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07 Jan 2016

Home Video Review: 'Chi-Raq' Is Spike Lee's First Good Film in Years

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Nick Cannon in Chi-Raq. Nick Cannon in Chi-Raq.

Spike Lee presents what is easily his most-ambitious film in more than a decade with Chi-Raq, a wild adaptation of the Greek play Lysistrata set in modern-day Chicago.

Lee casts old pal Samuel L. Jackson as the narrator (of course) and utilizes a rhyming script and stellar cast to postulate what would happen with gang violence in Chicago if all the women withheld sex. The play was crazy—and the movie is crazy.

While the tone is all over the place, the setup gives Lee a chance to do some of his funniest screen work since the humorous interludes in Do the Right Thing. There’s a scene in which Dave Chappelle (Yes, that Dave Chappelle!) plays a strip club owner that might be the funniest thing Lee has ever done. Chappelle needs to do some more acting, because he smokes his one scene.

Teyonah Parris shines as Lysistrata, leader of the female movement and girlfriend of gangsta-rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon). You’ll also find Wesley Snipes in fine form as rival gang leader Cyclops, Angela Bassett as elder stateswoman Miss Helen, D.B. Sweeney as the crazed mayor, and a revved-up John Cusack as Father Mike Corridan. Everybody does good work in the service of a mostly fun screenplay.

The film is flawed. Some of Lee’s sloppy tendencies sneak in, and not all of the jokes work. Some of those film’s shifts into more-serious happenings are awkward. But when the movie is working, it shows that perhaps the real Spike Lee was just hibernating with some of his mediocre recent efforts. It’s great to see him back in fearless-auteur mode.

Chi-Raq is available on demand and via online sources including Amazon.com and iTunes.

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