When Spike Lee is behind a film you know it will generally cause concern amongst the politicians of America. It’s usually saying something and it doesn’t hold back. Chi-Raq however, well, lets just say it’s different.
In an opening sequence we’re faced with some startling statistics, namely: between 2001 and the present day 2,349 American’s died in the Afghan war. Between 2003 and 2011 4,424 American’s died in the Iraq war. However, between 2001 and 2015 there has been 7,356 murders in Chicago alone! As a Brit that is a figure that’s just too much to comprehend. From 2000 to 2014 there have been close to 11,000 murders in the whole of England and Wales!
On one day, July 4th 2015, Independence Day, 55 people were shot and wounded with 10 murdered, including a 7-year old boy. As a voice-over starts, Father Michael Louis, says that it’s mostly black males killing other, black males.
The main thing to say about Chi-Raq, as with a lot of Spike Lee’s work, is it isn’t for everyone. Not just because of the subject matter but also because the whole movie is done in rhyme. They aren’t singing, just rhyming. It’s a bit odd to start with but you do get used to it. Also, the film has the feel of a TV movie, it was made with Amazon which may be why, I’m not sure.
The story follows Lysistrata, played by Teyonah Parris (Dear White People, How Do You Know) who is the girlfriend of Chi-Raq, played by Nick Cannon (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Aaliyah), though the titular Chi-Raq refers to Chicago. After yet another murder on the streets, one of Lysistrata’s neighbours Miss Helen, played by Angela Bassett (American Horror Story, Olympus Has Fallen) tells her about Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist, who helped bring an end to the second Liberian Civil War in 2003 by getting all the women to go on a sex strike until peace came about.
Lysistrata thinks the same thing can work here and so goes about getting all the women on side to bring an end to the gang violence.
Wesley Snipes (Passenger 57, Blade) plays Cyclops who is the leader of the rival gang, John Cusack (Being John Malkovich, High Fidelity) plays Father Mike Corridan, Jennifer Hudson plays Irene, Cyclop’s girlfriend and Samuel L. Jackson pops up every now and again to move things along or explain things, plays Dolmedes.
The whole story is a modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, set against the backdrop of gang violence in Chicago. On some levels it works, I doubt we’ll see a whole movie done in rhyme for some time. Teyonah Parris is set to be a new star if this performance is anything to go on and you can’t helped be moved by the mothers who have lost their children to stray bullets.
However, on other levels the movie fails, and sometimes quite badly. I’m unconvinced by Cannon as an actor, he’s wooden and there’s little to no emotion or range throughout. Snipes is a comedy character which is fine, but seems to undermine the films premise. As does some of the other ‘comedy’ moments that come around.
These moments make me unsure as to exactly what writers Spike Lee and Kevin Wilmott (The Association, Jayhawkers) were trying to get across. What was the ultimate goal here? The subject matter and what’s said about it is nothing new, it’s said in a different way sure, but Lee, and others, have said it all before. Granted they have to keep saying it as the powers that be aren’t listening, and perhaps that’s the real tragedy here, that this film even needs to exist.