“Chi-Raq” is Spike Lee’s most audacious film in decades. DECADES.
It’s as if he ignored everything after “Do the Right Thing,” which included a few very good films, a few mediocre ones and some dreadful “Spike is DONE” outings, and reached back to his outspoken youth.
A preachy, edgy riff on Aristophanes’ ancient Greek classic “Lysistrata,” “Chi-Raq” is as timely as the latest mass shooting, as topical as the gun violence body count on any evening TV newscast. It’s the best movie you didn’t get around to seeing last weekend.
Like “Lysistrata,” it’s a script built on topical rhymes — hip-hopped and slangy. Samuel L. Jackson, a veteran of Lee’s early films, dazzles as the foul-mouthed narrator Dolmedes.
He tells of Chicago, a town so riven by gun violence, so overwhelmed by murder that “the big money maker is the black-suit undertaker.”
He tells of the gang war — Trojans in orange, led by the one-eyed mobster Cyclops (Wesley Snipes, in his funniest performance in this century), vs. Spartans in purple, led by the charismatic rapper Chiraq, played and sung by Nick Cannon.
Yes, THAT Nick Cannon, the black Ryan Seacrest, the light comedian and game show host who married Mariah Carrey.
Cannon is the revelation here, giving a startling turn of menace, power and regret as the rapper/gang leader/lover whose charisma is never in doubt, whose morality is hidden deep in the recesses of his tattooed soul.
The one person who may have influence over Chiraq is Lysistrata, played with a searing sexual and intellectual dynamism by Teyonah Parris. She is the stiletto-heeled harpy who might be able to stop the violence. Once she’s been shown how.
Angela Bassett has the wise-old-woman of Englewood role here, the woman who points out to Lysistrata the example of Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee. Like the ancient Greek Lysistrata, Gbowee convinced the women of her troubled country to withhold sex until the menfolk dialed down the violence of Liberia’s civil war.
That is what Lysistrata talks Cyclops’ girl (Michelle Mitchenor) into joining her in — a “sex strike,” as in “no peace, no” um, sexual congress.
Lee and screenwriter Kevin Willmott (“The Confederate States of America”) stick close enough to the Greek source material to give this structure. But the fun stuff involves Lee revisiting “School Daze” and other earlier hits. The chaotic conflict of the sexes, of women on women, and its consequences dances off the screen. The humor can be low, broad, juvenile. Just as it was in “She’s Gotta Have It” and those earliest Spike outings.
Dave Chapelle shows up as a strip club owner, rhyming and whining his worries about a lack of pole dancers during this strike. D.B. Sweeney is the comically embattled mayor. David Patrick Kelley is a Confederacy-loving National Guard general caught with his Stars and Bars underwear showing. There are references to Kelley’s defining role, in the classic gang film “The Warriors,” in other scenes.
And John Cusack yells himself hoarse as a white priest who hectors and lectures his mostly-African American congregation about their history, their leaders, the violence in their community and the National Rifle Association’s role in America’s culture of gun violence.
That last bit should have derailed the film, but it works. Lee plays things in alternating shades of seriousness and satiric silliness — a sexual “slow jam” sing-off, lots of choreography. And there’s Mister Senor Love Daddy reincarnated, Samuel L., donning suits of many colors, stepping out, front and center, to re-set the tale and reinforce the message of Lee’s most strident early films.
Damn if it doesn’t still work.
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use
Cast: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Wesley Snipes
Credits: Directed by Spike Lee, script by Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee, based on the play by Aristophanes. An Amazon Studio/Roadside Attractions release.
Running time: 1:58