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Chi-Raq - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: C
Acting: B
Writing: C+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

Chi-Raq opens with a dramatic and memorable image: a map of the United States, made up of dozens of illustrations of guns, separated in three stripes by color: red, white, blue. This is paired with the first of several songs effectively designed to make an impact in this pseudo-musical: "Pray 4 Our City" by Nick Cannon. The lyrics name-check Chicago as the city with the nickname "Chi-Raq," referencing it as a war zone; this is made more than blatantly clear by director and co-writer Spike Lee putting every line of lyrics to the song up on the black screen after the map disappears. So, within moments, Chi-Raq grows moderately provocative and strangely tedious at once. Such is the whole of the movie, really.

That indelible opening image is really the highlight of the movie. It may not be particularly steep, but it's still basically downhill from there. This is a highly stylized movie with high-minded concepts frequently inept in execution. It's a modern retelling of the play Lysistrata -- and our heroine, played by Teyonah Parris, easily the best performer in the film, goes by that name -- with nearly every line of dialogue told in verse. These are not the original lines of the Greek play, but it still has the effect of a modern tale told out of time, like many an updated Shakespeare adaptation. It's just that this time the lines include phrases like "No peace, no pussy!"

Because Lysistrata, you see, is leading the cause of women on the South Side of Chicago withholding sex from their men until they stop their gang violence. This affects leaders of rival gangs -- or "organizations," as Lysistrata notes they now call themselves -- headed respectively by a rapper calling himself Chi-Raq (also Nick Cannon), and the one-eyed Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). And then, the rest of the city, and the country, and the world. Eventually we see clips of protesting women from cities around the globe, chanting their own version of that slogan.

It's an interesting idea, which maybe made more sense in classic Greek literature. This is a horribly cynical take, but it must be noted: in what world would men who have no respect for each other actually respect all the women in their lives? This may be overtly pointed fantasy, but there's still an issue of suspension of disbelief here. Spike Lee seems to have airs of some kind of feminism in this story, but in this context, it seriously lacks focus. It's hard to decipher exactly what it is he's trying to say, beyond the obvious: guns in this country are a serious problem. And he really does go for obvious, as in a church sermon that goes on way too long, with the minister spouting the usual platitudes about politicians being in the pocket of the NRA.

To call this movie weird would be an understatement. There's so much about it that makes you want it to work, but at every turn, it doesn't. Jennifer Hudson shows up as the grieving young mother of a child accidentally shot in crossfire, and there is nothing natural about how the scene plays out, as she berates people of the neighborhood standing around to gawk. And standing behind her, with no lines of dialogue in the scene -- wait, is that John Cusack?

Why yes, it is! And guess what? Not only is he the only principal character who is white, but he's the minister of that young mother's apparently otherwise all-black church. He does get asked about this later in the movie, and he provides a quick but ultimately unsatisfying answer ("like Jesus," he stays where the poorest people are). Suffice it to say that Cusack feels out of place. Not just because he's white, but both because he's cast as the church leader and because in his demeanor and performance he never truly feels like a believable member of this same community. He isn't believable as the minister of any church, to be frank. Are those skinny jeans he's wearing?

Lysistrata and her followers eventually seduce an old white soldier in Confederate flag underpants (yes, really) as a means of taking over an Armory. They take the men in it hostage, then release them. SWAT teams come to surround the building, and then stand around marveling that "black and brown women" who are unarmed managed to take over the building. They're all in there with chastity belts on, padlocks hanging between their thighs. I am not making this up. At one point they engage in a song and dance number. A group of men in T-shirts and white boxers do the same outside, in an apparent attempt at seducing the women. Except Spike Lee clearly has a detailed idea of what women being sexy looks like, but no real clue about making men sexy. In the end, Lysistrata and Chi-Raq have a literal "sexual showdown" and the first to come loses. Men in fatigues drag out a brass bed for them to climb into, with the neighborhood watching on their tablets. What the hell?

Chi-Raq is getting fairly good reviews on average, but I don't get it. If you want to see an effectively topical movie with a great fusion of music with the recent history of race relations, see the far superior Straight Outta Compton. This movie, by comparison, is an unfocused mess. It has some decent performances by the likes of Parris -- who I would love to see again, in something better -- and Angela Bassett, as the neighborhood mentor to Lysistrata. Several other relatively famous actors turn up in supporting parts, most notably Samuel L. Jackson in the role of narrator. He also speaks in verse. Sometimes it works. A lot of times it doesn't.

I'm not sure who Spike Lee expects to reach with this movie. It's hard to imagine the "thug life" types he's targeting have much time for this kind of high-concept cinema. All the characters speak in what seems like the halfway point between Shakespeare and modern rap. It's very odd. And those who do go to this movie, out of curiosity if nothing else, might as well be in that choir at the aforementioned church. Because that's who this movie is preaching to.

Teyonah Parris (second from left) leads the cause as Lysistrata in CHI-RAQ.

Overall: C+
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