James Cole Clay // Film Critic
Spike Lee has always been one to stoke the fire of controversy and bring the hammer down on social ideologies. The filmmaker is said to be an angry man, but really he’s misunderstood, which stems from his passion for the work and bludgeoning you over the head with a message.
Lee is polarizing– that’s been known for decades, but it’s all about starting a conversation. And while his latest CHI-RAQ is uneven, the film incites a conversation that otherwise would have never been set in motion.
This is a meaty and ambitious project with lots of faces, names and concepts to wrap your head around. Lee and fellow screenwriter Kevin Willlmott (he conceptualized the film’s narrative after the Greek play LYSISTRATA) aren’t going to hold your hand through the rhyming prose that serves as the film’s dialogue. While, the prose of CHI-RAQ is made to ebb and flow through the story, it’s offset by the incendiary themes that show Mr. Lee is a human being with his tongue firmly implanted in cheek. The satire here works as a thesis and Lee isn’t afraid to talk over people who aren’t listening if that gets the point across.
Although the political officials of Chicago took issue with the film’s title, it’s clear there’s lots of love for the city, which according to opening text has a higher murder rate than the entire nation of Iraq during wartime. The profound comedy and utter tragedy form a marriage that’s more eloquent and precise than any social justice warrior has proven thus far.
Pulsating with a chip on his shoulder, underground rapper Demetrius (Nick Cannon) goes by the stage name “Chi-Raq.” He embodies the pointed problem which Lee is trying to exercise. Cannon carries this burden on camera (albeit a curious casting choice initially) with ease. Chi-Raq’s confidence takes a turn when he becomes under fire after a shooting at one of his concerts between his gang Spartans vs. a rival gang led by Cyclops – played by a guy formerly known as Wesley Snipes – that leads to a series events which opens the door for his girlfriend’s Lysistrata’s (Teyonah Parris) plight to come into play.
If you know the play in any fashion (which I personally did not), Lysistrata corrals the women of South Side Chicago to deny the men sex. They adopt the mantra “No Peace, No P**sy.” Yes, the statement is vulgar but it incites more media attention than a local women Irene (Jennifer Hudson) whose little girl was just killed by a stray bullet.
It’s heartbreaking, but there’s also some serious tom-foolery at play. The story-telling method is constantly changing from a one-man chorus line Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson), whose wonderful voice narrates as rival gang members break the fourth wall by talking about war stories and hospital injuries. As the white preacher in a black church Mike Corrigan (John Cusack) hams in up with honesty and conviction with just a twinge of a wink. His crowning moment is a non-rhyming speech where he mixes church and state by discussing Black Lives Matter and other pertinent issues. While this could be qualified as unethical church is the institution that brings that community together and Lee is saying “this is the time, this has got to be the place and there’s no other way.”
CHI-RAQ is as raw as anything Lee has made to date. He typically works best within the realms of satire, and that’s no secret. He remains an ambitious filmmaker that longs to tell a story that will mean a great deal those willing to open their ears and hearts. It’s a boisterous project that doesn’t care who is looking, nor should it because Lee has a way of making anger incredibly thoughtful as well as entertaining.
CHI-RAQ opens today and will be available to stream on Amazon in the near future.