Film Review: ‘Chi-Raq’

chi-raq-teyonah-parris
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

This sprawling, blistering state-of-the-reunion-address is Spike Lee's most vital movie in years.

It may not take much to make Spike Lee angry, but there’s no denying he gives us his reasons and then some in “Chi-Raq,” a sprawling, blistering state-of-the-union address that presents Chicago’s South Side as a cesspool of black-on-black violence, gang warfare, gun worship and macho misogyny, ruled by unbreakable cycles of poverty and oppression. All that social outrage clearly demanded similarly outsized treatment, and Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott (“CSA: The Confederate States of America”) have found a remarkably accommodating vessel in Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” whose tale of an ancient Greek heroine leading an anti-war sex strike has been updated here as an alternately soulful and scalding, playful and deadly serious 21st-century oratorio. Blunt, didactic and stronger on conceptual audacity than dramatic coherence, this is still the most vital, lived-in work in some time from a filmmaker who has never shied away from speaking his mind or irritating his ideological foes, as he seems destined to do again with this attention-grabbing first feature to be released by Amazon Studios (co-distributing Dec. 4 with Roadside Attractions).

While the director’s overtly political satires have never fared especially well at the box office, the combination of ripped-from-the-headlines urgency and slick, provocative packaging should draw more than a handful of Lee fans and curious moviegoers — led by but not limited to black audiences — as “Chi-Raq” makes its way from theaters to Amazon’s streaming service. Rattling off enough social-justice talking points to irritate conservative commentators at least through the holidays, Lee’s movie has already drawn the ire of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel with its title, whose juxtaposition of “Chicago” and “Iraq” is defended in a powerful musical overture, “Pray 4 My City” (performed by top-billed star Nick Cannon). Introduced with the flashing on-screen words “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY,” the song is a grim ode to a major metropolis that has seen more Americans killed in the past 15 years than the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts combined.

Chi-Raq is also the rap alias of Demetrius Dupree (Cannon), who is the lover of the beautiful Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), and also the leader of a purple-clad gang known as the Spartans; their sworn enemies are the orange-wearing Trojans, led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes in an eyepatch, natch). The names may come straight from the Peloponnesian War, but the setting is present-day Englewood, Chicago, where tensions erupt in a shootout one night at a packed concert venue (a scene that can’t help but provoke a queasy reminder of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks). But it’s not until an 11-year-old girl, Patti, is felled by a stray bullet, to the devastation of her mother, Irene (Jennifer Hudson), that someone decides enough is enough.

Enter Lysistrata. Actually, don’t enter Lysistrata, who decides the only way these men will lay down their firearms is if they stop getting laid. Backed by a wise peace-activist neighbor, Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), Lysistrata and her Spartan sisters reach across the gangland divide, persuading the women of Troy to join them in a campaign of abstinence until their men agree to talk peace. Before long, they’ve stormed a U.S. armory — after a nose-thumbing, not-very-funny scene involving the humiliation of a Confederate-flag-bearing crazy (David Patrick Kelly) — where they stage a peaceful but long-term protest, swearing a solemn oath of celibacy: “I will deny all rights of access or entrance / from every husband, lover or male acquaintance who comes to my direction / in erection.” That bawdy, rhyming style of dialogue pulses through much of Lee and Willmott’s script, whose characters blend rap idiom and rhythmic cadences into a stylized, vulgarized poetry that gives the picture an infectious pulse even when the narrative machinery occasionally stalls.

The focus on words rather than weapons (almost all the bloodshed takes place early and off screen) isn’t the only way the filmmakers honor and update their source’s ancient theatrical origins. The action periodically halts for the running commentary of Dolmedes, a one-man Greek chorus played, as he must be, by Samuel L. Jackson, his lip-smacking wordplay as colorfully varied as his sherbet-hued three-piece suits. The other key orator here is Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack, hoarse with conviction), a figure inspired by the real-life priest and social activist Michael Pfleger. During Patti’s funeral mass, which serves as the film’s emotional and musical centerpiece, Father Corridan invokes the spirit of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., unleashing a fiery harangue against the tyranny of the NRA, the glorification of thug culture, the mass incarceration of African-Americans, the lack of government investment in impoverished neighborhoods, and an overriding culture of fear and apathy that stands in the way of meaningful change.

