'Chi-Raq' is Berserk Adaptation

Spike Lee's latest has vitality, but not much else

Last year, director Spike Lee made Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, a "stylized thriller" about a man infected by an ancient African tribal weapon and cursed with a thirst for blood. It was an adaptation of the 1973 film Ganja & Hess and attempted to meditate on "the very nature of love, addiction, sex and status." Some critics liked the film -- Richard Brody, at The New Yorker, called it "thrilling," which is about the last thing it was -- but I sided with those who were baffled by it, and said, at best, it represented Lee's most sedate (i.e. boring) and immobile (i.e. bad) study of black life in America to date.

This year, Spike Lee has adapted the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes. He has set his version against the backdrop of gang violence in Chicago and he has called it Chi-Raq. In it, the women of the city's south side attempt to liberate their neighborhoods by abstaining from sex with their lovers (many of whom are entangled in a Spartans v. Trojans turf war that seems to have devolved exclusively into retaliatory acts of violence). "No peace," shout the women. "No pussy." And though the movie is a discordant jumble of pitches and keys throughout, it certainly can't be accused of sedateness or immobility. It opens Friday at select area theaters.

Chi-Raq, a pejorative for Chicago to connote the extreme daily violence therein, is also the nom de plume of the movie's tragic hero (Nick Cannon). As a bard and gang captain, he wears a purple bandana, sips on Robitussin and Sierra Mist, and raps about the violence in his city while actively participating in it. Wesley Snipes affects a goofy lisp and falsetto as "Cyclops," the leader of the rival Trojans. Chi-Raq's got the hottest girlfriend in the 'hood too, Lysistrata (Dear White People's Teyonah Parris). And Dolmedes, a Shakespeare-style narrator appareled in brightly colored suits, (Samuel L. Jackson), tells of her luscious backside.

When a young girl is murdered in the street, a kind of final straw, Lysistrata assembles the girlfriends and mistresses of the gang members and persuades them to take an oath of celibacy. Most of the dialogue in the movie, in an homage to Greek verse, is spoken in poorly metered rhyme, e.g., "When they come in our direction, with an erection, and invite us to lay on the conjugal couch, we won't let them enter our nappy pouch," It's certainly an interesting experiment, but foreplay on the order of: "I got this big dick, I know you can't wait, let me get in that butt, I won't hesitate" is, notwithstanding the actors' earnestness, difficult to interpret as anything but comedy.  

And the comedy, not to mention the theatricality and absurdity of the sex-related storyline -- Chicago police attempt to flush the women out of the armory via "Operation Hot & Bothered," which hinges on playing "slow jams" in the direction of females to get them in the mood -- abuts indelicately with the underlying tragedy of gun violence and Spike Lee's oft-articulated politics. John Cusack plays a white priest who condemns gang violence and the culture of fear and silence it has bred. In a eulogy for a young girl killed by a stray bullet, Cusack idles on the collusion of the American government and the NRA. What? Later, he and the girl's mother (Jennifer Hudson) pass out flyers seeking information about the shooting.

And though Lee is now, as ever, concerned with both sex and violence, the movie's climax is a televised one-on-one faceoff between Chi-Raq and Lysistrata to see who can make the other orgasm first. It's followed by a string of Greek-tragic revelations about black-on-black crime, and you wonder if this material was ripe or even available, even in Spike Lee's bold and zany hands, for satire.

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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