Chi-Raq represents both a slang term for the city of Chicago and is the main character name in Spike Lee’s latest film which is described as a ‘modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes’
An early title card gives us some insight as to why the streets of Chicago’s south side are referred to as a portmanteau of “Iraq” and “Chicago”. For the years of 2011 through 2015, more people were killed in Chicago than in the war in Afghanistan. It’s an unsettling statistic that got its share of ‘ooooouuuu’s at our screening. In essence, Chicago is a war zone.
As the film opens we learn of two rival gangs in the city. The Spartans lead by rapper Chi-Raq (America’s Got Talent’s Nick Cannon) and the Trojans with 90’s action star Wesley Snipes leading their rivals. Violence has spilled out on the streets and innocents are routinely gunned down. A young girl is an early victim and is the catalyst to many of the events that unfold in her tragic wake.
With motherly and worldly advice from a street’s survivor, Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), Chi-Raq’s girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) takes matters into her own hands and begins to recruit the females of the community to hold out on sex with their partners until peace is restored. No Peace. No Pussy.
The women are able to stand their ground and as days run into weeks and into months, their effect on the opposite sex is unnerving. The no-sex revolution goes as far as the White House and the major and the city officials are prey to both the internal strife of the holdout as well as the community repercussions of the female solidarity.
As tensions become confused, a white religious figure (John Cusack) attempts to use his influence on the community to aide in the fight against the crime that is ravaging their streets. An impassioned sermon by the minister spews poetry of an Al Sharpton rhetoric styled speech in which it is detailed that kids from third-rate schools end up in first-rate prisons. The stats and rhyming grandiloquence might not be as hard hitting as Spike Lee may have intended but they are sure to give an audience pause in reflection.
Things continue to spiral between the gangs and their female counterparts until they erupt in a sexual showdown with a winner take-all. It’s farcical yet masterful in its stupid simplicity and none other than Samuel L. Jackson is there to guide us along the journey by breaking the fourth wall and rhyming off a commentary of the situations forthwith.
Chi-Raq might just be Spike Lee’s most racially charged film in two decades but it is presented through rhyme, music, song and dance in such a way that you don’t feel that Lee is shoving his agenda down your throat as much as he is finding a new and unusual way to bring about his message.
Chi-Raq is hardly Lee’s best film but it is an important one in his filmography and challenged us on a few levels upon screening. It’s not likely a film you could take the family to and expect to hum the tunes or reap the praises thereof after the concluding reel. But it was a film that stands alone different from its peers. And in an era where superheroes and animated films fill our multi-plexes, it was a welcomed breath of air even if the subject matter was stifling at times.