit terms is almost nonstop.
While the plot itself isn’t difficult to follow, Lee seems to get bogged down in the showiness of his story. The satirical elements of the film often get lost by Lee going over-the-top, epitomized by a midfilm seduction of a National Guard soldier by Lysistrata that delves incongruously into overt racism and sexual oddities.
The comedy and other bizarre moments also overwhelm any dramatic possibilities. Jennifer Hudson stars as a mother whose daughter was killed by a stray bullet, but her grief is never given a chance to truly take hold. Likewise, the efforts of Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) to heal his community aren’t given nearly the same importance as the excess of the rest of the film.
It remains watchable due the performance of Parris, a commanding presence in almost every scene in which she appears. Cannon does a solid job as well, subverting his America’s Got Talent persona. It’s nice to see Snipes in a high-profile role again, but the hamminess of the part does him no favors. And Samuel L. Jackson is as Samuel L. Jackson-y as ever as the narrator.
While art is often effective in shining a light on problems that can get swept under the rug otherwise, Chi-Raq never hits home in the way that Lee intended. Satire is a great tool in the right hands, but Lee didn’t have the touch this time around.