The man behind the sermon, of course, is really Lee, whose preferred dramatic method here is to cobble together a grab-bag of grievances and hurl them at the screen with sometimes witty, sometimes clumsy abandon. To watch “Chi-Raq” is to feel as if you’ve stumbled into a hip-hop concert, a spoken-word recital and a gospel-choir performance rolled into one — held together by a Terence Blanchard score, and peppered with up-to-the-minute references to our never-ending national nightmare: not just Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, but also Sandra Bland and the Charleston, S.C., church shootings (“Dylann Storm Roof / he’s the proof / post-racial … poof!”). But for all its relevance to the Black Lives Matter movement, the movie focuses less on issues of white privilege and police brutality than on the dispiriting everyday reality of blacks killing blacks, a system of “self-inflicted genocide” that is the target of Lysistrata’s blue-balls diplomacy. Before long, women all over the globe are joining the protest, waving signs with their own versions of the movement’s “No peace, no pussy” rallying cry. (Somehow, it’s sloppily explained, Lysistrata even manages to get strippers and prostitutes in on the ban, while also shutting down porn sites and phone-sex lines.)

While it cites the example of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, a modern-day Lysistrata who helped improve Muslim-Christian relations in war-torn Liberia, “Chi-Raq” isn’t seriously proposing mass celibacy as a feasible solution to the problems of contemporary American society. But there are still potent, if obvious, insights here into how bloodlust relates to carnal lust, how guns function as phallic symbols, and how a culture of violent machismo engenders an exploitative attitude toward women — an attitude that Lysistrata and her sisters attempt to reclaim by strutting about in form-fitting military fatigues and chastity belts. These and other costumes designed by Ruth E. Carter dovetail splendidly with Alex DiGerlando’s detailed, color-coordinated production design; despite its gritty environs, the production has a bright, theatrical sheen, amplified by the expansive widescreen compositions of d.p. Matthew Libatique (in his fifth collaboration with Lee).

Uneven as storytelling, scattershot as satire, and capped by an emotional climax that feels too rigged to resonate, Lee’s latest joint is best appreciated as a vigorous and uninhibited work of social criticism, executed with the madly riffing instincts of a pop-cultural magpie. It’s a rare movie that can tap into ancient Greek literature and a century’s worth of African-American performance traditions, and still find time to sample freely from “West Side Story,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Patton” and “Dr. Strangelove.” There are also clear echoes of Lee’s own filmography, and if “Chi-Raq” never summons the tension and immediacy of “Do the Right Thing,” it can’t help but recall “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Girl 6” in the way it pivots, morally and dramatically, on the story of a woman’s sexual independence.

Parris first caught Lee’s eye with her memorable turn in “Dear White People,” and here, whether she’s rocking an afro or a slinky gold Cleopatra number, she projects intelligence and charisma as the film’s inspired voice of reason, even if there’s a certain flatness to her moral determination. In the more ambiguous role of Lysistrata’s lover-turned-adversary, Cannon has rarely been more commanding on screen, a brooding alpha figure who provides, in one of the film’s better scenes, a fleeting glimpse of the terrified, fatherless little boy within. Cusack and Jackson both have moments to savor, and Steve Harris (“The Practice”) is fittingly bellicose as Lysistrata’s most openly chauvinistic opponent. Harris is one of several Chicago natives in the ensemble — including Hudson, who gives the film a raw, uncomfortable jolt by enacting a fictionalized version of her own family’s violent tragedy. That sort of bold stroke is all too emblematic of “Chi-Raq”: Even when the movie’s choices veer on misguided, its confrontational attitude strikes a nerve.

