Is there another filmmaker so outspoken and passionate, so foolhardy and ferociously talented as Spike Lee?
A look through his filmography can make one feel unwell, especially his more recent efforts (“Oldboy,” “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus”); but his fervent new “Chi-Raq” recalls, in some ways, his earlier work.
It also contains one of his most earnest pleas, not about racism or rage, but for peace and love, awareness and tolerance.
“Chi-Raq” is Lee’s nickname for Chicago. Opening titles inform us that the murder rate in Chicago over the past several years is comparable to that of Afghanistan and Iraq. Hence, “Chi-Raq.”
It’s also the nickname of the leader (Nick Cannon) of a gang called the Spartans, at war with the Trojans, headed by the one-eyed Cyclops (a loony Wesley Snipes).
When a neighborhood woman (Jennifer Hudson) tragically loses her 12-year-old daughter to a stray bullet, Chi-Raq’s sexy girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) — inspired by the well-read Miss Hudson (Angela Bassett) — comes up with a plan. She will rally all the women to withhold sex from their men until arms are laid down and peace is at hand.
If the name “Lysistrata” sounds familiar, you may remember it from college and a play written by Aristophanes around 411 B.C. True to the play, “Chi-Raq” is written, by Lee and Kevin Willmott, largely in hip-hop rhyme (as well as a couple of musical/dance numbers).
Samuel L. Jackson appears as a kind of Greek chorus, narrating for the camera every so often (and getting all the laughs not already stolen by Snipes or Dave Chappelle in a single scene).
Jackson’s dialogue deliberately echoes the “wake up” refrain he used as the neighborhood DJ in Lee’s 1989 “Do the Right Thing.” Additionally, Snipes and Bassett’s presences recall their roles in Lee’s “Jungle Fever” and “Malcolm X.” It feels like Lee has gone back to the drawing board.
Lee goes over the top in more than one scene, but chooses well in the casting of John Cusack as a sympathetic preacher in a black church, his sermons attacking the roles of guns, prisons, and other evils in modern life.
In other scenes, the filmmaker tends to repeat ideas, stretching their scope as well as their credibility. After a while, it becomes difficult to care much about the characters as people.
Yet, messy as it is, Lee retains an intense focus on his message. Even if the characters don’t quite seem human, “Chi-Raq” makes you want to embrace the humans outside the movie theater.
Starring Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett
Written by Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott
Directed by Spike Lee
Running time 2 hours, 5 minutes