Starring Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Wesley Snipes, and Jennifer Hudson
Directed by Spike Lee
***This film is currently streaming via Amazon Prime***
Cleverly updating the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes to modern-day gang-plagued Chicago, Chi-Raq begins with a violent shooting at a nightclub where rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) is performing in front of a crowd including his girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris). Shortly thereafter, the young daughter of Irene (Jennifer Hudson) is killed in the streets by a stray bullet when the purple-coded gang of Chi-Raq tries to retaliate for the nightclub shooting against the orange-coded gang of Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). [Yes, the gangs have names, but they're slipping my mind at the moment.] Lysistrata is a bit distraught following the murder of the young girl and, after speaking with the wise and older teacher-figure Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), she decides to bring the women of Chicago together and withhold sex from their men until they come to peace with each other.
At its heart (and in its basic sex strike center), Chi-Raq works as an intriguing update with Lee and his co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott instituting a rhyming nomenclature reminiscent of Shakespearean work (and modern-day rap, I guess). However, the rest of the updating falls short because Lee as a director and writer can't grasp a proper tone. We're given a somewhat powerful and lengthy sermon about gun violence by a preacher played by John Cusack and then mere scenes later an elderly white man is seen lustfully straddling an antique war cannon as he shouts racial epithets and deviant sexual remarks at Lysistrata in what one can only assume was Lee's attempt at comedy. Characters are one-note caricatures as opposed to well-rounded individuals and any emotional connection to them is lost by their disappointingly written stories.
Fortunately, Teyonah Parris as the lead Lysistrata is impressive, following on the heels of an equally entertaining (and RyMickey Award-honored) performance in 2014's Dear White People. Parris is the only character (and actor) able to deftly balance the comedic and dramatic aspects of the plot, shining brightly on both sides of the tale. When Parris is onscreen, the film has a bit of a light emanating from it -- unfortunately, there are other aspects of this tale that simply don't work as well.
I'll give Spike Lee credit in that he really does attempt to place the blame on the violence in African American neighborhoods on a variety of reasons with heavy emphasis on black culture itself perpetuating the notion that this particular community can't better themselves. This aspect of the film is perhaps most meaningful which is why it's all the more unfortunate that when he lays blame (perhaps justly so) on white society, he depicts them as comic, eccentric kooks. There was great promise in Chi-Raq that is squandered too often. In better hands, this Chi-Raq could've been something powerful. Instead it just holds the promise of being something powerful which makes it even more sad.
The RyMickey Rating: C-