Spike Lee’s ‘Chi-Raq’ sparkles but fails to deliver

by Joyce Lee | 1/27/16 6:01pm

Furious, messy, urgent, crass and often heart-wrenching, Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq”(2015) (“Chi” as in Chicago, “Raq” as in Iraq) is a controversial satire that comments with sloppy yet biting rhythmic prose on race, sex and gun violence in Chicago’s South Side.

The movie draws from Aristophanes’ play “Lysistrata,” a fifth-century B.C.E. Greek comedy in which women refuse to have sex with men as part of a protest to end the Peloponnesian War, Chi-Raq opens with a stark message ­— the lyrics of Nick Cannon’s “Pray 4 My City” (2015) emblazoned in red across the screen as the song plays. The film starts with the narrator stating that there are more gun deaths in Chicago than in the United State’s wars abroad. A truly excellent and dapper Samuel L. Jackson serves as a fourth-wall breaking narrator and the embodiment of a Greek chorus. He quickly reveals that Chi-Raq is the nickname of Demetrius (Cannon) a rapper, gang leader of the Spartans and protagonist Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris)’s boyfriend. The Spartans’ conflict with the Trojans, a rival gang led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), turns violent when gang members draw guns at one of Chi-Raq’s concerts, leaving two dead, part of an endless cycle of violence. After the death of a child in a drive-by shooting, the women, lead by Lysistrata, declare that they have had enough and begin their sex strike. The idea is simple: deny men sex until they give the women peace.

While Lysistrata’s sex strike storyline oftentimes seems almost operatic, with musical numbers and a strangely crass scene involving the sexual humiliation of a Confederacy-obsessed general, the secondary storyline of a priest and a grieving mother makes up the film’s emotional core. Jennifer Hudson plays Irene, the mother of the 11-year-old girl whose death serves as the impetus for the strike. Lee sadly under-utilizes Hudson, but she gives a stellar performance as a brimming well of anger and sorrow. John Cusack is the blazing Catholic priest Father Mike, loosely based on Michael Pfleger, a real-life priest and social activist. Cusack plays the purposeful role well, particularly in one funeral speech in which he rails against the socioeconomic inequality that creates the underground economy fueled by gang violence and the glorification of thug life by more privileged Americans. With Father Mike’s conviction and Irene’s heartbreaking rage at the death of her daughter and the gun violence that killed her, the two crusade to combat their neighborhood’s apathy.

Lee tackles his inevitably controversial source material with cinematic gusto — pulling out all the stops with his vibrant cinematography displaying the clash of the purple-clad Spartans and the orange-clad Trojans to the rhyming verse that makes up the dialogue. The film’s music, which ranges from strong hip-hop beats to forays into R&B, gospel and jazz, is especially powerful against Chicago’s urban backdrop. The result is a fast-moving and surreal series of scenes that are cobbled together into a disjointed but not displeasing narrative that touches on themes of race, gender and poverty.

Yet for all of its surrealness, “Chi-Raq” is unapologetic in its penetration of the divide between the fantasy inside the screen and the reality outside. The film does not forget Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, the victims of the Charleston church shooting and the endless other victims whose deaths helped spur the Black Lives Matter movement. The film’s up-to-the-minute references make an emphatic statement: what role does privileged America, white America, play in this black-on-black violence?

Parris, of “Dear White People” (2014) fame, as Lysistrata, gives a simple answer: respect. In her sex strike, she asks for people to not take advantage of an already horrific situation by capitalizing on violence. In one stand-out scene, she and a group of fellow strikers yell “Resspect,” at a group of police officers.

Though the film’s approach to gun violence and race is straightforward, its portrayal of the power of black women borders on misogynistic. The film draws an interesting connection between the power of blood lust and carnal lust, with guns as blatantly obvious phallic symbols, but ultimately, the film fails to address the fact that these women have, to some extent, been reduced to sexual objects. Yes, the women make a stand for peace, but they are women who do so solely through the power of their bodies. Lee attempts to display these women as empowered without addressing the fact that black women are often the most discriminated minority group in America. Perhaps it is because of this ingrained societal truth that the final triumphant scene rings false — it almost feels jarring to see a black woman given what she has demanded, all through the power of her body. While this idea is absolutely something society should contemplate, Lee is not intentional about it and the conclusion ultimately leaves one feeling unfulfilled. It’s a bittersweet way to end a decent film that could have been radical, but unfortunately fails to address some significant questions.

"Chi-Raq" will be shown on Saturday at 7 p.m. in Spaulding Auditorium.

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