I’ve struggled for a few days on how to discuss this film. It is powerful, but it is also a bit unique and unusual. I’d expect no less from Spike Lee, who has never shied away from opinions nor insisted on political correctness. The opening credits of the film will make that clear if you’ve somehow forgotten. Lee insists you think, even when he entertains you. He is an unabashed provocateur, his films aimed at your head as much as your heart.
Perhaps the best way is to start with the timing of why I turned it on in the first place (it had been queued up for a couple months). The prompt was that last weekend I watched Hell and Back, a version of Orpheus. So, this week I thought a new take on Lysistrata (aka Chi-Raq) would be a fun pairing.
The two films couldn’t be more different. While the gang who created Hell and Back were hanging out getting stoned in their party house turning Orpheus into a string of dick jokes, Lee’s collaborators were cross-campus at the library putting together a modern view of Lysistrata, taking that same male organ a bit more seriously.
The resulting film is a powerful and far ranging polemic in verse, music, and style that feels like the natural progeny of For Colored Girls and Do the Right Thing. It is as happy on a soap box as it is in the bedroom. By its very nature it is fractured and almost a pastiche, but there is a story and a conclusion.
Samuel L. Jackson (Hateful Eight) gets to play the chorus and guide to this pointed comedy. But it is the women that really own the day. Teyonah Parris (Mad Men), Angela Basset (Survivor), and Jennifer Hudson in particular drive the action of the film. These women wield their brains and their sexuality as honed weapons to get their desired results. They are outlandishly played, but they had to be to sell this satire with the sense of reality and absurdity it needs to work.
Though dominated by women, the two main gang leads played by Nick Cannon (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and Wesley Snipes (Expendables), are worth contrasting. Cannon tackled the role with a sense of realism while Snipes went out in to the weeds with an over-the-top, near absurd approach. The contrast was odd. I think Cannon was held in check to keep him as a touchstone of sobering, personal reality amid the statistics and speeches. Snipes, however, was hard to accept for me. He wasn’t charismatic nor scary enough to secure his position. It felt dissonant as a whole.
There are two other outlier bits of casting amid the strong cast that felt odd, if not forced. I can see why Lee put John Cusack (Love & Mercy) into the role of head preacher for the community; he provided the sole positive, non-black role in the film. But it never felt real. He stands out even more so when you compare him to D.B. Sweeney’s portrayal of the venal and idiotic mayor.
I give Lee a lot of credit for taking on such a present and immediate problem with the framework of a classical text. He committed to the idea and the story, providing a wonderful bit of stagecraft. I fear, however, he ended up only preaching to the converted, as it were, because the approach limited his audience, despite winning some awards. It deserves reaching a wider viewing, and perhaps streaming will allow for that now. You’ll need to be in the mood for this one, but it is worth your time. Even if you’ve seen similar bites of the apple off-broadway or in regional theatres, few could land the kind of talent and locations as Lee did to make this hilariously scary and sordid tale come to life.