Friday, December 4, 2015


Opening this week:

Chi-RaqThe title refers to Chicago, the streets of which are more lethal these days for young black men than Iraq. It also refers to the rapper and gang leader (Nick Cannon) whose girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is at the center of Spike Lee’s modern-dress retelling of Aristophanes, much of it played out in rhyming dialogue. Lysistrata leads the girlfriends of rival gangs on Chicago’s south side in a sex strike until the shooting stops.

The middle-aged women in the neighborhood eventually join in, demanding activism from the miserable middle-aged men. Eventually the strikers seize a National Guard armory, and the forces of the Mayor (D. B. Sweeney) and the Police Commissioner (Harry Lennix) lay siege to them there, planning “Operation Hot and Bothered,” in which the ladies are bombarded, Noriega-style, with romantic slow jams.

Farcical as this strand is, Lee and his co-writer Kevin Willmott (of C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America) point to the anti-war sex strike started by Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee in 2003 to show that there are real-life precedents for this sort of action. They also make clear that the object of the protest is no joke: The film includes horrifying violence, including the death of a child from a stray bullet.

I had missed Spike Lee’s last few movies, and Chi-Raq reminded me of how funny he can be. While its free-form structure recalls Lee’s early School Daze (1988), what surprised me is how genuinely Greek it is. It’s a fairly insane movie, but all its messy craziness—the broad characterizations, dirty jokes and slapstick thrown up alongside angry, deadly-serious didactic rants and debates, the meandering plot, the digressions—is at least equally true of Aristophanes.

As always with Lee’s films, much of the energy comes from the acting. Standouts here include veterans like Angela Bassett as the wise lady across the street, Wesley Snipes, giggling like Muttley, as the rival gang leader Cyclops, a raspy-voiced John Cusack as an enraged priest and Samuel L. Jackson, unleashing his peerless verbal exuberance on rhymed couplets of choral commentary.

Vivid as these performers are, however, the glue that holds Chi-Raq together—just barely—is the likable and luscious Lysistrata of Teyonah Parris. She and her fellow strikers certainly make setting down the guns seem worthwhile.

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