“No peace, no pussy” – ‘Chi-Raq’ (Film Review)

“I don’t live in Chicago, I live in Chi-Raq” raps Nick Cannon’s Demetrius “Chi-Raq” Dupree, in the intense lyric video that opens the latest ‘Spike Lee Joint’. Ignoring any reservations some inhabitants of Chicago may have with the moniker of ‘Chi-Raq’, Lee’s modern day adaptation of the Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes dives head on into the issue of gun crime that the film revolves around for its whole running length. This announcement in Cannon’s lyrics work twofold – telling us that African Americans live in a different, parallel world to white Americans, and that this film isn’t really set in Chicago. Instead, Samuel L Jackson’s gleeful narrator Dolemedes introduces us to a funhouse mirror version of Chicago, a fantastical and extreme environment full of theatricality. Accompanying Cannon’s song, is a similar message to the one made clear by Kanye West in the song “Murder To Excellence” flashes across the screen: that more Americans have died in Chicago than in the whole Iraqi war. Hence the title.

However, while the film very explicitly pushes this message, it avoids becoming overly preachy through sheer entertainment – to the point where these opening statistics and bold statements almost seem in contention with the satirical madness that follows. Chi-Raq is a madcap blend of Spike Lee’s better New York based slice of life films such as Do the Right Thing and Crooklyn (there’s shades of Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet in there too), Greek theatre, musicals, hip-hop, gang culture and typical Spike Lee madness, and the result is his best film in years. Following a tragic death of a young bystander in a gang shooting, protagonist Lysistrata (played to perfection by Teyonah Parris) finds inspiration in real life figure Leymah Gbowee’s protest against the 2nd Liberian Civil War, she leads a movement of celibacy to force the gang members into a truce.

Partially filmed in a handheld style by frequent Lee collaborator Matthew Libatique (better known for his work with Darren Aranofsky), but full of glamour and sheen (despite the supposedly gritty urban setting), the film looks great – kinetic, and bursting with vibrance. It’s a hilarious, heartfelt protest, a loud reminder of the damage of gun violence. There’s also a bunch of sexual tension – the tension only getting stronger as the film goes on and the protest continues.

Courtesy of: Amazon Studios
Courtesy of: Amazon Studios

As with a number of Spike Lee’s films, Chi-Raq lacks focus – the veteran filmmaker has a tendency to overstuff his films with ideas, for better or worse. But in Chi-Raq this doesn’t occur as a detriment to the film, in fact it simply contributes to the film’s energy and momentum – there isn’t a single scene that feels like filler, even if it might feel somewhat jarring in tone from one sequence to the next. This is helped greatly by Lee and co-writer Kevin Wilmott’s wonderful, razor sharp writing, and an entertaining score combining original contributions from various artists and a number of classic tracks.

Black lives, black music and black bodies are at the forefront – with an absolutely fantastic cast of African American actors, Lee reuniting with Samuel L Jackson (thoroughly enjoyable in his role as the chorus, Dolemedes), Wesley Snipes (hilarious, adorned with a ruby encrusted eyepatch), and Angela Bassett (typically wonderful as a protest leader). And even with the long list of prolific actors, Teyonah Parris, playing Lysistrata, still stands out. While white Americans are often ridiculed in Lee’s films, in Chi-Raq they aren’t entirely played as a punchline as in The Chappelle Show (the creator of which makes a wonderful cameo). John Cusack appears as a crucial character in the form of the preacher Mike Corrigan – who fights as fiercely for peace as anyone else on his side, and, unlike the rest of the characters, is played almost completely straight for all his time on screen.

Courtesy of: Amazon Studios
Courtesy of: Amazon Studios

Unlike something like Do the Right Thing, Lee forgoes racial tension in favour of a battle of the sexes, in the most literal sense of the phrase. The majority of the narrative involves the troubled, violent, and often misogynistic men of this mythical version of Chicago being held accountable, and effectively emasculated by women, who are spurred into action by Lysistrata under the rallying cry: “No peace, no pussy”. The response and counter protests against Lysistrata’s movement that occur are predictable, comical, and painfully reminiscent of the world we live in, in which “pro-lifers” and MRAs act out when they feel threatened by women (rightfully) taking control of their bodies. In this sense the film confronts the viewer with how a lot of men unfortunately view/value women, and in particular, how some white men value women of colour – however the film often approaches these subjects with somewhat absurd, outrageous sense of humour – a standout example involving the seduction of a military general with very strong Confederate ideals.

One of Spike Lee’s best efforts in recent years, possibly among his best films ever. Chi-Raq crackles with an intense energy and want for social change, not unlike the energy of John Cusack’s preacher within the film itself. An absurd, fantastical film; what Chi-Raq lacks in hard-hitting social realism and focus, it makes up for in spades with ambition, madness, hilarity and emotion.

Rating: 4/5

Director: Spike Lee
Producer: Spike Lee
Writers: Spike Lee, Kevin Wilmott
Featuring: Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, and Samuel L. Jackson.
Year: 2016
Country: USA
Runtime: 127 minutes

Chi-Raq is out in UK cinemas on December 2nd.

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