Directed by Spike Lee
Written by Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott
Starring: Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris, Jennifer Hudson, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix, D. B. Sweeney, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, and Samuel L. Jackson
In “Chi-Raq” Spike Lee delivers timely, relevant social satire by brilliantly modernizing the 2,000-year-old Greek comedy “Lysistrata” from the Peloponnesian War to urban gangland violence in Chicago’s South Side. For those who are unfamiliar with “Lysistrata,” it is a play about a woman who gets all the women of Greece to withhold sex to try and end the seemingly endless Peloponnesian War.
What Lee did with the play that was smart was he used it to talk about rampant urban violence in places like Chicago. Chicago is not the only place that has such issues, and the film touches on the enormous scale of the epidemic by showing news clips that display that the movement started by Teyonah Parris’ Lysistrata character has spread not only throughout Chicago but across the United States and the rest of the world. By presenting the issue in an international context, Lee gave the story a universality by not keeping localized to Chicago.
“Chi-Raq” has all of its dialog delivered in verse. The verse delivery works well within the context of the film because the movie is set in urban Chicago. Providing the dialog in verse format gives the movie an urban hip-hop feel. The hip-hop feel elevates the satire of the film because so much of hip-hop glorifies the gangland lifestyle. John Cusack’s character mentions this glorification of the gang culture when giving a funeral sermon for a young girl who was collateral damage of the gang violence. What Lee accomplishes by using the verse is he uses the vehicle that glorifies the gang culture and uses it as a vehicle to rally against it.
“Chi-Raq” features outstanding performances from the entire ensemble. Angela Bassett is phenomenal, and Teyonah Parris gives a breakout performance. John Cusack gives his second strong performance this year, the other being in this Summer’s “Love and Mercy,” and in the entire ensemble, there is not one flat performance. When an entire ensemble delivers strong performances, that is a credit to the skill of the director. Lee directed the film well. Lee gets the performances he needs; he tells the story in a way that delivers on its satiric premise. Although, I believe that there are a few too many “ton of bricks” moments throughout the movie.
Lee opens the film with statistics comparing the murders in Chicago with the total death in the Iraq and Afgan wars, and he includes a scene of Jennifer Hudson scrubbing the blood of her daughter off the street, etc. throughout the film to hammer the point to the audience. It seems like Lee does not trust the audience to get the point he is trying to make. The film does a brilliant job of using satire to deliver its point that these “ton of bricks” moments are not needed. Lee should have let the satire stand on its own, and not relied on these “ton of bricks” moments to deliver the message of the film.
As a self-described film geek, there were three obvious, well, what I thought were obvious, allusions to classic films contained in “Chi-Raq.” One was when Sam Jackson, as the Greek chorus character, was talking about the police and gang members and the cop and gang member shoot into the camera, an allusion to “The Great Trian Robbery.” The second was when a group of characters wanting to end the sex strike, enter the armory taken by the women jingling keys saying “bitches and hoes, come out and play,” an allusion to “The Warriors.” The third being an allusion to “Patton” when Sam Jackson gives his last speech standing in front an American flag, that drops to give way to Chicago’s flag.
“Chi-Raq” is a brilliant satire of violence in society, with excellent performances, and is well-directed. Although, the movie does rely on a few too many “ton of bricks” moments in the film. “Chi-Raq” is one of the most well-crafted satires this side of Swift, and that’s Johnathan, not Taylor.