Chi-Raq

December 8, 2015 at 2:25 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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Crackling with the sort of defiant energy that is Spike Lee’s hallmark, this film reminded me more of “Do The Right Thing” than any of his other works. This time, Lee exposes the violence that occurs within Black communities and does so brilliantly through the lens of Aristophanes’s “Lysistrata.” In the classic Greek play, Queen Lysistrata convinces all the women of Sparta and Athens to hold out sex until their husbands make peace and end the Peloponnesian War. Lee brings this satire to the Chicago streets, where two rival gangs (the Spartans in purple and the Trojans in Orange) are killing each other and plenty of innocent children along the way. The edginess in this film lies in its ability to stay true to the Greek form while still feeling relevant today. Samuel L Jackson takes the role of chorus and much of the dialogue comes in the form of poetic verse. The brilliance here is in understanding how much modern rap and classic verse have in common. Writers Lee and Kevin Willmott created beautifully dense dialogue that managed to both have immediate meaning and be chock full of deeper references, from pop culture to philosophy to current events and Karl Marx. Sometimes the references and insights flew by so fast, I wished I could replay them. Lee was saying a lot here and he was saying it with a frenetic boldness that was dazzling. The intensity of the visual and linguistic assault was grounded by stunning performances. None more surprising than Nick Cannon in the title role. The name “Chi-Raq,” which is a blending of Chicago and Iraq, has been popularized in rap music as a way to refer to the intense violence currently occurring in Chicago’s urban areas. Cannon play’s a hip-hop artist named Chi-Raq with such ferocity that it’s impossible to see the affable clown he plays as host of “America’s Got Talent.” He lights up the screen with every look and word. However, the real power of the film lies in Teyonah Parris’s (“Dear White People,” “Mad Men”) performance as Lysistrata. The film centers around her and it is her performance that lifts this from parody into satire. Often, this story is accused of being sexist and can certainly be played that way. In Lee’s version, with Parris at the helm, it is anything but. In this version, men are damaged little boys, at their best, and buffoons, at their worst. Women are wiser and stronger and must step in to save them from themselves. It’s also worth noting that Wesley Snipes, who I first saw in Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues,” givens a terrific performance during his brief times on screen. Likewise, Jennifer Hudson (who has lost her own family to gun violence) gives a heart-wrenching performance as a young mother who’s child was killed. This is a film-lover’s treat on every level: the language, the visuals and the acting. If I have any criticisms at all, it is that the medium of this play and Lee’s approach create such a shock and awe pallet that the seriousness of the message can get a little lost. The audience will laugh and feel dazzled but will they connect? Perhaps in an attempt to compensate for that, Lee get’s a bit heavy handed in the last few minutes, trading rage for sentiment and a chance at catharsis (and trading a hip-hop soundtrack for one straight out of a standard Hollywood movie). “Chi-Raq” is a scream into the dark: raw, angry, viseral and offensive. It needs to be.

 

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