“Chi-Raq” had so much going for it: a modern day adaptation of the Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, an all-star cast, director Spike Lee, timeliness with the backdrop of the violence in Chicago. It’s disappointing to say that the sum of its parts is therefore lacking.
Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is Chi-Raq’s (Nick Cannon) girlfriend. Chi-Raq is a rapper in Chicago, burnishing guns and screaming about taking his enemies out. Violence erupts on the streets, resulting in the death of Irene’s (Jennifer Hudson) daughter. Motivated by Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), Lysistrata encourages her friends and their friends to partake in a sex strike, refusing to put out to the gangsters until the violence abides.
The film is a visual feast and has a kinetic energy that keeps things interesting. The premise is interesting and timely, and the style different, though at times overdone. But the whole film is overly preachy, a soapbox, overriding the ability of the audience to partake in the story of the film.
Long sermons are given to characters such as Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) and Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson), shoving messages and statistics at the viewer, taking away from Lysistrata’s story. Spike Lee has never been a subtle filmmaker, but “Chi-Raq” dials up the preachiness to 11.
This is not to say that his film does not make a strong point. Just that he has let his feelings override his ability to tell an involving story. For his passion, perhaps a documentary would have served a better outlet.
And feminism takes somewhat of a backseat. Lysistrata and her friends are highly sexualized and also trivialized from a character standpoint. When dealing with cultural issues involving race and sex, every little thing will be judged scrupulously and Lee’s female characters are lacking.
Throw in some bad comedy, unnecessary sequences and a general lack of focus and “Chi-Raq” is not the milestone it could have been.