REVIEW: Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq

A tragicomic satire for the modern age, the film commands that we look for solutions to a problem that won't go away any time soon.

Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata in Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq”

Born out of sorrow, strife and a sense of being fed up with inaction, Spike Lee’s latest film, Chi-Raq, is an inventive look at gun violence in the South Side of Chicago. Satirical, serious and doused with hints of historic and modern rebellion, it is one of 2015’s purest cinematic marvels.

The film opens with Nick Cannon’s “Pray 4 My City” playing while the song’s lyrics fill the screen. Setting the scene with blunt and masterful rhymes, the words reveal, among other things, stats about casualties in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how they eerily echo the amount of deaths in Chicago as a result of shooting. Then Samuel L. Jackson’s well-dressed narrator Dolmedes shows up, explaining what we are about to see: a film mixing reality with heightened theater modeled after Aristophanes’ Greek comedy Lysistrata.

Nick Cannon as Chi-Raq in Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq"

Nick Cannon as Chi-Raq in Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq”

Jackson shows up throughout the film, fitting in seamlessly in scenes of both calm and discord. He gives one of his strongest performances in years. Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott’s lines flow with Jackson’s crisp enunciation. In the hands of Nick Cannon‘s Chi-Raq, the Greek-like meter pops. All bluster and cool, Chi-Raq is equal parts desired and feared, and Cannon pulls it off with perfection.

The cast of male actors, which also includes a welcome appearance by Wesley Snipes as the eye-patch-wearing Cyclops, is no match for the film’s female ensemble, led by Lysistrata, who, according to Dolmedes, has a brain like Einstein and would be desired even by the likes of George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson. Superbly portrayed by Teyonah Parris, Lysistrata is as bold and fierce as any character in Lee’s oeuvre. The girlfriend of Chi-Raq, she grows tired of the bloodshed, so, through the guidance of neighborhood sage Miss Helen (the always-brilliant Angela Bassett), she comes up with a plan to initiate a female-led sex strike in the hopes it could make the men rethink their killing ways. The concept welcomes a wildfire of frustration and protests that envelop the community. The rallying cry of “No Peace, No Pussy” catches on internationally, with ladies from Tokyo to Pakistan to New York City taking up the call.

Chi-Raq has been criticized for being a sexist male fantasy. And it kind of is. The film begins with gang thugs getting everything they want — including sex from “their women.” During the sex strike, which is represented by women declaring their chastity in scantily-clad outfits, the men openly decry their lack of sexual pleasure as if women are made for them. But Lee does this for a reason, taking the basest of human desires and showing how it can lead to the most beautiful of results: love conquering all.

Religion also plays a powerful role, led by local priest Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack). In one eye-opening scene, during the funeral of yet another young victim — the daughter of Chicago-native Jennifer Hudson‘s Irene — the reverend calls for an end to the violence from the pulpit. Decrying folks who witness the killing of children but report nothing, he and the church offer up a cash reward for information on little Irene’s killer.

Lee continues to challenge the audience to look at the bigger picture of cause and solution. He offers a wide view of the city of Chicago, splashing on the screen images of vibrant graffiti and, in one particularly moving instance, depicting how a simple train ride can transport people from the danger zone to the heart of a bustling, seemingly safe downtown. Moving between scenes of semi-fiction to slice-of-life reality is a specialty of Lee’s, and his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, frequent collaborator of Darren Aronofsky, makes it look lush and immediate.

Lee is one of America’s few dramatic filmmakers who dares to take a head-on approach to attacking real-life issues in our communities. He did with his classic Do the Right Thing. Recently he even took on priest abuse in the grossly underrated and misunderstood Red Hook Summer. While a documentary in the vein of his 4 Little Girls and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts may have done a better job highlighting Chicago’s gun violence problem to a wider audience, Chi-Raq deserves to be experienced. A tragicomic satire for the modern age, the film commands that we look for solutions to a problem that won’t go away any time soon.

Chi-Raq is currently playing on screens throughout Philadelphia, including The Roxy, AMC Loews Cherry Hill and AMC Franklin Mills Mall.

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