And that willingness to charge on through, risking scorn and ridicule, is perhaps the clearest sign that this quintessentially Brooklyn filmmaker has given Chicago the raucous, despairing yet faintly hopeful tribute it deserves. Lee’s vision of a scarred, gutted city may not please the tourism board, but his movie is better for it: Its seething dramatic texture captures a deeper, more elusive beauty that — like reconciliation, reform or any other human ideal — can only be achieved when the illusion of safety is left behind.

Film Review: ‘Chi-Raq’

Reviewed at Rodeo screening room, Beverly Hills, Nov. 20, 2015. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 127 MIN.

Production

An Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions release of an Amazon Studios presentation of a 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks production. Produced by Spike Lee. Executive producers, Jon Kilik, Kevin Willmott.

Crew

Directed by Spike Lee. Screenplay, Kevin Willmott, Lee. Camera (color, widescreen), Matthew Libatique; editors, Ryan Denmark, Hye Mee Na; music, Terence Blanchard; production designer, Alex DiGerlando; art director, David Meyer; set decorator, Cynthia Slagter; costume designer, Ruth E. Carter; sound (Dolby Digital), David Obermeyer; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Philip Stockton; re-recording mixer, Paul Hsu; special effects coordinator, Don Parsons; visual effects supervisor, Randy Balsmeyer; choreographer, Maija Garcia; stunt coordinator, Jeff Ward; line producer, Jason Sokoloff; casting, Kim Coleman.

With

Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris, Jennifer Hudson, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix, D.B. Sweeney, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson.

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  1. This is a good movie to have group discussions on the issue of gang violence. Adults should view it first, than children based on their level of maturity. In truth, he did give an answer to the problem – LOVE. But we have to include all its attributes in our everyday lives. As it is written, Love: is patient and kind, is not jealous, it does not brag, does not get puffed up, does not behave indecently, does not look for its own interests, does not become provoked, it does not keep account of the injury, it does not rejoice over unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth, it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and never fails. Yes, the answer is LOVE.

  2. Emmanuel Leonard says:

    I just wanted to say to the writer of this movie review, you did a phenomenal job critiquing this film and I envy your writing skills. You write very well. Bravo.

  3. Sabrina says:

    I tihink this was a great movie. It wasn’t about what you didn’t like, it was about the message!!!!!How guns in Chicago have been made available to people”especially in poor neighborhoods” where theres more violence because of poverty… Spike Lee has a creative but odd way of sending this message but ITS THE TRUTH!!! he was just saying its been just as much killing in Chicago as it has in Iraq’ which is bad for a state in America… The message is clear!!! Bad things are put in the African American communities to indirectly cause temptations. ALL BOYS WANT TO SHOOT A GUN BECAUSE ITS FASCINATING. LEARNING HOW TO HUNT, EXPEIRENCING THE POWER. Well when they put these guns in these neighborhoods wherre theirs no Fathers to teach their sons what the purpose of a gun is, these guns are used in the wrong way. and Americas gun controll keeps allowing these guns in america and these neighborhoods!! Critics want to critizise Spike Lee about this particular movie thats no different then most.The problem is that bits too many Black actors and the truth has been told about Black people are treated in America and the people keep our neighborhoods flooded with bad things to keep us down!!! Especially Black Boys who are missing fathers to teach them the way. Since the civil rights movement the Racist goverment have found a way to keep black men out of the home. 1strike, the black man goes to jail for much more time then of a white man. Taking him from his home with no rehabilitation.. This has been going on since Slavery. It was the White Masters that taught black people division, since the house negroes verses the field negroes.. It’s the sad truth’ that as plagued most black communities for generations. No one wanrts to fix it because it was the Prejiduce goverenments desire to keep the black man down. Now they want to call us ignorant and ghetto over somnething that has gotten out of hand that they created… That why other races come from different countries and look down on African Americans. but they dont want to teach or learn real African American History in America!!! Old prejiduce white America’ especially in the south taught us all the bad we know’ to keep us down.Now that Spike Lee Tells The Truth, everyone has something negative to say!!!

