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As an audacious warning alarm about Black-on-Black violence in Chicago and using every tool in his arsenal, Spike Lee’s high-wire act Chi-Raq is many things—social parable wrapped in sex satire piqued with music, spoken verse, direct address, set pieces, lavish color, high comedy and heart wrenching drama.
It should not have worked, really, but Lee’s masterful hand at balancing his carnivalesque canvas of disparate tones and ideas is his best movie in years, as passionate and vital as art gets. A plea to lay down arms in the country’s most dangerous city, Chi-Raq is a film filled with pain, rage, anger and humor, blistering and bawdy, provoking and entertaining in its urgent call to disarm.
With a screenplay by Lee and Kevin Willmott which languished for some time before being transplanted to Chicago’s south side, Chi-Raq’s genius structure is in its modern urban update of Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, a tale of women, sex and power, and how battles were interrupted as was coitus; Lee uses this template to incorporate a cavalcade of messy, ambitious ideas and styles.
Chi-Raq opens with the sobering image of a US map—comprised of guns—followed by a bold siren flashing, “This is an Emergency.” And indeed it is, as stats indict Chicago’s gun violence casualties as greater than troop losses in both Iraq and Afghanistan (and during the film’s five week location shoot, more than 300 were shot). Where is this happening, primarily? On the city’s south side war zone, a few miles removed from its tony downtown but might as well be another planet.
The lyric video (Pray 4 My City) that opens the film is an urgent rap plea by star Nick Cannon. As Chi-Raq himself, Cannon is an on-the-rise rapper and gang leader from Chicago’s dangerous Englewood neighborhood, and the film begins with a shooting at his latest gig, a scene narrated by Green chorus master Dolmedes, played with typical comic slickness by Samuel L. Jackson.
After Chi-Raq’s gorgeous girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is nearly caught in the crossfire, she witnesses the aftermath of a sidewalk shooting claiming the life of a young neighborhood girl whose desperate mother (the terrific Jennifer Hudson) wants answers. Enough is enough, she decides, enlisting the help of Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), a reclusive bookseller who helps orchestrate a sex strike—“no peace, no piece.”
This doesn’t go over well with Chi-Raq and rival gang leader Cyclops (Wesley Snipes, sporting an eye patch), and it isn’t long before every woman in Chicago, the United States and world over take to the streets with chastity belts and multi-lingual chants of “No peace, no pussy!” Talk about solidarity. Every man in Chicago feels this burn (all Black men pay the price for the actions of a few, get it?), including the cartoonishly boorish mayor (D.B. Sweeney), presented as a governmental roadblock to community change.
In Chi-Raq’s more straightforward scenes, John Cusack turns up a stand-in for Chicago’s real-life activist priest, St. Sabina’s Father Michael Pfleger, and while Cusack delivers a ten-minute sermon at the young girl’s funeral that is both passionate and topically relevant, it feels squarely on-the-nose for such a subversive movie.
References to recent events abound, from George Zimmerman to Eric Garner to Sandy Hook to the NRA, and Jackson tosses off one howler of a joke about the Clinton/Lewinsky affair—when was the last time a screenplay for a mainstream entertainment took on such socially relevant material?
In a performance of supreme confidence, sensuality and pathos, newcomer Parris (Dear White People) carries much of the film, and even when it veers to the outrageous, such as a seduction scene involving a cannon, confederate flag and wily white supremacist and Civil War nut (David Patrick Kelly).
Chi-Raq is a war cry against gangster culture, and one that offers no solutions (how could it?) but demands that we all start paying attention. There’s been much controversy around presenting a deadly serious subject in such a broad context (there’s even a musical number featuring the Chi-Lites Oh Girl), but that is missing the point when you have a major director firing on all cylinders to writ large such an important topic. That he does so through very funny, sexy, ribald artifice is Lee’s own special genius.
By the time Chi-Raq‘s final sequence arrives and the rapper receives a forceful rebuke from the great Bassett, who should be in the Oscar conversation this year for her indelible portrait of buried down grief that explodes in two key scenes, you know Lee isn’t fooling.
One of the year’s great films.