Dir: Spike Lee. US. 2015. 127mins
A powerful plea for an end to black-on-black violence almost gets lost among the tonal shifts and stylistic quirks of Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s scattershot comedy drama – adapted from an ancient Greek satire - about life in a gang-ridden part of modern-day Chicago. A topical theme and a tasty cast - including Angela Bassett, Samuel L Jackson and John Cusack - should certainly stoke interest in Lee’s latest brash polemic. But in the end, audiences, both black and white, may be as confused as they are moved or amused.
The film shifts moods and tones, taking in raunchy sex scenes, broad comedy, solemn drama, choreographed dance and stylised musical numbers.
As the first production from Amazon Original Movies, the film – whose controversial title alone has already stirred up some free publicity – gets a limited US theatrical launch, through Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions, on December 4 followed by an exclusive streaming run on Amazon Instant Video. The release pattern probably won’t make box office sales any easier, in the US or internationally.
Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott (writer-director of CSA: The Confederate States of America) based their script on Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata and got their title from the street-slang comparison of part of Chicago with war-torn Iraq.
In the film, the neighbourhood is plagued by gun violence involving the gangs of rapper Demetrius ‘Chi-raq’ Dupree (played by Nick Cannon, from TV’s Brooklyn Nine Nine) and his rival Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). When a schoolgirl gets killed by a stray bullet, Demetrius’ girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, from Dear White People) decides – with backing from a local peace activist (Bassett) and a white pastor (Cusack) - to persuade women from both sides to withhold sex until their men make peace.
After a sobering title sequence listing Chicago violence statistics (2,500 people shot in the first ten months of 2015) against a brooding rap music track, the film starts shifting moods and tones, taking in raunchy sex scenes, broad comedy, solemn drama, choreographed dance and stylised musical numbers.
In keeping with the Aristophanes play, much of the dialogue is in verse and the story’s most violent events are kept out of sight. Standing in for a Greek chorus is street poet Dolmedes (Jackson), who delivers a poetry slam-style commentary on the action direct to camera.
Jackson’s intermittent presence is a big plus, though Parris is also fun to watch and Cusack makes the most of his limited role when his character delivers a dramatic anti-gun sermon.
But the film itself is frustratingly inconsistent and never finds a rhythm to carry it from scene to scene. Though it sometimes recalls the irresistibly energetic, genre-bending feel of Lee’s best films – Do The Right Thing in particular – it lacks the assurance and unifying thrust that made those features work so well.
Production companies: 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks, Amazon Studios
International sales: IM Global www.imglobalfilm.com
US distribution: Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions
Producer: Spike Lee
Executive producers: Jon Kilik, Kevin Wilmott
Screenplay: Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Production design: Alex DiGerlando
Editors: Ryan Denmark, Hye Mee Na
Costume designer: Ruth E Carter
Music: Terence Blanchard
Main cast: Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L Jackson, Jennifer Hudson, Harry Lennix, John Cusack, D B Sweeney