  4. More of a satire then anything

  5. Chicagoan says:

    Great review of the movie.
    BUT:
    This movie does not reflect the REAL life of a true Chicago Native.
    Because of the politicians and Hollywood, this movie reminds me of the black panther movement.
    This movie was about politics not about the REAL REAL.
    If you going to call it Chiraq, (by the way Spike didn’t come up with the name) then talk about the REAL Chicago.
    Talk about how the politicians are STEALING our tax dollars and closing about 100 public schools. Leaving our children UNEDUCATED and a rise in the unemployment.
    Let’s talk about how they are tearing down neighborhoods and leaving people homeless because that neighborhood don’t fit in “their eyes.”
    Let’s talk about how police officers & politicians are on “payroll.” (if you don’t understand what I mean, find a clue)
    Let’s talk about how the sales tax is 11-13% plus a state tax and an additional tax, making things not so affordable.
    Let’s talk about the unemployment rate.
    So no one wants to hear about that. All the news and the world care about is the killings and how bad Chicago is.
    Think about why these things are happening.

  6. Justin Chang, thank you for the helpful review, but I have a little nit to pick with your ignorance: there were no Trojans or Cyclopses in the Peloponessian War. Oops, or, shame on your college.

    Here’s hoping that Spike Lee has returned to making good films, dramatically speaking. They’ve all stunk since X. This sounds more promising….

    Ideologically, of course, they are all pretty bad with some exception for Do the Right Thing. How TIRED that he’s railing here against the NRA and some stars and bars waver, when of the course the primary responsibility for Chicago’s mayhem is at the feet of the millions of Democrat voters there, white and black, who have done nothing to wrest their party out of the hands of the deeply corrupt Democrat rulers there. If you care about the murders, boycott the local Dems–force them to make way for a dissident bloc of new Dems, or of those belonging to a third party, or for a bloc of Republicans. And read Shelby Steele to beginning thinking about what the equivalent moves in “cultural politics” would be, i.e., what is necessary to ditch certain pre-fab black identities that are dead ends.

    Otherwise, nothing’s going to change, and everyone knows it. Sex strike? African Americans, how about starving your Democrat masters (lots of them black) of votes instead?

  7. savoresd says:

    This is a perfect review, even though Cannon and Cusak were surprisingly good, I would’ve liked to see a little more from Cannon in his final moment of confession. The women were way too fancy but that did a better job as portraying them as goddesses and the church dancers to me, symbolized all of the lives lost to gun violence that are now angels. The absurdity of a sex strike matches the absurdity of the the magnitude of the city’s problems with economically neglecting poor communities…. no trauma centers, easier to get a gun than computer, a gun is part of an everyday wardrobe, the loss of a gang code where children are off limits (so blatant with the murder of Tyshawn Lee, unemployment, high school graduation rate, etc. The lack of attention these communities get from the Mayor and the city’s leadership is disgraceful and the real obscenity.

  8. S.A.Cosby says:

    Yeah because we all know black men are beasts that can only be tamed by denying them sex. Not appealing to reason or their higher social conscience

  9. Asha says:

    Once again, Spike does the right thing! Can’t wait to see it!

  10. Jimmy Green says:

    another worthless piece of trash from no-talent racist spike (loser) lee.

  11. 85wzen says:

    Well, it would be nice if Mr. Lee has something here, it sounds promising. I always thought of him as the Black Woody Allen… but then he sorta stopped being talented… maybe this one will bring him back some!

  12. Mark says:

    spike lee is one sad, racist, privileged little fool. He made a film worth seeing. Once.

  13. BeckyJ says:

    Well, I just saw the trailer and that’s the best trailer this year, hands down, in my opinion.

  14. RalphCC says:

    This screams “MUST SEE!” It sounds stunning and brilliant, and I am in no way affiliated with anyone on anything involved with this film. It just sounds timely and important.

  15. Terrence C. Ward aka T.C.Real says:

    I had the pleasure of working on this movie as one of the National Guards, I would like to thank Spike Lee for the SAG Upgrade…ChiRaq is a must see movie! #aSpikeLeejoint #ChiRaq #StoptheViolence

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