Starring: Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, David Patrick Kelly, D.B. Sweeney, Dave Chapelle, Harry Lennix
Adapted from the play “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes
Written for the screen by: Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee
Directed by: Spike Lee
IMDb Score: 5.6
Metacritic Score: 77
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 82%
Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use
Look, I am not going to pretend to know what “Lysistrata” was before watching this movie. Nor am I going to pretend that the concept of this movie wasn’t meant to be shocking in some sort of way. This is a Spike Lee movie: some love him, some hate him, but none can deny his way of creating a firestorm around his films when they are released.
A satire, however, was kind of a surprise, especially since his last one, Bamboozled, floundered with both critics and audiences. Especially one that links two topics that have such divisive opinions: gun violence and sexuality. Does Spike Lee’s latest have that biting edge?
Chi-Raq, otherwise known as Chicago, is a hotbed of gun violence. Two gangs, led by Chi-Raq (Cannon) and Cyclops (Snipes), are the two main gangs beefing against each other in constant shootouts. After a young girl is killed in the crossfire during a gang shoot-out, Lysistrata comes up with a plan: to make the gun violence to stop between the two gangs, women must not give any sex or sexual favor to their men.
Chi-Raq is an interesting movie, but a deeply flawed one. It has some good scenes with some great performances, but the movie in its totality falls apart when trying to be serious with its satire.
Let’s compare Chi-Raq to another satire that actual works: Borat. You would think these two movies are nothing alike, but it’s when you compare how they bring their message across do you see how similar they try the same things.
And, sure, Chi-Raq doesn’t have a mustachioed man 69’ing a grossly overweight man in a fight, but hey, it has a tank named Penis Envy…so that helps?
Borat, while being utterly ridiculous, shows what it is like to be a foreigner in the United States and how a ignorant man who is unaware of the country’s customs are treated in America. Borat not only does it by putting him in hilarious situations, but it also has him interacting with actual people and seeing their reactions to the foreigner. It’s a movie that is both uproarious and deeply disturbing at the same time.
Chi-Raq is also completely ridiculous: only it’s ridiculous in its message and its execution. The movie shows an unlikely plan (Women don’t have sex with men) being executed to prevent wrong doing (gun and gang violence). It’s not exactly a 1-for-1 message, even if you use the guns as extensions of a man’s masculinity (which is kind of what Spike Lee is doing, I think).
Whereas Borat creates the message by its seamless execution and use of excellent mockumentary verite that no movie may ever execute better, Chi-Raq rams the message down your throat, but it doesn’t even hold up it’s own message.
In fact, at times the movie feels like a very lewd and artsy Tyler Perry film: it tells you what you should think without showing why you should think it. Or that you should feel this way just because. Add to the fact that the movie meanders towards different messages and you got a movie that is both heavy-handed and without a decent through line throughout the film.
Seriously, what was the message that was to be gleamed from this movie? Women need equality? Men need to respect the female gender? Women are the man’s true weakness? Guns are bad? Gang violence is the true American problem? Nick Cannon and Wesley Snipes can still headline a movie? What?! What is the damn message?! After 2 hours plus, it’s really hard to tell because none of the messages that are shown have enough to create a cohesive, legitimate lesson.
This leads to some cringe-worthy scenes, such as scenes with an incredibly obvious Southern Plantation general and a terribly bad slow jams dance-off between the women and army guys. Scenes that just don’t work, whether by idea or execution, muddies the central theme of the film. I mean, whatever the heck the theme is.
Also, the performances in the film are only just enough not to be terribly campy. Cannon, Snipes, Parris, Hudson: all of them are just good enough not to dislike them. They don’t stand out in any way or lend anything different or poignant (unlike other performances from other Spike Lee films), but they aren’t bad. The performances more or less relies on the material, nothing else.
Now, the movie isn’t all bad. There are a couple of scenes that are great, one is absolutely fantastic. All scenes involving Samuel L. Jackson’s ethereal narrator are entertaining and funny: then again, what else would you expect from Samuel L. Jackson. Anytime he comes on, he commands the screen, which is no surprise considering some of the most pivotal characters from Lee’s movie has them said by Jackson.
Yet, the best scene, and best performance of the film, comes from John Cusack. Some of the best dialogue and best acting comes from this 13 minute monologue featuring Cusack as the local Pastor of the Church. It’s this scene where one of the themes actually works and works quite well.
Lee’s monologues in most of his films (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, The 25th Hour) are strikingly poignant and powerful: this was the sole scene that reminded me that this truly was a Spike Lee film.
So, what was this film? A biting satire? A message movie with some lewd jokes? A dark and twisted stage play turned into a movie? No, there is only one way to describe this film: a mess. With a script and execution that goes way over to farce than to poignant satire, Chi-Raq is a film that had an ingenious idea that crumbled into a cover-your-eyes disaster.
1/5 – Cusack is good, but nothing else is in this crass, lewd satire with very little bite and a lot of confusion on what it’s satirizing.
The Wiz Says #50 (Holy crap, 50!)