It’s been difficult to be a Spike Lee apologist in the last few years. While some of the director’s dramas like “25th Hour” have found their rightful due as contemporary masterpieces, the subsequent dearth of Lee’s worthwhile narrative efforts, and the flop of many, have hastened some critics to declare the filmmaker’s best days are behind him (one could argue a premature honorary Oscar doesn’t help that notion). In some cases, beyond conveniently forgetting “Inside Man,” this assertion is hard to argue, as his narratives of any class or budget had stem-to-stern problems, whether its glossy Hollywood remakes (“Oldboy”), or Kickstarter-funded micro-indies (“Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus”). A focused control of tone seemed to have escaped the filmmaker in egregiously fundamental ways and even medium works have jumped the shark at their points of intended provocation (“Red Hook Summer”). There were lifeboats to point to — while Lee’s dramatic works became sloppier and unfocused, his proud, hopeful documentaries became sturdier and mightier (his two Katrina docs are masterful) — but some had already given up.
Which takes us up to Lee’s “Chi-Raq,” a musical satire about gun violence in the inner streets of America’s murder capital, Chicago. Bold and provocative as you might expect, “Chi-Raq” is Lee’s most vital narrative in over a decade. However, this is also a relative term; the director’s latest joint is still maddeningly uneven, didactic and sloppy; “Chi-Raq” only occasionally lives up to its reputation as Lee’s return to form.
A modern update on the Greek play “Lysistrata” — Aristophanes’ comedy about a group of women who withhold sex from their husbands and lovers as a means to force men to stop warring and negotiate peace — “Chi-Raq” follows this narrative more or less exactly to the letter. In Lee’s playful, Ghetto-Fab version, co-written by the director and Kevin Willmott (writer/director of “CSA: The Confederate States of America”), Lysistrata (a breakout Teyonah Parris) is a young black woman in Chi-Town dating a local brazen gangster rapper named Chi-Raq (a surprisingly strong Nick Cannon). Through dangerously close brushes with violence, witnessing a young mother (Jennifer Hudson) lose her daughter, and the wise council of Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), Lysistrata is persuaded to rally the females in her neighborhood, even from opposing gangs, and convince the sisters to deny their men sex in order to stop the gun and violence epidemic. “No peace, no pussy” becomes their rallying cry and their sexual prohibition turns the men and their city inside out as the male populace, criminal or otherwise, have to confront a life without sexual gratification.
While satire is obviously an effective tool to employ while engaging with a dark and difficult subject, Lee’s movie is actually much sharper and more compelling when it acts as fiery agitprop. And “Chi-Raq” opens in incendiary fashion, with a red flashing title card that reads “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY” giving way to what is essentially just a lyric video for Nick Cannon’s blistering musical cut, “Pray 4 My City.” The stirring song acts as a soundtrack to a visual statistical prologue that stacks up the casualties in war torn Iraq against the skyrocketing murder rates in Chicago. In fact, the first thirty minutes of “Chi-Raq” is an engaging mix of call-to-disarm urgency and sobering solemnity that is indeed Lee’s most essential work in quite some time.
But when the humor of “Chi-Raq” starts to take hold, Lee’s movie loses its bite, trading its gravity for broad, inconsistent tonal shifts and comedy that’s often just silly and undermines the bigger thematic elements. Samuel L. Jackson acting as the Greek chorus is quite trenchant, and a musical sequence set to the Chi-Lites’ classic R&B track “Oh Girl” manages to carefully walk the line between amusing and stupid, but often Lee just lays it on way too thick and the absurd becomes inane (one particular scene with David Patrick Kelly as a racist Dixieland General devolves into ridiculous farce). Subtlety was never a strong voice in Lee’s vocabulary, but at least the filmmaker always struck provocative, thoughtful blows when he got angry.
But, when “Chi-Raq” returns to its indignant tone, its angered rebuke becomes unfocused, crude and unpolished, seemingly attacking everyone and everything without much aim. One sequence with an understandably outraged Reverend Mike Corridan (a very good John Cusack) espousing the moral decay of our culture and the bankruptcy of our politicians begins as a terrific screed about the ideological cancers eating away at America. But much like the movie, this harangue goes all over the map, overstates itself and becomes overwrought. In this overlong sequence Lee often replays the same piece of dialogue over again, in a Godard-ian like jumpcut to stress the point, but it just adds to the undercutting of what began as a rousing and impassioned scene.
Co-starring dozens of supporting actors like Wesley Snipes, D.B. Sweeney, Harry Lennix, Steve Harris, Dave Chappelle, and Lee regulars like Roger Guenveur Smith and Thomas Jefferson Byrd, the cast is made up of solid players, but the exorbitant speaking roles illustrate just how overstuffed “Chi-Raq” can get (“The Wire” star Isiah Whitlock Jr. shows up solely to deliver his trademark shiiiiiiiiit line, exaggerated to the point of unfunniness). Shot by longtime Darren Aronofsky collaborator DP Matthew Libatique (lenser of “She Hate Me,” “Inside Man,” “Miracle at St. Anna” and a few other Lee docs), he infuses “Chi-Raq” with its sense of playful color and poignant immediacy, but the movie’s wayward tonal shifts are still just too unwieldy for even this great talent to fully negotiate.
The first production from Amazon Original Movies, who has teamed with Roadside Attractions for its theatrical run, “Chi-Raq” is extremely of-the-moment, with its myriad references to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the idiocy of Ben Carson, tragedies surrounding Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and the violent episodes in Ferguson and Baltimore, but unfortunately, most of it is a superficial laundry list and never quite captures or coalesces the desperation and criticality of our times.
“Chi-Raq” is essentially a would-be blazing plea, a call to lay down arms and a clanging wake up call for America that gets lost amid its penis vs. pussy war, its broad jokes (you can only hear so many would-be humorous synonyms for pussy before they cease to become funny) and its irreconcilable shifts in tenor. It’s the former element that’s most crucial; “Lysistrata” is inexorably tied to sex, sexes and war. And while the none-too-indirect point — the gun and the cock both as senseless tools of male power —is made often, it’s never told with any sophistication, and the battle of the sexes narrative often threatens to distract from and overturn the original theme of disarmament and peace.
Spike Lee has often painted with a wide brush and still come out victorious on the other side, ultimately balancing instigation with meaningful and moving grace notes. But despite its exigent tone, the inconsistent “Chi-Raq” can never quite strike the same moral, comedic and missive equity that yielded such crucial past classics. If “Chi-Raq” has gun violence, black-on-black crime, male power, and correlative topics in its sights, unfortunately its aim is ultimately more machine gun spray than sharp shooter precision. And while its ambition does show a director still aspiring for great heights, its patchy execution only partly restores the faith. [C+]