There's a lot of sermonizing going on in Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, although only about five minutes' worth of it comes from the pulpit. There, John Cusack in the role of a Chicago preacher, the only white man in his parish (it's explained), rails against gun violence and a system rigged against the black, poor, and disenfranchised.
Adapted from the trusty Greek satire Lysistrata, by Aristophanes, about women withholding sex from men until they stop killing one another, Chi-Raq couldn't be more relevant right now: Chicago, gang killings, kids caught in the cross fire, cops viewed warily by the community they're supposed to serve. It's in the headlines, not just in Chicago, but in what one of the rappers in Lee's rhyming screenplay calls "Bodymore, Murderland" and in "Killadelphia."
It's "the reality-TV urban murder show," says Cusack's Father Corridan, getting an amen from his flock before they have to get up and go outside again, back into the fray.
Ramped up like a Broadway musical, and emceed in single-handed Greek chorus-style by Samuel L. Jackson - wearing natty suits and swinging his walking stick like Fred Astaire - Chi-Raq stars Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata, the sister who gets the idea to abstain until the brothers agree to stop the pain.
Lysistrata has "a mind like Einstein and a truly luscious behind," says Jackson, but let's just pretend he didn't say that. After a little girl is found in a pool of blood - victim of a gunfight between rival gangs - Lysistrata entreats the women of the South Side to join her abstinence campaign. Her man, the gangsta rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), is the first to suffer the consequences.
The sex strike takes off, and the women take to a giant armory, the better to stage elaborate dance numbers.
Take the Chi-Lites' "Oh Girl," for instance, performed by a troop of chorines in chastity belts. Outside, angry males congregate, confused. The media assemble. Law enforcement gets into SWAT mode. Angela Bassett, Dave Chappelle, Jennifer Hudson, and Wesley Snipes join the throng.
Lee has been addressing issues of color and class, sex and violence since Do the Right Thing, all the way back in 1989. Over the years, he has become a more accomplished filmmaker, with a bold visual palette and a savvy sense of the way music and the moving image can work together. But he has grown more strident and scolding in the process, too. Chi-Raq (an amalgam of Chicago and Iraq) is in-your-face polemic, with nowhere to go once the point has been made. Repeatedly.
Chi-Raq **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Written by Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee, directed by Spike Lee. With Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, and Samuel L. Jackson. Distributed by Amazon Films and Roadside Attractions.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, sex, adult themes).
Playing at: Area theaters.EndText