It’s undeniable the timeliness of Spike Lee‘s Chi-Raq is dead on. The timing is chillingly impeccable; released after the Windy City battles police corruption and political scandal that’ll make Olivia Pope blush. It’s a film that bulldozes politically correct agendas in a reality oozing with violence, crime and laughable injustice. A battle cry of sorts, destined to rock the consciences of, well, everyone. Lee hits nerves after nerves in the Amazon distributed film, the streaming company’s first theatrical feature project.
“THIS IS AN EMERGENCY,” the intro declares.
Chi-Raq grips viewers with an extended introduction of Nick Cannon‘s furious “Pray For My City.” With lyrics the color of blood red in bold font, we’re informed of embarrassing stats comparing Chicago’s fatality rate to Iraq and Afghanistan stationed American troops. The four centered stars on the Chicago city flag dripped of blood; symbolic of a bullet riddled community bombarded with unsettling violence that claims the lives of hundreds every year, including innocent bystanders who never signed up to play the game.
It’s not a documentary, something the proud New York Knicks fan declared combating premature opinions. Matter of fact, it doesn’t fit into any genre. It’s the love child of a bold comedy meets drama who had an affair with a musical. Call it a “tragicomedy,” the remixed adaptation of Lysistrata, the 2,500 year old Greek satire by Aristophanes of one woman’s extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War.
After a nine-year-old was slain in cold blood and the eye-patch wearing, high pitched squealing adversary Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) burns down her home, Lysistrata takes action into her own
loins hands by organizing a sex strike. She finds refuge with neighborhood matriarch Miss Helen, infectiously played by Angela Bassett. The women ban together to, “Lock it Up!” until their men do right. Deuces booty calls and climaxing romps in the bedroom and hello chastity belts. One character even proclaims, “even the ho’s are no-shows.” The women hold onto their goodies for over three long, hard (no pun intended) months, until Lysistrata and Chi-Raq meet for the ultimate sex-off.
The film, spoken nearly entirely in verse, with the lines bouncing off each another like a dodge ball, is a no-holds-barred two-hour poetry slam with intelligent rhyming exchanges. From the choreographed dance routines (including one to the Chi-Lites “Oh Girl” to woo the strong-willed women back to bed) to Lysistrata’s seduction of the racist Major King Kong (David Patrick Kelly) at the National Armory where the women reside during their strike, Chi-Raq is a bit of everything, everywhere. Do you laugh? Should you laugh? Do you cry? A flick detailing such a sensitive, raw matter played on your emotions between entertainment and real life, yo-yo’ing between comedy and tragedy.
Teyonah Parris (Dear White People) dominates here, radiating beauty and an enviable regal vibe as Lysistrata, the leader of the sex strike.
Nick Cannon, the squeaky clean comedian who plays the codeine-indulging, weed smoking title character Demetrius “Chi-Raq” Dupree, is surprisingly good, despite reservations and calls for a Chicago rapper to fulfill the role. Chicago native Jennifer Hudson is believable, most notably during the tear-jerking visual of scrubbing blood-stained cement where her young daughter was slain.
Samuel L. Jackson pops up on screen like a microwaved popcorn kernel in candy colored suits, with a jaguar cane to boot as a narrator, Dolmedes. He verbally vomits expletives too R-rated to repeat, while rhyme-timing in classic pimp style with his signature laugh.
Chicagoan John Cusack shines as a fed up white priest, based on South Side Catholic priest Father Michael Phleger, whom he shadowed for movie prepping. Drenched in African garb during an emotional funeral scene before a supersized black Jesus mural, Cusack delivers a blistering, convicting sermon to bangers, with shots at politicians and the National Rifle Association and those faithful to the unwritten “no-snitch” command.
Commissioner Blades (Harry Lennix) and goofy Mayor McCloud (D.B. Sweeney) infectiously accompany the men back to sexual freedom alongside Old Duke (Steve Harris), who leads the non-violent men’s revolt against their undeserved sex deprivation.
Unfortunately, the focus of the movie becomes a battle of the sexes. At times, whether organically or not, how the men’s “blue balls” make them feel blue and how soon, if ever, the perpetrators would agree to peace take center stage. The weapons of choice are no longer “body-stoppers,” but self-control, or lack there of, which ultimately undermined the overall intended message.
Ideas of community housing and job programs near movie’s end was a welcoming sight, but was sadly underwhelming; only mere suggestions elaborated on for the average length of a TV commercial. All stats and no solution comes off preachy, yet incredibly inventive.
The title, which sparked public outrage in the largest city in “Drill-inois,” should be the least of concern. Sure, the appropriateness of the title is disputable, or just an immaculately great marketing tactic. Chi-Raq doesn’t glorify violence, but sheds light on it, despite the tone. Lee gets an E for effort for out-of-the-box, unconventional thinking.
Lee, no stranger to stirring up race, color and social issues, (e.g. Do The Right Thing) delivers a bold and blistering wake up call to action of a real life nightmare, co-written by newcomer Kevin Willmott. It’s a rare film where the location of the movie is the star, and the actors are mere accessories.
Despite Lee’s strong, unmovable stance on choosing the informal satire route, it remains a sour spot to tackle such a massive issue. Lee, a directing genius who was pumping Spike Lee Joints before Millennials were even a thought, has earned the right to broadcast the untouched topics that breed controversy. Brave, courageous even. If nothing else, Chi-Raq sparked a great debate of gun control, violence, gang culture and the Black community as a whole.
What Chi-Raq successfully does is expose the unfortunate stories of fallen angels, misguided youth and roaring violence, so hopefully, it doesn’t become your story.
Chi-Raq opens nationwide today [Friday, December 4].