He’s Gotta Be Nuts: Chi-Raq

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Chi-Raq
Directed by Spike Lee
Opens December 4

Striking out from Da Republic of Brooklyn, Spike sets his sights on the gang-ridden South Side of Chicago in Chi-Raq, the single most profoundly preposterous picture of his storied career. Loaded with more sanctimony and half-baked ideas than any current Republican presidential campaign, it’s the recently lifetime achievement Oscar-ordained director’s third consecutive movie based on pre-existing material. Lee retells the story of Aristophanes’s Athenean comedy Lysistrata, in which the women of ancient Greece mount a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War. In Lee’s current-day rendition, one that starts with Nick Cannon song lyrics emblazoned on the screen (“I don’t live in Chicago, I live in Chi-Raq”), rival gangs the Spartans, led by Cannon’s purple drink-swilling title character, and the Trojans, led by Wesley Snipes—as he mans a lisp, an orange sequined eye patch and something akin to his Demolition Man haircut—are the ones at war, with unseen little black girls and rival bangers as the collateral damage.

Stylistically, the picture is a return to form of sorts; Lee and Matty Libatique stage shootouts in impossibly well-art-decorated rap clubs and evocatively render the various strata of South Side negro life, from clubs of well-to-do black intellectual ladies with Ida B. Wells murals on their walls to the color-coded homes of various gang members. But Lee has no real interest in the lives of the dead or those they left behind; he’s just here to mine for easy tragedy, not to build characters that resemble any black person you’re likely to encounter anytime soon. As in the 2,400-year-old original, Chi-Raq’s performers speak in verse, which turns out to provide, for this closet Brechtian, an excuse to indulge in his worst instincts. From D.B. Sweeney as a Rahm Emanuel-esque mayor with a penchant for wearing an Egyptian outfit while fucking his colored partner, to John Cusack as a Michael Pfleger-esque kente cloth-wearing white preacher, the rhymes that dominate Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott’s overwrought dialogue are a distancing effect the performers struggle with throughout, Cannon especially.

Uninterested in how such a strike would actually work, Lee doesn’t suggest the danger that withholding anything from angry and armed men, caught in a labyrinth of poverty, white supremacy and macho nihilism, would put many of these women in. Not that any reasonable black men, in Lee’s telling, exist in this part of Chicago. A black men’s organization that recalls the Masons gets loud about the pussy strike, shouting as a completely nonsensical standoff engulfs the Illinois State Armory, but generally in Lee’s newest picture black men are loudmouthed rubes (Steve Harris’s protest leader), hapless uncle toms (Harry Lennix Jr’s cop) or violent assholes (Cannon, in a hard-to-penetrate lead performance). Sam Jackson, who shows up channeling Rudy Ray Moore’s blaxploitation pimp Dolemite as the film’s conspicuously overdressed Greek chorus, doesn’t make nearly the impression he could have, had he been given anything insightful to say—but Dave Chapelle, who shows up at a club full of blue-balled men to make fun of Snipes and complain about a lack of pussy as the Sex Strike takes effect, makes us miss him all over again.

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