Film Review: Chi-Raq

Director: Spike Lee

15 | 2h 7min | Comedy, Crime, Drama | 9 December 2016 (UK)

RATING: ★ ★ ★ ★ 

She’s Gotta Have it and Do the Right Thing director Spike Lee has mused before about his wishes to direct a musical, but only now, with Amazon studios knocking at his door with funding, has he been able to fully indulge himself, though anyone looking back over his filmography will see Lee has worked a taste for the theatrical into this movies before. And now we have his Chi-Raq, a bawdy, scrappy, but vital state of the union address which is built on the intriguing conceit of taking Aristophanes’ Lysistrata – a comedy about a Greek heroine who leads a sex-strike to prevent war – and smashing it full on into a modern Chicago South Side setting where the very real problems of poverty, violence, gang warfare, gun worship and macho misogyny haunt despairing communities. Most of the dialogue is delivered in a verse style that blends rap and street patois into a stylized, raw and quite catchy poetry that gives the picture a feel that is both epic, modern, and tongue in cheek. Characters both engage in the kinds of gang scuffles and street dramas that are depressingly familiar to American news watchers, only to then face off against each other in campy, choreographed dance numbers.  This film is all over the place, and intentionally so. It doesn’t always work, but it has the energy of anger and conviction.

If the above description of Lee’s approach feels absurdly outsized, arguably the gloomy situation in Chicago and the wider US deserves such a deranged approach.  This, after all, is a film with a title so provocative it drew the wrath of Chicago’s real-life mayor Rahm Emanuel; it being a juxtaposition of “Chicago” and “Iraq”. The in-your-face opening titles explain that unsettling title: as Nick Cannon’s angry  “Pray 4 My City” blazes out, a song which ends with the flashing on-screen words “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY,” we learn via onscreen text and graphics that this major metropolis has seen more Americans killed in the past 15 years than the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts combined. This won’t be the last sermon Lee throws in your face either. Unsubtle this may be, but the film has the inarguable statistics, and painful human stories, behind it. In fact, the screenplay works in the actual names of the many of the black victims of both gang and police violence into all that stylised verse. You will hear Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and the Charleston, S.C., church shootings all referenced directly, during moments where the film gets an uncomfortable step closer to the real world, even though two minutes earlier you were probably laughing at Samuel L Jackson’s chorus figure breaking it all down in a nifty three-piece suit. Tonal Shifts? This film’s got ‘em.

Chi-Raq isn’t just a setting for all this drama, it is also the rap alias of Demetrius Dupree (Nick Cannon), Chicago’s hottest rapper and notorious gang leader of the “Spartans”, whose long-running feud with the “Trojans” (led by a goofy Wesley Snipes in an eyepatch, hence his alias “Cyclops”) we soon learn is both a source of fascination and misery for the population. The names may come straight from the Peloponnesian War, but the setting is present-day Englewood, Chicago. The packed concert venue, which the live action part of the film opens on, is actually a great demonstration of the technical slickness with which Lee and DP are going to bring to the material. The concert - presided over by Chi-Raq as the main act- is well-choreographed, the songs blaze with raw energy, and the lighting and set dressing make for a vivid visual experience. The film radiates with a buzz right away. Lee isn’t doing this musical half-assed. Also in the crowd is the smart and beautiful Lysistrata, played with a truckload of charisma and poise by Teyonah Parris. She might be the girlfriend of Chi-Raq, but she will also be revealed as possessing just the right mix of Foxy Brown kick-ass attitude and Angela Davis smarts to maybe stop the gang war once and for all.

The gig turns deadly quickly, as the Trojan-Spartan conflict leads to shots being fired and band members felled. But it’s not until an 11-year-old girl, Patti, is later killed by a stray bullet during more tit-for-tat exchanges, to the devastation of mother Irene (Jennifer Hudson, mourning for her loss during a scene where virtually all the film’s artifice seems to be dropped), that Lysistrata decides enough is enough. She decides the only way the men – because it is men doing the killing - will lay down their guns is if they stop getting laid whenever they want. Having been inspired by wise neighbour Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), Lysistrata and a group of sisters from across the gang divide start a loud and lewd campaign of abstinence, which will only end when men agree to talk peace. The HQ of their protest – “no peace no pussy” – is the downtown U.S. armory — which they storm via Lysistrata’s seductions and subduing of the Confederate-flag-bearing nut who commands it. Every lady who joins in swears 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.”

This scenario allows Lee to work in plenty of gags about the misogyny and rampant machismo that he clearly thinks lies behind many of the problems besetting the community. Agonising over the sex desert that their lives have become, the assembled military and police forces outside the armoury resort to blazing out sexy slow jams and Barry White tracks from giant speakers, as ranks of hunky soldiers gyrate around in tight fatigues, hoping to break the women’s spirit by appealing to their own supressed sex drives.  Some soldiers crack under pressure, and are carried off on stretchers gibbering. The mayor’s own wife locks up her privates with a chastity belt, before a phone call from the President informs him this protest is going nationwide and he therefore needs to get on it pronto. To be brutally honest, broad comedy and goofy gags are not Lee’s strong suit, and many of the comedic scenes like these could have done with some trimming, not least Lysistrata’s capture of the amoury general, which seems to go on forever and sees a septegenarian humping a Civil War era cannon for about ten minutes. Wesley Snipes, snivelling in an eyepatch, sounds a lot funnier on paper than it appears on screen,

Of course, boiling down the complex factors that drive inner city poverty and gang violence to a matter of male hormones is not a plausible approach to the matter at hand, and Lee’s film doesn’t suggest this plan should be taken seriously. But for all the clowning around that seems to take up too much screen time during the film’s second half (when we could be spending time with the great lead actors), there are plenty of other witty or dramatically compelling moments that hit home, even if the film takes aim at so many targets it feels scattershot.  Considerable time, for example, is given to the rage and despair-fuelled sermons of the neighbourhood’s local activist priest (John Cusack, playing a character modeled on white Rev. Michael Pfegler, who leads Chicago's black St. Sabina Church and was a consultant on the film). His showpiece scene, where he hold a gun aloft during the funeral of young Pattie whilst narrating the ‘life story’ of the weapon and pointing out all the complicit actors in its journey, is genuinely stirring. It is, of course, Lee talking through him.

For all its flaws, Chi-Raq - a film that mashes up the trappings of a hip-hop concert, a gospel sermon, and a garish musical - powers on thanks to its two sexy and smouldering leads, its up-to-the-minute references to a national nightmare, and slick production values. There is a diverse soundtrack, colorful costumes, a big cast of characters, and plenty of Chicago locations to savour too. It shows Lee hasn’t lost his anger, his energy, or his willingness to take risks.

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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.