Spike Lee has never been known for his subtlety as a filmmaker and that is surely not going to change with his latest movie, Chi-Raq. The title is in your face, and so is everything else about it.
It’s a film that has been drowning in controversy since it was announced, especially amongst Chicagoans who took offense to a film carrying that title. “Chi-raq” is the Windy City’s unwanted nickname, spurred by its murder statistics. Apparently, more lives have been lost in this city to gun violence than in the US military during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So Chi-raq is a bitter moniker and it is telling a single and incomplete story about the Second City.
People have not been silent about letting Spike know that they do not approve of his latest project owning that name. The trailers dropped and voices raised anew, pissed that he dared to do this. But never has Mr. Lee gave a damb about people’s feelings. He is committed to the art he wants to make and he will see it through. Which, he did.
I went to the Chicago premiere of Chi-Raq at the Chicago Theater on Sunday, November 22. If all that wasn’t “Chicago” enough, the outfits that people had on surely were. People showed up in all manners of fur, and the full-length joints with the matching headgear were in full effect. Why? Because we cannot be outdone. It was so Chi that I got bashful. And my double-breasted pea coat did not measure up.
The lights went down in the theater, and the movie started with a 3 minute long rap called “Pray 4 My City” on a black screen with lyrics in red, talking about the violence in Chicago. You knew what you were in for. Spike is just unable to subtle. He be subtlety-deficient. There is no guessing with him. You KNOW what the message is because not only does he beat you over the head with it, he will make you an mp3 file so you can listen to it as you take a concussion-induced nap.
Chi-Raq is inspired by a Greek play called “Lysistrata” about a woman who leads other women on a sex strike to end a war. This film places the premise on the southside of Chicago, where warring gangs are claiming innocent victims. Children are being gunned down on the streets because 2 gangs (the Trojans and the Spartans) can’t keep the peace. A woman named Lysistrata (played by the dope Teyonah Parris) is the girlfriend of the leader of the Spartans. His street name is Chi-raq (real name: Demetrius) and he is played by Nick Cannon. She decides to get her fellow women together and shut shit down on the bedroom front for the greater good with the chants “No Peace, No Pussy.”
I am giving nothing away here. This is all in the trailers that dropped.
Can we talk about the fact that Nick Cannon played the thuggiest dude in the film? That is how you know this is satire. Mariah’s ex got about as much street cred as Verne Troyer. He committed to it, though. I just had to keep myself from chuckling when I’d see his mean mug. It was adorable. Oh and Wesley Snipes plays the leader of the Trojans. He goes by “Cyclops” and he rocks an eye patch. It’s hilarious.
There’s also a narrator who shatters the 4th wall and tells us what is happening. His name is Dolmedes, and he is played by the blackest person ever: Samuel L. Jackson.
He also wears the finest of Steve Harvey 3-piece pastel suits throughout. Orange, green, yellow, purple. K&G must have supplied them. Whatever message you might have missed, Sam was there to remind you. Which brings me to the writing in this movie.
The script. It was really heavy-handed. Maybe I am to blame. Maybe it has been too long since I watched a Spike Lee production but my goodness. I caught myself laughing sometimes because it was like someone told someone else to write this so even 4 year olds could understand. Everything was explained and over-explained. But what irked me the most is that the characters spoke in rhyme. Like everyone was in a spoken word competition they didn’t inform us about. It was cute the first 5 minutes but by minute 30, when one sentence ended with “fun” and the other with “done” I was kinda annoyed.
What I really liked about this film was the collection of talented people in it, especially the women. Teyonah Parris in the lead was my favorite thing. She pops off that screen. Also, I need to know that lip color she was rocking throughout the film. That matte purple is a star in its own right. Her styling was impeccable. She was basically Foxy Brown incarnate and I loved it.
Angela Bassett was in it, and she can do no wrong, in my book. Aunty Angie is a legend for a reason, and even she brings some comedy into this. And some cussing. Jennifer Hudson as a grieving mother was on point. Our girl has come a long way since Dreamgirls and she brought layers you might not know she would have. Sadly, it might be because she’s suffered loss at the hands of gun violence too. Maybe she tapped into that.
John Cusack was also delightful and passionate in his role as Father Michael Pfleger (aka Father Mike Corridan).
There’s a bunch of Black glitterati cameos in here too. Dave Chappelle, Harry Lennix, Steve Harris (who I loved in The Practice). I kept looking for Clifton Powell, because he manages to show up in random shit but I was sorely disappointed. You cannot have a collection of Black folks in a movie without Clifton at least strolling past the screen. Come on, fam.
Chicago is home for me, and I HATE hearing people call it Chi-Raq. I hate it dearly. But I’ve stayed out the fray happening with the title of this film because art is supposed to push things to the edge, right? My problem with the movie has never been the title, because movies do tell that ONE story. Unfortunately, the one that Chicago is most known for currently is the murders and chaos. My city has a PR problem, and Spike is exploiting it. I understand the backlash.
Chi-Raq is a 2-hour lecture, and it is clear in its rebuke of the toll that gun violence has had on Chicago’s southside. It admonishes it, it wishes it could go away and it wonders how we can do it. We are told “This is an emergency” multiple times in case we didn’t get that. It’s a comedy that wishes it could be a documentary, and it wants us to WAKE UP.
I appreciate Spike Lee for his commitment to making grand statements about our absurd society with his films. I don’t always like his techniques but I am a proponent of using your art to say something that matters. No, I don’t think it offers much of a solution. Surely, the power of the P-U-S-S-Y ain’t the only thing we need to stop the violence in our marginalized communities. Although, Spike now suggests that women should try it to stop rapes happening on college campuses. We’re just going to say he was bullshitting on that because I can’t even.
Anywho, I honestly cannot tell you if I liked this film, because I haven’t even decided that for myself. I cannot figure out whether I liked it or not, which is odd for me. I was never bored, because visually, it is hella entertaining, and the soundtrack is also dope. But do I think it was GOOD? I don’t know.
However, I think you should go see it, if for nothing else, just so you aren’t left out of the loud conversations that will happen in the coming weeks because of it. Basically, I think you should go see it because: FOMO (fear of missing out). I’m curious to see how people react to it. If they will love it, hate it or be in opinion purgatory, like me. Either way, this film will have people talking.
Chi-Raq is in theaters on Friday, December 4. So you got a week. Are you gonna go see it? Are you boycotting? Lemme know.