Thursday, December 3, 2015

Spike Lee issues call to disarm

A showy Chi-Raq breaks genre boundaries. Some of it even works.

Say this about director Spike Lee: At 58, the man's no less risk averse than when he was a much younger filmmaker.

Lee bravely models his new movie, Chi-Raq, on Lysistrata, a comedy by Aristophanes that dates back to 411 BCE, not exactly a period known for its hip-hop atmosphere.

Aristophanes' central conceit involved the efforts of Lysistrata to persuade women to stop having sex with their husbands and lovers as a way of forcing them to bring peace to a society enmeshed in the Peloponnesian War, a conflict that lasted for about 27 years.

Lee, who wrote the screenplay with Kevin Willmott, finds his Lysistrata (a dynamic Teyonah Parris) conspiring to withhold sex from Chicago gangbangers who are contributing to the horrifically high rate of homicide among young black men.

Using a splashy graphic (a map of the U.S. composed of drawings of rifles and revolvers), Lee opens the movie to Nick Cannon's Pray 4 My City, a harsh but hopeful rap anthem.

Chi-Raq, of course, is the name given to Chicago's mean streets, not the city of great architecture, abundant culture and commercial bustle, but the city where gun violence reigns and even the youngest children aren't excluded.

Lee effectively makes this divided-city point by contrasting images of stately downtown Chicago with neighborhood scenes that focus on a far less affluent kind of life.

Lee reduces the Greek chorus to a one-man show put on by Dolmedes, a dapper and sometimes sarcastic Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson's Dolmedes puts the story in perspective.

That perspective includes information presented early on about how fatalities from Chicago's murders outnumber American lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. The story, we'll learn, will be focused on Englewood, one of the city's more dangerous neighborhoods.

What unfolds is a movie of desperate parts, some successful, some less so. Part agitprop, part melodrama, part broad comedy, and part soulful lament, Chi-Raq exists in its own world. You'll either enter that world or turn away.

But if you stay, you'll see a movie that, in addition to everything else, offers a vigorous display of female power, particularly as expressed by Parris, who comes closer than anyone else to dominating Lee's large ensemble cast.

Lee employs many talented actors in what often feels like a wild, theatrical experiment. In addition to offering the opening song, Nick Cannon plays the leader of a gang called the Spartans. As if to absorb all the city's misery, pain and fury, Cannon's character has taken the name Chi-Raq.

Wesley Snipes appears as Cyclops, the orange-clad, one-eyed leader of the Trojans, a rival gang.

Jennifer Hudson plays Irene, the mother of a daughter gunned down by a stray bullet; Angela Bassett plays Miss Helen, a woman who surrounds herself with books and serves as the movie's voice of sanity.

In an unexpected turn, John Cusack turns up as a priest modeled on real-life Rev. Michael Pfleger, an activist who works out of Chicago's St. Sabina Church.

In a lengthy sermon, Cusack rips through a monologue that excoriates the society from whose soil Chicago's violence grows, as well as the community that must rise up to put a stop to it. It's an impressive piece of work that sometimes sounds like a hortatory condensation of Michelle Alexander's important book, The New Jim Crow.

Not all of the bits work and some are ridiculously conceived, notably a scene in which a general wearing Confederate flag underwear (David Patrick Kelly) mounts a Civil War cannon as he lusts after Lysistrata at a National Guard armory. Lee's at his funniest when he nails character, not when he tries to create comic situations.

It's difficult to imagine that Chi-Raq -- the first production from Amazon Studios -- will shatter any box office records. It can be too didactic for its own good, and it's possible that a straightforward story about the impact of gang violence might have been more powerful than Lee's ultra-stylized shout-out of a movie.

But Lee and Willmott, who wrote the satiric C.S.A.: the Confederate States of America, have gone their own way in arguing that the U.S. needs to wake up and do something about violence that is ravaging places that -- more than ever -- need a sense of community.

And at a time when we're again despairing over another mass shooting, this one in San Bernardino, Ca., there's definite value in shining light on Chicago's overlooked carnage

Whether anyone heeds Lee's call to disarm remains to be seen.

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