The essence of Spike Lee's new pseudo-musical film "Chi-Raq" can be boiled down to the very first scene. We hear a brilliantly pointed opening theme song called "Pray 4 My City", with the lyrics flashing across the screen. It's plain-spoken, confrontational and powerful.
The person singing those lyrics is Chi-Raq (played by Nick Cannon), an aspiring rapper and member of the Spartan gang. Heavily involved in a bloody turf war with the rival Trojans, he lives life on the edge. One of the few positive things in his life is his beautiful girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), one of the most popular residents of the community of Chi-Raq. When the violence results in the tragic slaughter of an 11-year old girl however, Lysistrata decides to take action. Upon a suggestion from the wise Miss Helen (Angela Bassett0, she organizes with all the local women to partake in a sex strike to stop the men from killing. Soon, much of the attention becomes re-directed towards a new "men vs women" showdown, which may finally rid Chi-Raq of all the senseless bloodshed.
Much has been made about the film's use of the unsavory moniker "Chi-Raq" as a stand in for Chicago, as well as the slightly comedic approach to the sensitive issue at hand. But a closer look reveals that "Chi-Raq" is vintage Spike Lee, entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure. Through his razor sharp screenplay, Lee successfully adapts the classic Lysistrata text to modern times, tackling the gun violence topic head-on with rhyme and reason.
The result is a film that works on many levels, critiquing the patriarchy, gentrification and America's obsession with guns, while still finding moments for levity. And the film is immeasurably benefited by a slew of pitch-perfect performances from the cast. As our narrator, Samuel L. Jackson sets the scene with his trademark candor, and Angela Bassett reminds us of how brilliant she can be when given material worthy of her talent. But while the quality of the acting from those two veterans is hardly surprising, it's the performances of the two young leads that really make you sit up and take notice. Nick Cannon gives easily one of the most eye-opening, unexpected performances of the year, utterly convincing as Chi-Raq. But even though his character bears the film's title, it's Teyonah Parrish who emerges as the film's shining star, living up to every bit of Jackson's description of the character as a "gorgeous Nubian sister". Parris approaches the role like a true warrior princess, as fierce and commanding as she is irresistibly sexy. By the time she and Cannon engage in a climactic "sex showdown", it's almost too hot to handle.
This plot thread does bring up some of underlying faults of the screenplay however, as the film does lose sight of the violence at times in favor of a more reductive "battle of the sexes". Furthermore, the film overreaches in its efforts to portray the sex strike as a worldwide movement rather than honing in on the unique American-ness at hand. But thankfully, many of the risks do pay off, as the film's best moments are absolutely sublime.
With "Chi-Raq", Spike Lee walks a precariously fine line between serious docudrama and musical comedy. But most accurately, it works best as a fable. And it has a message that we need to hear. It may not be subtle, but as the film so urgently declares, this is an emergency.