Review: Chi-Raq

Director: Spike Lee

Stars: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Samuel L Jackson

It seems like too long since a Spike Lee ‘joint’ was the cause for particular interest or comment. His last breakthrough commercial hit was Inside Man a decade ago, and even then it was something of a dud. As the years have gone by, little has appeared to reverse the increased apathy of his output. His needless Oldboy remake was a cause for particular commiseration.

But Chi-Raq changes that and finds one of African America’s most full-throated voices shouting out again over the whitewashed radio chatter. Films about black society in the US right now seem especially important as racial divides only continue to accentuate themselves. In an industry that often relegates black voices, Lee’s clout gives those he speaks for a megaphone. And in this instance those cold hard truths are spoken loudly, for all to hear… in verse.

Chi-Raq – which takes its name for a slang term for the city of Chicago that marries it to the Middle Eastern country with which the US fought not so long ago – tells stories from the city’s streets but does so with a rhyme lurking in virtually every line. This is (for want of a better term) a hip-hop musical, one which even opens with a scene that imitates the start of 80’s classic Purple Rain.  Instead of Prince And The Revolution inviting the audience to go crazy, however, we’re offered posturing gangster rap courtesy of Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon).

Samuel L Jackson hovers around the picture playing narrator in a range of suits that bring to mind Jim Carrey in The Mask as readily as they do 70’s pimp regalia. But his presence as a one-man-chorus to the stories being told reinforces the feeling that Lee’s film is a stage musical that has somehow sprawled out into Chicago’s gun littered suburbia. It is also – as if this wasn’t enough of a potent notion – a loose adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.

Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), girlfriend to Chi-Raq, decides that the escalating violence in their neighbourhood has reached critical mass and that something needs to be done to force a change. She organises a sex strike with the other women and girlfriends, emptying the strip clubs of dancers and leaning on the local prosts to throw in their support also. Soon the menfolk are pining for answers; what have they done to deserve such neglect!? Thus Chi-Raq takes on maleness as much as it does irresponsible gun play, highlighting how they often go hand-in-hand.

A funeral for a child cut down on the streets in the crossfire is presented as a glorious gospel celebration before John Cusack’s Father Mike Corridan takes to the mic to preach on gun violence. His words (like Jackson’s and like the text-heavy opening to the movie) vocalise the litany of injustices that fuel this movie with fury. And it is a LONG speech. The argument is presented bluntly but, considering the subject matter, delicacy is quite understandably not a concern of Lee’s at this point. Chi-Raq is a state-of-the-nation address. A vital one, if prone to impassioned clumsiness. Clumsiness can be forgiven though when the intent is so strong, so blustery.

Chi-Raq is a soapbox battle cry; a call to arms that advocates peaceful protest and defiance. Perhaps aware that his movie is a thinly disguised grenade lobbed into the path of casual cinemagoers worldwide, Lee feathers his argument with entertainment spectacles – and so the quasi-musical format make perfect sense. In the history of cinema, what other genre has been more consistently associated with escapist showmanship? Musical cinema as political protest subverts both the intent of the musical and the expectations of the political film. It’s win-win.

Corridan points out to Lysistrata that though her booty embargo carries a powerful symbol, the real problem behind the neighbourhood violence is systemic; that the game is rigged against African-Americans in an effort to control fates through poverty and reductive circumstance. It’s a sobering truth in a film that addresses real social issues from a skewed, heightened, deliberately unreal perspective.

With its collage approach, mixing up agitated political grandstanding and sketch comedy moments, Chi-Raq is intermittent by design, constructed as a series of thematically connected vignettes surrounded by, well, whatever might (or might not) work. By its very nature it’s hit-and-miss. And perhaps tellingly, some of the most moving footage presented is that of genuine protest marches by the real people of Chicago. These documentary snatches are mixed in with everything else, sat side-by-side with dance numbers like clips in Lee’s furious, impatient variety performance show.

A messy multifaceted movie it may be, but Lee hasn’t seemed as on point and personal in years. Whether you agree with (or want to hear) what’s being presented or not, Chi-Raq is probably his best film since 25th Hour and his angriest work that this writer has seen since post-Hurricane Katrina documentary When The Levees Broke. A little fire in his belly suits him. We could use the disturbance more often.

Score:  3.5

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