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If there is anything anyone knows about a director named Spike Lee, it’s that the man always seems to have something to say about something. Whether it be on a stage at an event or through his films, Lee’s voice seems to never be too far away from something political, some issue that will ruffle feathers and rattle cages. One thing is usually certain, good or bad, for better or worse, the film will most certainly get people engaging in spirited discussion.
Lee’s latest offering Chi-Raq, sees the director speaking from the place that isn’t unlike that place we recognize as an authentically ‘Lee Place’. It’s what makes you feel like you are in a Spike Lee Joint in the purest sense. Over the course of his extensive and varied career, with pictures like Jungle Fever, Malcom X, and of course Do The Right Thing among others, Lee boldly strikes nerves in ways that are rarely subtle, but are often powerfully moving.
Chi-Raq, borrows the plot from the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, which involves the women of warring factions coming together to devise a plan that will end the fighting and stop the bloodshed. How does a group of women attempt to do this, you may ask. Well, they withhold sex from their men. The gist is essentially the same here. When a child is killed by a stray bullet in the middle of a gang war in Chicago’s south side, the community comes together to figure out how they can work to put a stop to senseless murders of the youth. Women of the rival gangs unite to withhold themselves from their men, unless they are willing to lay down their guns. Sure, the idea is ridiculous and much more suited to an outright comedy. Also, let us remember that women are so much more than their bodies. But the movie does not sit with these suggestions. Rather, it moves forward toward making its point.
Lee takes us straight into the film and pulls no punches, hitting us with an uninterrupted and quite risky sequence of Nick Cannon’s gritty track “Pray 4 My City”, which tells the story from the perspective of a youth living in the rough streets trying to survive and avoid getting killed. It is a powerful way to get you in the mindset of the film’s core topic. Similar in tone to the opening of Do The Right Thing, which features the fiery Rosie Perez in an uninterrupted dancing sequence to the Public Enemy’s militant track “Fight the Power”.
As a piece of art, Lee’s film is a musical drama, that is also a comedy, that is surprisingly and refreshingly funny and a social commentary on the state of things in Chicago. It is an inferno of frustration and despair on the inexcusable and unnecessary loss of young life. It is also ripe with smoldering and sizzling sexiness. The picture is as lively as anything Lee has ever put to film.
All the aforementioned elements are further aided along by powerful and affecting actors. Much of the film’s charm could easily be attributed to Teyonah Parris in the role of Lysistrata, who most may recognize from the television series Mad Men. The film is essentially centered around her and her journey as the champion of a movement that involves women fully embracing their power. She is full of an electric energy that is consistent throughout; Parris is one you cannot take your eyes off of. Jennifer Hudson is also a huge standout in her small, but immensely powerful role as a mother who has suffered a terrible loss. One expects she has drawn upon her real life experience of great loss to make the role work, but whatever the case, it is quietly explosive. Every moment she is on screen grips your heart and she doesn’t have to do much of anything at all. Nick Cannon is the gangsta rapper Chi-Raq and he is very good here, reminiscent of his star-making turn in Drumline, the film that introduced him to the world. He reminds us of his very real talent.
There is a real theatrical quality to Chi-Raq, which is to say that it could have very easily been produced for the stage and it works well. The fact that the script includes dialogue spoken in rhyming verse, while not necessary, adds a unexpected and different flavor. The theatrical quality helps us accept moments when the film seems to jump from serious to funny to preachy to sexy; one forgives the jolt that presents itself. Some viewers might be put off by such bouncing around, but the tone throughout is mostly consistent.
Chi-Raq is more than a piece of entertainment for the sake of entertainment. Mainly for the reason that it has something to say about something. It serves as a social commentary on gun control, gang violence within the disenfranchised African-American community of south side Chicago, gender roles, sexuality and power. It comes complete with the essentials of tragedy and comedy, those timeless polar opposites inherent in all art and you might feel both sides intensely. You might be faced with both masks throughout your viewing of this bold, inspiring, angering, humorous film. No matter what your opinion of the issues presented here, no doubt you will have something to say and that ultimately, is this film’s primary objective.