By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
Spike Lee’s newest film, like several of his previous ones, has a message, and in light of the amount of violence in the news this year, it is a highly relevant and important one. Chi-raq keeps its commentary on violence closer to home and in the streets where, on a daily basis, gang violence claims not only the lives of those who live by the sword, but also innocent bystanders that often get caught in the crossfire. Lee has cleverly adapted Aristophanes’ classic play Lysistrata, a satirical comedy that targets the violence of war. The results are quite creative, imaginative, and often powerful, but juggling comedy and the delivery of his message in this film proves to be a problematic task.
In Chicago’s Southside, some of the residents refer to their city as Chi-raq due to the escalation of urban gang violence in recent decades. Chi-raq also happens to be the stage name of an ambitious rapper and leader of the Spartan gang (Nick Cannon). Fed up with all of the violence that gets closer and closer to home, Chi-raq’s girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonnah Parris) decides to take action. Lysistrata and her closest friends form a truce with the girlfriends of the rival Trojan gang and rally more women to their cause. Their cause calls for peace, or their men will never, ever have physical relations with them ever again.
Adapted by Kevin Willmott and Lee, the modern-day version of Lysistrata is a very thoughtful, entertaining, and highly ambitious film. Lee has basically made a rap opera, with most of the dialogue consisting of verses and rhymes. The comedic lyrics range from hysterically funny to annoyingly over-the-top. The more serious lyrics range from intelligent and haunting to overly preachy. I had some trouble taking some moments entirely seriously because of their cartoonish and over-the-top presentation.
Overall, it is a good movie with the heart of the filmmakers in the right place, but it certainly is not a superb piece. The film does effectively remind people of the violence that takes place in the lower socio-economic areas of this country’s cities and calls into question the absurdity behind gang warfare and the lifestyle. I really do hope it is a wake-up call to anyone involved in such foolishness. Thankfully, Lee never glorifies anything associated with the life.
Chi-raq has a mostly amazing cast who commits to the style and rhythm of movie with maybe a few questionable acting choices. Nick Cannon delivers a solid credible performance as the title character, a man dedicated to being a hardcore “gangsta,” but also conflicted with the consequences of his behavior and the loss of love from his lady Lysistrata. The lovely and passionate Teyonnah Parris is the real star of this film. As the leader of the anti-gang resistance, she has natural charisma, strength and prowess. The movie also features some great work by Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, and Steve Harris. As rival gang leader Cyclops, Wesley Snipes doesn’t have much to do, but occasionally act silly and cartoonish. The other superstar of this show would be the awesome and badass “mofo” himself, Samuel L. Jackson.
Jackson stars as Dolmedes, the narrator of the story from whom the “dopest” verses in the film are spoken. His material ranges from super cool to uproariously funny. It is an absolute joy to have him on the screen to break down the different acts of the film. I cannot see anyone more suitable for that role other than this “righteous one.”
So regardless of the movie’s flaws, I will strongly recommend this film, but with some reservations. For one thing, the strong language and explicit sexual content may be off-putting to more reserved audience members. The MPA has given it an R-rating and the film wears it proudly. My other reservations have to do with the issues I mentioned above. Still, it is exciting to see an imaginative, creative and fresh movie from director Spike Lee, a director who has struggled with some of his more recent films. This movie may not achieve the greatness of his masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, but it is a step in the right direction.