“Americans like war. They like guns. Fun and games.”
Leave it to Spike Lee to make a movie for our time through Old Greek Comedy influence. By retelling Aristophanes’ Lysistrata in a modern setting, Lee reflects upon the irrefutable fact that history so often repeats itself, just at different intervals and varying locations. In Chi-Raq, a refreshingly real and studied approach on absurdist satire, we’re shown the war zones of Chicago’s blood-stained south side. Over 7,000 murders in 2014 alone. That number is staggering and Lee knows it. The story shares the filmmakers’ upset and angry attitude. This is not meant to be a humbling and introspective commemoration. No, Chi-Raq wants to field lighthearted commiseration, should that emotion even exist.
For those unfamiliar with the tale of Lysistrata, Lee harnesses the captivating talent of Samuel L. Jackson to fill us in. He’s our narrator on-screen, speaking directly to us while characters react to his dialogue. Jackson’s voice is simply magnetic, but speaking the words of this rhyming script sounds like delightfully inspired slam poetry. It’s incredible, really, how the gimmick of the script never plays out as an actual gimmick. Metaphors go unrepeated and each lead talks in their own way. Chi-Raq is reality acted through grand theatrics and staging. We feel like we’re in the streets of Englewood. We hear the spray of bullets and witness the calcified hearts of those now desensitized to the senseless killings. Perhaps that is the films greatest feat, and a shared trait of its director. Some would sanitize or clean up the lack of civility. Lee dresses it in showy costuming without deadening its numbing effect.
The surprisingly adept Nick Cannon fills the role of the titular Chi-Raq. He’s an underground rapper and leader of the Spartan gang. They squabble with the Trojans, governed by the aptly named Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). Both sides fight to fight, fire to fire, hate to hate. Events push forward following an afternoon tiff that results in the accidental murder of a young girl. That’s really where Chi-Raq gains its footing, all thanks to this film’s own Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris). She’s done with the nonsense, fed up with the machine-gun machismo, and presses her fellow women in the area to strike. But how, and to what lasting effect? Like its inspiration, the women go the road of chastity. Not only do they deny their men a taste, they give the cold shoulder. Chi-Raq’s second half feels overtly jokey as a result of the comically induced hysteria that the men experience. It may attenuate the dramatic effect of such a sorely needed social criticism, but it doesn’t diminish the voice that has been raised.
Parris stands out as the real star of the film, and had it devoted more time to her storyline rather than squabbling away her importance and immediacy in the last act, I’d have argued that she belonged in the best actress category. Her delivery is effortless, her attraction unruly, and the command of emotional highs and lows extremely disciplined. Watch out for her in years to come. While I’m not a supporter of Spike Lee’s self-aggrandizing personality, especially given his latest stance on the Oscars, the man’s talent is second to none. He’s a rhythmic director, cutting along with the pulse of his soundtrack. And where you don’t expect a camera he somehow manages to place one. Lee’s latest is far from his best but a welcome back to form after some awfully ill-considered duds. Does Chi-Raq wear down its welcome as the immensity of the situation builds? Absolutely. But it admirably asks a community to address the matter at hand and share a deserved blame. Chi-Raq conspires and aspires for capitulation, and is a welcome call to bare arms.
“Guns have become a part of America’s wardrobe.”
Rating: 4 out of 5