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Spike Lee Has Plenty to Say in Chi-Raq, But is Anyone Listening?

The venerable Brooklyn filmmaker takes on Chicago gun violence in this sharp-tongued satire based on the Greek comedy Lysistrata. Equally pretentious and provocative, the audacious effort is highly uneven but certainly can’t be easily dismissed.
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Spike Lee is angry, and Chi-Raq is his defiant call to action in a society beset with racial strife and political division.

The venerable Brooklyn filmmaker takes on Chicago gun violence in this sharp-tongued satire based on the Greek comedy Lysistrata. Equally pretentious and provocative, the audacious effort is highly uneven but certainly can’t be easily dismissed.

The film’s name, of course, is a reference to Chicago having become an Iraq-style war zone, with gunfire around every corner. Lee didn’t originate that term — it’s used with mock endearment by those in the neighborhoods that perpetuate a culture of snitches and street cred, getting high and getting “turnt up.” And the film takes aim at that hip-hop culture that glamorizes a gangster lifestyle of macho male aggression, exacerbated in the social-media age.

In response to the grief of a mother (Jennifer Hudson) after her daughter became the latest senseless shooting death, a young woman named Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) hatches an outrageous plan to rebuff the sexual urges of her rapper boyfriend (Nick Cannon) until the violence is stopped, and she encourages her fellow women of all ages to follow her lead. So the conflict between gangs turns into a battle of the sexes in a desperate effort to bring peace to the streets.

There’s not much subtlety here, and the film has heavy-handed tendencies, but Chi-Raq also is consistently compelling and urgently relevant. The film is disjointed by nature, with some overlapping segments more impactful than others. There are even some scattered laughs and a couple of musical numbers.

Lee certainly lured a strong ensemble cast to the project, including Wesley Snipes, John Cusack, Angela Bassett, Dave Chappelle, and Samuel L. Jackson as a sardonic on-screen narrator. It’s racially charged and highly politicized — with police brutality, organized religion, and the confederate flag also on the agenda — and likely to polarize viewers (the dialogue written largely in verse isn’t for all tastes, either). While the setting is specific, he’s clearly preaching a more universal message.

At its core, the film is a loving tribute to Chicago from an outsider’s perspective. Yet even though its intentions are admirable, it’s difficult to share Lee’s optimism. It’s going to take more than some visual gimmicks and a few impassioned soliloquies to make a dent in this epidemic cycle of urban violence. Hopefully this is a first step.

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