Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 20, 2016)
With 2015’s Chi-Raq, Spike Lee gives us an update on the classic Greek play Lysistrata. Set in Southside Chicago, we see the violence that impacts the residents on a daily basis, as murders become an all too common occurrence there, largely due to gang activities. In particular, we see the battles between rivals the Trojans and the Spartans.
After a stray bullet slays a child, 20-something Lysistrata (Teyonah Paris) comes up with a novel solution. She enlists other female residents to “go on strike”: they won’t have sex with the local men until the Trojan/Spartan violence comes to an end. We follow their crusade and its impact.
Now pushing 60, no one can accuse Spike Lee of mellowing with age – or for a change in his cinematic MO. With Chi-Raq, the director’s typical strengths and weaknesses come on display.
On the negative side, Lee continues his preference for heavy-handed editorializing. Chi-Raq uses its first six minutes to give us a song about inner city violence and then a litany of statistics.
Even when the movie ostensibly starts, it hammers us with its intended message – and we’ve yet to meet any of the characters yet! Lee doesn’t need to shove his ideas down our throats – he can get into the material in a more gradual, subtle manner but still have the film work as well, if not better.
That said, I admire Lee’s desire to use his art for a purpose beyond money and/or basic entertainment. Love him or hate him, he puts out films meant to serve a broader goal.
But does he succeed? Sometimes, but in the case of Chi-Raq. no – not at all, unfortunately. In earlier films like Do the Right Thing, Lee walked a fine line between brash filmmaking and over the top editorializing, but he created such a vivid, provocative experience that any flaws fell by the wayside.
We see no signs of that filmmaker in the borderline incoherent Chi-Raq. This isn’t a movie – it’s two hours of ranting and editorializing, without any semblance of art or nuance on display.
Oh, Lee tries desperately to create something creative, especially in the manner he features dialogue. Chi-Raq gives us lines that tend toward rhyme, and that sounds like an interesting idea – one obviously influenced by the Greek source material - but it doesn’t work. The dialogue comes across as silly and contrived, as the rhyming material lacks a purpose beyond pretension.
The rest of the movie exists to promote its message. Of course, no sane person could object to the anti-violence goal behind Chi-Raq, but the film exists as such an absurd, self-satisfied exploration of its concepts that it does nothing to push its agenda.
Lee shows no self-restraint, as he indulges every whim that occurs to him. This leaves Chi-Raq as a rambling mess, without any form of coherence or logic.
A sensible film would develop its characters as it explored the ramifications of the “sex strike”. However, Chi-Raq meanders from one barely connected sequence to another, and these fail to make much sense.
For instance, at one point we get a very long funeral scene. This comes with an extended musical number that makes no real sense and then goes to an even longer rant from a preacher to a strange satirical segment in which Lysistrata taunts a racist military officer to a piece in which older women join the cause.
That run makes even less sense in the film than it does in my synopsis. Every once in a while, the film comes back to its main story, but it goes off on so many pointless tangents that it all collapses under the weight of its own illogic.
Chi-Raq comes with a good cast and an admirable message, but it fails as a film. Too dim-witted to be good satire and too unfocused to be worthwhile as a story or emotional experience, Chi-Raq indulges its creator’s whims without enough purpose to be anything more than a rambling mess.