Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” is bold, exhilarating, and something of a mess — in other words, a Spike Lee movie. That’s according to the first reviews following last night’s world premiere in Chicago, where the film has stirred up plenty of pre-release controversy for its satirical approach to the city’s epidemic of violence. Inspired by Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” and co-written by Lee and Kevin Willmott, of the alt-history faux documentary “CSA: Confederate States of America,” “Chi-Raq” is not lacking in audacity, and even if all its parts don’t fit together, it’s collectively judged Lee’s strongest effort since 2006’s “Inside Man.”
The reviews don’t assuage concerns that Nick Cannon lacks the gravitas to play the title character, a rapper named Chi-Raq who also leads a street gang called the Spartans. But marks are high across the board for Teyonah Parris, aka “Mad Men’s” Dawn, whose Lysitrata leads the women of Chicago to withhold sex from their men until they stop killing each other. Samuel L. Jackson plays an onscreen Greek chorus whose “Wake up!” refrain deliberate hearkens back to his “Do the Right Thing” DJ, and John Cusack acts himself hoarse as a preacher trying to calm the community’s anger.
Thus far, The Wrap’s Kevin Lee is the only Chicagoan to weigh in on the film, but word on the movie, which will hit theaters on December 4 and migrate to Amazon Prime at an as-yet-unannounced date, is enough to put the pre-release jitters on hold.
Justin Chang, Variety
Blunt, didactic and stronger on conceptual audacity than dramatic coherence, this is still the most vital, lived-in work in some time from a filmmaker who has never shied away from speaking his mind or irritating his ideological foes. To watch “Chi-Raq” is to feel as if you’ve stumbled into a hip-hop concert, a spoken-word recital and a gospel-choir performance rolled into one — held together by a Terence Blanchard score, and peppered with up-to-the-minute references to our never-ending national nightmare: not just Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, but also Sandra Bland and the Charleston, S.C., church shootings (“Dylann Storm Roof / he’s the proof / post-racial … poof!”).
Uneven as storytelling, scattershot as satire, and capped by an emotional climax that feels too rigged to resonate, Lee’s latest joint is best appreciated as a vigorous and uninhibited work of social criticism, executed with the madly riffing instincts of a pop-cultural magpie. It’s the rare movie that can tap into ancient Greek literature and a century’s worth of African-American performance traditions, and still find time to sample freely from “West Side Story,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Patton” and “Dr. Strangelove.” There are also clear echoes of Lee’s own filmography, and if “Chi-Raq” never summons the tension and immediacy of “Do the Right Thing,” it can’t help but recall “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Girl 6” in the way it pivots, morally and dramatically, on the story of a woman’s sexual independence.
Kevin B. Lee, The Wrap
If the film’s pinning much of the world’s problems to sex at times seems excessive, silly or reductive, Lee justifies it with moments of unexpected grace. The Chicago mayor’s deputy (Harry Lennix) lights on a plan to blast R&B ballads to arouse the women militants out of their sex strike. This leads to a bizarrely enchanting musical sequence where the women dance inside the Armory while the National Guardsmen dance outside, each yearning for the other.
Such moments of tenderness are as unexpected as they are genuine; it helps that Lee’s cast can navigate the film’s wild ranges in tone. Teyonah Parris shows great sensitivity beneath the requisite toughness of Lysistrata. It’s great to see her thrive with material that’s much more substantial than her role as the secretary Dawn in “Mad Men.”
Nick Cannon also breaks through as Chi-raq, proving especially powerful in later scenes as his character discovers his conscience. Veterans like Bassett and Jackson are a welcome presence, as well as Wesley Snipes, amusingly manic as the one-eyed, orange-suited leader of the Trojans. Dave Chappelle makes a cameo as a beleaguered club owner affected by the strike: “This situation is out of control / ’cause I’m in front of an empty stripper pole!” Only in Spike Lee’s world could such a punchline segue into a funeral sermon for a murdered child.
Ultimately these moments amount to Spike Lee’s vision of Chicago as an inspired and slightly deranged vision of Black America itself, in all its vitality and violence, its striving and strife. Chicago critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once said that Lee’s filmmaking “risks absurdity to achieve the sublime.” In “Chi-raq,” Lee mixes fierce agitprop with lyrical musical numbers and Greek-inspired sex farce in hip hop verse. It’s a mad combination that fittingly addresses a world of madness.
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter
Provocatively using Aristophanes’ ever-timely 2,426-year-old play “Lysistrata” as a way to address the ongoing plague of shootings on the South Side of Chicago, Spike Lee serves up an odd and teeming gumbo of political activism, broad melodrama, verse dialogue, rap music, history lessons, comedic caricature, moral guidance and steamy sex (later withheld) in “Chi-Raq”. Even if the now-veteran director lays everything on a bit thick, repeatedly makes many of the same points and lets things go on too long, he’s still found a lively and legitimate way to tackle urgent subject matter that other filmmakers have found excuses to avoid.
As far as bigscreen features go, in the decade since his last big commercial success with “Inside Man”, Lee has stumbled with several unlikely and/or ill-advised projects, from “Miracle of St Anna” and “Red Rock Summer” to “Old Boy” and last year’s “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” none widely seen. The least you can say about “Chi-Raq”, a title at which Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has taken offense, and too bad for him, is that it vaults Lee back into a position of cultural/political relevance similar to that he held a generation ago, just as it sees him making some bold creative moves, especially with the dialogue, that are pretty fresh.
John Hazelton, Screen Daily
A powerful plea for an end to black-on-black violence almost gets lost among the tonal shifts and stylistic quirks of “Chi-Raq,” Spike Lee’s scattershot comedy drama – adapted from an ancient Greek satire — about life in a gang-ridden part of modern-day Chicago. A topical theme and a tasty cast — including Angela Bassett, Samuel L Jackson and John Cusack — should certainly stoke interest in Lee’s latest brash polemic. But in the end, audiences, both black and white, may be as confused as they are moved or amused.
But the film itself is frustratingly inconsistent and never finds a rhythm to carry it from scene to scene. Though it sometimes recalls the irresistibly energetic, genre-bending feel of Lee’s best films – “Do The Right Thing” in particular — it lacks the assurance and unifying thrust that made those features work so well.