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Review: 'Chi-Raq' Is A Disastrous Mix Of Satire And Tragedy

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 24, 2015 3:30PM

Teyonah Parris and John Cusack in "Chi-Raq." (Photo: Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios)

"This is an emergency,” is declared via bold, onscreen text and narration early on in Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, and the plague of gun violence in Chicago is indeed a dire emergency. It’s just too bad Lee arrives on the scene with the movie equivalent of a circus wagon instead of an ambulance.

Lee was absolutely right to slam those who attacked the film before seeing it (an all-too common act of ignorance with controversial films). And he was also right reminding a ready-to-be-outraged public that satire can be a valid, artistic way to address serious issues. Unfortunately, now that Chi-Raq is here, it’s clear Lee’s attempt to blend radically different tones is an ambitious disaster.

"People have been programmed to think you can't mix elements or tones or genres, that everything has to fit into the Cookie-Cutter Movie Factory…this is not one of those films,” Lee stated in production notes shared by the Tribune.

True enough. And Chi-Raq is definitely not a cookie cutter movie. But it would take very deft artistry to successfully marry the wildly different emotional worlds this movie tries to pair. Lee, whose heavy-handed style is his signature, was not the man to pull it off. The director has mentioned Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove as a model (a character name directly references that classic film), but Kubrick didn’t play his nuclear holocaust dark comedy against dramatic realism. The subject was dead serious, but the satirical tone was consistent.

Chi-Raq’s mixture of conflicting emotional terrain isn’t like oil and water…it’s like water and fire, with cascading waves of juvenile sexual gags drowning the movie’s more serious intentions. The discordance does its greatest disservice to the performance of Chicago native Jennifer Hudson.

The singer and actress, whose immediate family suffered devastating losses to gun violence, is clearly drawing on deep, personal emotions in a very fine supporting role as a grieving young mother. So it’s nothing less than jarring to have Hudson’s affecting moments onscreen followed minutes later by running gags and musical numbers with prominent slang and profanity for vaginas and penises.

The plot of Chi-Raq draws on classical Greek theater. The screenplay (by Lee and Kevin Willmott) is based on Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, in which women join together to withhold sex from men to bring an end to war. Much of Chi-Raq’s dialogue is done in classical verse style, complete with rhyming exchanges.

The warring factions in the movie are gangs—one led by rising rap star Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), the other by the eye patch-wearing Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). When a gang member kills a young girl, Chi-Raq’s lover Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris of Dear White People) bands area women together under the slogan, “No peace. No pussy.”

Samuel L. Jackson in "Chi-Raq." (Photo: Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios)

The large ensemble cast includes Lee regular Samuel L. Jackson as a pimp-suited narrator/Greek chorus (his name is a pretty good gag I won’t give away), Angela Bassett as a neighborhood matriarch, John Cusack as an activist priest modeled after Michael Pfleger, and Dave Chappelle in a funny cameo as a strip club owner. A wealth of strong character actors adds to the parade of familiar faces, and the city itself (especially Englewood and the South Side) is a featured player.

Though no one matches Hudson’s gravitas, most of the actors do well in their roles (though Cusack seems miscast), but all struggle with the film’s overall tug-o’-war of moods. Some of Chi-Raq’s comic segments aren’t merely garish and sophomoric, they’re downright goofy. At times it feels like no-budget camp movie specialists Troma Films took over the production.

With a litany of despairing facts about U.S. gun deaths—especially in black neighborhoods—Lee’s concern over these tragedies seems sincere. But it’s hard not to read career strategizing in the film as well. There was a time when every new Lee project made news. But he has endured nearly a decade now of increasing public and critical indifference. He remains prolific, especially with documentary work, but features like Miracle at St. Anna, Red Hook Summer and the Oldboy remake came and went with little notice and even less passion, pro or con.

His last dramatic feature, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, required a Kickstarter campaign, so it’s fair to say Lee is not the major industry player he once was. With its audacious structure and headline-grabbing subject matter, Chi-Raq feels a bit like Lee’s way of shouting, “I’m still here!”

The movie is also almost a greatest hits compilation of ideas from his early breakthrough films: the sexual frankness of She’s Gotta Have It, the satirical musical productions of School Daze and, of course, the social/political intensity of Do the Right Thing.

However you feel about his work, there’s no doubt that when Do the Right Thing came out, Lee was an artist who commanded attention. With the awkward, ham-fisted and tonally schizophrenic Chi-Raq, he just seems to be begging for it.

Chi-Raq. Directed by Spike Lee. Written by Lee and Kevin Willmott. Starring Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson. 127 mins. Rated R.

Opens Friday, Dec. 4 at select Chicago and suburban theaters.