CHI-RAQ (2015, Spike Lee)
Lively, theatrical, and frequently amusing, there’s a lot to like — as is almost always the case with Spike Lee — and it’s wonderful to see him in the mode that brought us DO THE RIGHT THING (which, like this one, was also a Greek play, about neighborhood violence, with a chorus, and with Sam Jackson yelling at the audience) and BAMBOOZLED (another take-it-to-the-extreme satire hell-bent on opening some eyes), two of his best films. But as impressive as its scope may be, and as strong as some of the performances are (especially Teyonah Parris), it has long stretches of un-funny rambling, some overindulgent musical numbers, and a completely bizarre scene of John Cusack preaching to a black church that had me all over the place between squirming with embarrassment for everyone involved to impressed at the brio (and editing chops).
One of the big problems is Nick Cannon in the male lead — not only blown off the screen by Parris, but by everyone: he can’t handle emotion whatsoever, and cripples the movie with his ineptitude so severely that it can barely recover. As for supporting turns, for every Angela Bassett being awesome, there’s a wasted Dave Chapelle. (It does, however, provide us with yet another in a long line of great “sheeeeeeeeeeeit”s from Isiah Whitlock, Jr.).
Lee always gets the best out of his DPs — whether it’s Dickerson, Kuras, Prieto, or now Matt Libatique, his films consistently look terrific, and this is no exception. But when compared with DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS, this movie is bigger in every way — budget, production design, story, cast, and message. And that’s a drawback as much as it’s a benefit; going big doesn’t always suit Lee, especially in his old age. I like where his head’s at, but this is a lot more fun to think about than to watch. That said, I had a similar reaction at first to BAMBOOZLED, and over re-watches it became one of my favorite films of that decade, so who knows.