Spike Lee’s bizarro soul-burner Chi-Raq is the best film of 2015 that elevates Black cinema to bold new heights. OK, I’m lying. But it’s definitely not as unwatchable, exploitative and culturally aloof as the trollish trailer suggests.
Splashed with stunning visuals, infectious energy and powerful performances, Chi-Raq actually works (sometimes) as one big shake of the post-racial table that punches viewers in the face with ugly inner-city realities.
Based on the ancient Greek play Lysistrata (where a brave revolutionary convinces the women of Greece to withhold sex to end a war), the never boring Chi-Raq delves into Chicago’s bullet-torn streets with a fearless gusto rarely seen in widely released films.
Held together by an incredible cast, the film centers around impossibly gorgeous stunner “Lysistrata” (Teyonah Parris) who looks like a million IG likes and reluctantly leads the “No Peace, No P*ssy” revolution after an innocent girl is shot dead in the streets.
Jennifer Hudson plays the slain girl’s grieving mother (“Irene”) beautifully in a courageous role that gives the film depth and purpose.
There’s also a lean-sippy, trap-rappy gang leader “Chi-Raq” (Nick Cannon), white megachurch pastor “Father Corridan” (John Cusack), one-eyed weirdo gang leader named “Cyclops” (Wesley Snipes), steely neighborhood matriarch “Miss Helen” (Angela Bassett) and a hilarious cameo by Dave Chappelle.
A giddy Samuel L. Jackson (“Dolmedes”) narrates the film with strangely profound prose in a colorful array of
stolen Steve Harvey suits. He’s hilarious. His suits deserve an Oscar nomination.
None of this makes sense in the trailer but somehow comes together in the actual film where Chi-Raq leads the Spartan gang (when he’s not shirtless and rapping terribly) in an ongoing war with the Trojan gang lead by Cyclops (who giggles and wears bedazzled eyepatches).
If this sounds corny, it absolutely is, along with everyone speaking in rhyme (which you’ll either hate or…hate). Why Spike chose this “edgy” dialogue style, we may never know, but it’s mostly aggravating and deflates key scenes. I blame Empire. Spike, why mayne?
The warring Trojans and Spartans represent the gun violence plaguing the city that Lysistrata hopes to end with her global sex strike. Lysistrata is also Chi-Raq’s boo. Imagine a Trap Dr. Suess. That’s how Chi-Raq speaks to Lysistrata with fire in his eyes. Relationship goals. But, naturally, things get complicated.
Miss Helen serves as Chi-Raq’s loudest voice of reason who inspires Lysistrata to lead the revolution. White pastor Father Corridan adds to Spike’s looming message with a must-see sermon that completely breaks down inner-city gun violence. Both characters, along with Lily (Jennifer Hudson), drive Spike’s uncomfortably potent points home.
Overall, Chi-Raq is a beautiful trainwreck oozing with Black excellence. Angela Bassett, Teyonah Parris and Jennifer Hudson are excellent. The cinematography and costume design are phenomenal. Nick Cannon is shockingly tolerable as Chi-Raq proving that anything is, indeed, possible.
Many will HATE Spike’s “mid-life masterpiece” filled with one-dimensional caricatures, sloppy “satire” and throngs of objectified women while others will leave the theatre with a newfound urge to fight gun violence in their community (or at least discuss it). It’s classic Spike—heavy-handed, poignant and completely ridiculous with daring scenes that confront increasingly taboo topics in our community.
For the past several weeks, various thought leaders have expressed serious concerns based on a 2-minute trailer and vowed to boycott the movie. A “problematic” movie that no one in Hollywood would touch for obvious reasons. A “problematic” movie that’s also a must-see.
At no point is Spike disrespectful to Chicagoans furious with the film’s controversial title that’s addressed in a searing scene where Angela Bassett fiercely dismantles the upsetting nickname to its bitter core.
Throughout Chi-Raq, Spike shows the gritty elegance of a city ravaged by violence and connects victims—some confined to wheelchairs and others the parents of slain children—to an audience that, honestly, needs to see this.
There are mentions of everything from Black Lives Matter to Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof sprinkled in a film where cops ask why they should care about us if we’re killing each other and shut down in a way that’s worth the price of admission alone.
Spike has been dragged to oblivion over his controversial comments about “Black-on-Black crime” and its devastating impact on our community. And yes, “Black-on-Black crime” is a handy-dandy deflection tactic that derails discussions. But Spike, like many before him, has a point (kinda) that boils over in Chi-Raq.
When will we, as a people, be open to discussing gun violence in our community? Not mythical “Black-on-Black crime” but actual violence tearing families and communities apart. Every day, hundreds march to protest gun violence in gang-riddled cities but is that enough? Why boycott a film that at least pushes this conversation to the forefront?
We can discuss institutional racism, the prison industrial complex and police brutality but never solutions to a growing epidemic? This past May, there were a record-breaking 43 homicides in Baltimore. 43. In one month. And, according to the film, 7,356 in Chicago from 2001 to date.
Is it really wrong (and deflective) to question why there’s no outrage over this? The same level of (understandable) outrage that fuels the Black Lives Matter movement when racist cops murder innocent young men and women? Why is even asking these questions (especially on social media) so contentious?
Spike may not have the answers (I counted 0) but he sparked an essential debate with an important film (if nothing else) that everyone should see for themselves in a truly incredible year for Black film.
Photo courtesy of Amazon