MOVIE REVIEW: Chi-Raq
"CHI-RAQ"-- 4 STARS
To be a more astute and informed moviegoer when it comes to satires, one really should do the background homework to understand what is being satirized in a given film. Without doing that, you either miss the point of the mockery, miss the underlying message, or both. Upon the reveal of the controversial title of Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq," people have been missing the point for months. True, satires can backfire as well, by overdoing the parody or forgetting their basis of reality. Powered by vivid intelligence and bracing honesty, "Chi-Raq" does not fail. It may be "bat-shit crazy," as "The Daily Show" host Trevor Noah says, but it does not fail. It's time to get educated.
For the unenlightened, "Chi-Raq" transposes "Lysistrata," a 411 B.C. Greek comedy from the playwright Aristophanes to the modern day and uses the urban violence of Chicago, Illinois as its backdrop. Its title is based on an unwanted street nickname coined by its own residents, not an offensive knock created by New Yorker Spike Lee. As the opening prologue of the film testifies, the troubling numbers don't lie. Gun deaths in Chicago approximately double the rate of American troops killed in Afghanistan since 2001 during the same time period. Violence like that changes a community and Nick Cannon's rapper/gang leader title character Chi-Raq offers the first voice to express that with hard-hitting "Pray 4 My City" in that same prologue. This is but the start of the volumes of truth Spike Lee and his ensemble are trying to introduce.
After the inaugural song, we are introduced to our omnipotent and boisterous narrator Dolemedes, played with all possible gusto and volume by Samuel L. Jackson. He provides the loose background of "Lysistrata," which told the tale of the women from two warring factions, Athens and Sparta, agreeing to ban access to sexual entitlements as a means of forcing the men to seek peace. This non-violent tactic inspired actual events outside of fictitious Greek theater during the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. He lays the scene and shows events put in motion by this setting's Lysistrata, played by Teyonah Parris of "Dear White People."
Lysistrata is the fine dedicated woman to Chi-Raq, leader of the purple-clad Spartan gang. Their rival gang are the orange Trojans, led by the cackling Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). When a drive-by shooting goes awry and an innocent 11-year-old girl is killed, the community sickens towards their present reality. The girl's mother, Irene (Jennifer Hudson), demands answers and someone to come forward to admit the crime. She gains the help of the local Catholic church in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, led by Father Mike Corridon, played by Chicago's own John Cusack and modeled after the real-life Father Michael Pfleger of Saint Sabina Church.
After gaining mature insight from a local educated elder named Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), Lysistrata learns of what happened in Liberia and rallies the wives, girlfriends, mistresses, and lesser ladies of both the Spartans and the Trojans to start a sex strike until their men put down their guns. "No peace, no pussy" becomes their rallying call and, before long, an entire city, nation, and world joins the movement. The men around town from the gangs, the older horndog creeps of the Knights of Euphrates (led by Steve Harris), the bumbling city mayor (D.B. Sweeney), his bureaucratic right-hand man (Harry Lennix), and even the crazy white supremacists (led by David Patrick Kelly) begin to buckle under the selfish carnal pressure. The game becomes which side with cave and crack first.
"Chi-Raq" is predominantly told in lyrical voice and spoken rhyme to an extremely sharp and nimble artistic effect. So many members of this cast have mic-dropping standout moments. Teyonah Parris is a revelation as the vocal and spiritual leader of this story. Her passion, persuasion, and presence are boundless. Remember this newcomers's name. Orbiting around Parris, this is easily the most dramatic you may ever see TV host shill Nick Cannon, in an invested, menacing, and conflicted performance. Additionally, how soon we forget Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson herself lost her mother, brother, and seven-year old nephew to gun violence in 2008. You just know that personal experience has to fuel her character's own palpable anguish. Angela Bassett pushes hellish pride and dignity with every line reading. John Cusack delivers a ranting eulogy and sermon for the ages and Samuel L. Jackson is ever-cool with every suave move.
In Spike Lee's film, the symbolism is thick and the underlying truths are even thicker. "Chi-Raq" is fiercely intelligent with its farcical parable and fearless in its vicious social commentary. Both exhibit equal power. That balanced ability is tremendously difficult to pull off with honesty and Lee has done it. This timely movie runs with the Greek comedy comparison and escalates it to inconceivable satirical heights. Not all of it works, but all of it demands your attention. If you watch this film and only see the satire and dismiss the truth, you are missing the point and that's a shame.
LESSON #1: THERE IS AN INFINITE NUMBER OF EUPHEMISMS POSSIBLE FOR SEX-- Hot damn can Spike Lee write dialogue! You will lose count the number of wild rhymes and lyrical terms given to all things related to genitalia or sex acts. This is one hour and 58 minutes of "earmuffs" and it's glorious.
LESSON #2: MEN ARE PIGS-- There is a tremendous layer of "Chi-Raq" that bestows a complete dominance and empowerment upon women. They are the strong ones who can see through the junk of life and dedicate to a cause while the men are left, forgive the expression, with their dicks in their hands.
LESSON #3: THERE'S TALK AND THEN THERE'S ACTION-- There is a great deal of tough talk on both sides of the streets. Gang members attack with words and threats. By contrast, law-abiding citizens and leaders of all levels speak their minds and pontificate on several platforms. Talk is only the start. Turning talk into action is the only way anything drastic will happen or change, whether that's a sex strike, moving homes, snitching the truth, enforcing laws, pulling triggers, shaking hands, or finding peace. "Chi-Raq" challenges everyone to find action over talk.
LESSON #4: AN ENTIRE COMMUNITY IS NEEDED TO SOLVE AN ENTIRE COMMUNITY'S PROBLEMS-- No issue, cause, blame, or topic is safe in "Chi-Raq" and the finger-pointing covers everyone. Everything is put on the table as roots for the central problem of gun violence, from inadequate gun laws, police discrimination, mass black incarceration, a poor education system, unemployment, the underground economy of drugs, insufficient government resources, gentrification, and racial inequality. Any progress on these real-life issues is going to take an entire community. It will take more than protests and some signatures on pieces of paper. It will take an entire community that chooses to love their city and each other.