Oh, Spike. You really know how to shake things up. You were robbed when you didn’t win or even get nominated for a Best Director Oscar for “Malcolm X,” and now here you are with “Chi-Raq,” which combines passionate advocacy and riotous entertainment for a movie that many critics have called a wonderful mess. I agree. And I salute you.
Who else but Spike Lee would reach back to the fifth century B.C. for inspiration from Aristophanes’ Greek comedy “Lysistrata?” That comedy was about women who band together to organize a sex strike to stop their men from making war. In “Chi-Raq,” the setup has women on Chicago’s gang-infested, crime-riddled South Side joining forces to withhold sex from their men to stop the black-on-black violence. Their motto? Peace, not pussy.
We see diatribes on gun control, the problems between police and the community, poverty, the lack of education, race, you name it – not in a documentary but in what’s more like a hip-hop/rap opera. Did I mention that the dialogue rhymes?
The story – and yes, there is one – begins with Nick Cannon rapping the song “Pray 4 My City” over statistics (in bold red) showing that there have been more deaths in Chicago in the last several years than there have been in Iraq during the same period of time. Cannon plays a gang member involved with the gorgeous Teyonah Parris. A child on the South Side has been shot and killed by a stray bullet during the gang war (Jennifer Hudson plays the mother in a heartbreaking turn, especially given her own family history in that city). Parris’ neighbor, Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), suggests that Parris get all the women together and go on a sex strike to force their men to lay down their guns. Samuel L. Jackson in wildly colorful suits comes on screen every now and then as sort of a Greek chorus, and John Cusack as a white priest from the ‘hood delivers a long indictment of the system during Hudson’s daughter’s funeral.
If this all sounds like a big mashup of ideas, it is, but it’s so inventively done, so powerfully executed that you can’t look away. It’s as if Spike Lee got tired of watching CNN (or more likely MSNBC) and said, “Here’s what I think about all this shit” and inserted it into “Chi-Raq.” He’s not worried about offending anybody. He puts it all out there and lets us deal with it. And we do.