Bottom line: An update on "Lysistrata" that gets mixed results
Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” is destined to make almost everybody angry — not for what it says about Chicago’s homicide statistics, especially among young African-Americans, but for how it says it.
Director and co-writer Lee took on an existing script by Kevin Willmott (“C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America”), and together they relocated this brash update on the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata” to modern-day Chicago. Its prologue is all business, indicating nothing of the raunchy sex comedy lurking in the bushes around the corner.
The straight-to-the-camera narrator, Dolmedes, played by Samuel L. Jackson, relays the story as a mythic flashback concerning a “gorgeous Nubian sister,” Lysistrata, in this telling an Englewood stunner played by Teyonah Parris. After the stark overture, Lee begins his deliberate, risky, often entertaining disorientation of the audience. Frustrating and wildly uneven, “Chi-Raq” is also Lee’s most interesting project in nearly a decade.
Dolmedes fills us in on the context. The Aristophanes comedy “Lysistrata,” about a sex strike waged by Athenian women designed to frustrate their lunkhead warriors into halting the Peloponnesian War, dates to 411 B.C. and was written in rhymed verse. “Chi-Raq” will do likewise, he says. (At times the movie feels like a nervy grad-school collaboration between theater and film departments, with access to really good actors.)
Many characters and a dozen different styles jostle for screen time in a crowded movie. Jennifer Hudson has little (too little) to do as the woman whose preteen daughter falls victim to the latest stray bullet in the gang war. John Cusack portrays a thinly veiled version of Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church. Angela Bassett’s Miss Helen, the conscience of Englewood, owns a bookstore and, in a standout scene, encounters a smiling but predatory insurance salesman at her front gate.
The stage-trained actors fare best; Jackson, Bassett and the “Dear White People” standout Parris find a performance pitch that makes sense and responds to the material’s warring impulses. Cusack’s scenes are compelling in a completely different style. But Lysistrata herself tends to get lost in her own story. Had the script begun on a broadly comic note and then grown progressively more sobering, rather than seesawing throughout, “Chi-Raq,” I suspect, might’ve established more buy-in with audiences.
To its credit, “Chi-Raq” traffics in all those sorts of comedy. People forget just how wonderfully unpredictable Lee’s work can be, “Do the Right Thing” on the high end, “School Daze” in the middle, and satires such as “Bamboozled” lower down. If “Chi-Raq” disarms even a small percentage of those who see it, and provokes any reflection about a gun culture, the uses of satire and the plight of a sadly emblematic city, it was worth the effort. However mixed-up the results.