Film Review: Chi-Raq

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DIRECTOR: Spike Lee STARRING: Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, David Patrick Kelly, D.B. Sweeney, Dave Chappelle, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix, Anthony Fitzpatrick USA 2015

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In America’s hip-hop scene Chicago has long been dubbed “ChiRaq” – a name that refers to the infamous South Side’s reputation as murder capital of the USA. Between 2001 and 2015, 7,356 people died here because of gun violence – a ‘national emergency’” as director Spike Lee tells us in big red letters.

Chi-Raq is a bold adaptation of Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, from 411 B.C., about a group of women who withhold sex from men to convince them to end the ruinous Peloponnesian War. Like in Aristophanes’ play there’s this sense of natural freedom, where chaos and sex are perfectly played in the Lee’s approach on Chi-Raq, and of course the two rival factions (gangs), the Spartans – led by a rapper aspirant Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) – and the Trojans – led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes).

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The empowering, sexy and impetuous Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is at the heart of this satirical and unconventional battle of the sexes. So, after an intense and bloody street war between the rival gangs of the Trojans and the Spartans that once again led to the deaths of innocent children and adolescents, Lysistrata is encouraged by neighbor Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), a grieving mother whose young daughterwas killed by a stray bullet decades ago, to take action in order to stop the violence. To fight this violence Lysistrata persuades Spartan and Trojan women to stop having sex with their men until the fighting stops.

Spike Lee communicates his vision of justice, in a philosophical, impressive and extravagant way. He goes straight to the point, convening in his own style his romantic view of political change. This is not a movie about guns, it’s a movie about the typical American way and their challenging way of settling things. It’s never about the guns, this is a cultural thing, where manhood clashes with violence and the lack of social values. This subject is beyond the classic, pathological and poisonous love affair with guns.

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Chi-Raq sends an incendiary message and goes deep when the subject is stopping the killing of black people by black people, the police repression, and the historical, economic and political back story to this violence as perfectly detailed by Father Mike (John Cusack). His sermon is an intense and complex reality check, it makes you wonder about several subjects, like the high levels of unemployment, the lack of opportunities to change lives in the black community, even the discriminating banking policies where Black Americans were issued loans on unfavorable terms.

There are a bunch of powerful scenes throughout the movie, but the one that really stands out is the one with actor Eric Williams, and real-life victim of gang violence, speaking with Chi-Raq advising him to find a way to end the violence. It is a shocking and ferocious scene. We can easily feel the despair and misery around that whole situation.

Chi-Raq represents a huge comeback of the great Spike Lee, probably his masterpiece in a frantic – sometimes erotic – empowering modern American black-on-black violence stylish tale. 20 years after his debut feature film She’s Gotta Have It, Lee wrote another movie for a black audience, but once again “a black film directed by a black person can still be universal”.

Words by Fausto Casais
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