R | 118 min
Director: Spike Lee
Stars: Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes
by Jason Koenigsberg
Chi-Raq is the newest film from the often controversial and always bold director Spike Lee. Here Spike Lee is pretty much saying “to hell with conventional filmmaking”. He is making movies for him and doing it his way regardless of what audiences or studios will think.
The film opens up with a rap song and its politically charged lyrics are on display onscreen. It then reveals statistics about gun violence in America, specifically Chicago and how that city has lost more people than the United States lost soldiers in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, hence the title, a combination of Chicago and Iraq. This is a message movie with a clear stance on gun violence and a liberal agenda similar to a film by Michael Moore. With its boldness and its blatant message, Chi-Raq is a very entertaining fantasy-fable for adults.
This film will inevitably be compared to previous Spike Lee joints, most notably Do the Right Thing (1989), about racial tensions and urban violence in Brooklyn. Here Samuel L. Jackson plays virtually the same role but instead of a DJ he acts as a Greek chorus that narrates the action from an outside point of view bringing the audience up to date. The script has an unusual cadence to it like an ancient epic flowing to a rhythm with a lot of lines of dialogue rhyming. Also, like Do the Right Thing, this films first line of dialogue is “Wake up” with an obvious double meaning.
The plot of Chi-Raq is wholly unrealistic but serves as a metaphor on obtaining world peace and a smart commentary about women’s liberation. In order to try and stop the violence on the streets of Chicago, women start depriving their men of sex. The end goal is to create a peace movement and end gun violence. As stated before, this film only works if taken as a fantasy, much like Spike Lee’s misunderstood She Hate Me (2004), which also had a liberal agenda and was a blatant attack on the George W. Bush administration and Enron. This time around, Spike Lee fashioned a biting satire on politicians’ apathetic approach to fighting poverty because they’re in bed with the NRA.
The acting in Chi-Raq is very good considering the difficulty of making this script seem believable. Teyonah Parris anchors the film as the lead woman crusading this cause and convincing other women to join her on a sex strike. Gandhi used hunger; these women use what they have to get what they want from men. Ms. Parris really gives a brave performance and if Chi-Raq were to be a hit this would lead to bigger star projects for her. Adding to the Greek epic play theme of Chi-Raq, Wesley Snipes plays a gang leader named Cyclops and sports a sequined patch over his left eye. Nick Cannon is his rival gangster not so cleverly nicknamed Chi-raq and does a good job. The best performance in Chi-Raq is John Cusack who proves to audiences that he’s still got it. He plays a priest at an urban church in a poor black area of Chicago and really hits a home run in all of his scenes, especially the monologue he gives as his sermon for the funeral of a little girl who was murdered by a stray bullet. Mr. Cusack has aged well and it has been a very long time since he was given a role that really complimented his dramatic talent.
As with most Spike Lee movies, Chi-Raq is going to get some harsh criticism and create understandable controversy. This movie does play negatively on some black stereotypes, especially the idea that black men are sex crazed and this movie touches on that. It would have been unimaginable to have a white man direct this film. Also Chi-Raq does make Chicago look very bad, from the urban hoods all the way up to the corrupt mayors office, the audience sees a lot of negative stereotypes and if I hailed from The Windy City I am sure that I would be upset with how Spike Lee depicted my hometown.
Despite those criticisms, Chi-Raq is highly entertaining. It’s editing is fast paced and energetic. It creates an urgency that makes scenes feel powerful when they could have been lackadaisical. The screen is often filled with liveliness and vigor, driving home the importance of the films message. The costumes are also great albeit unrealistic but the heightened sense of reality helps make Chi-Raq feel important and hopefully get its message across to the people that can change the violence facing inner cities everywhere.