Michelle Mitchenor, Teyonah Parris, Ebony Joy, and Anya Engel-Adams star in writer/director Spike Lee’s ‘Chi-Raq’
The energy of Chi-Raq is infectious — you can’t help but be swept away in the ferocity and poignancy of the speeches being delivered by the group of actors. It fits that most of the movie is recited in rhyme because the message has a poetic quality to it — falling off their lips in a way that seems both dreamlike and whimsical — but reality isn’t pretty and while the rhymes and rhythms seem bouncy, Chi-Raq never steers from the truths.
The most enamoring quality of the latest film from Spike Lee is its immediacy. This is a film made in 2015 that encompasses the social dialogue of the year in a way few films can. Guns, Black Lives Matter, and violence in Chicago have been apart of headlines throughout the year and Lee brings them together in a way that reminds us of the scary reality we are living in, but does it in fulfilling way that you almost feel like something is being done to fix these wrongs — even though that is wishful.
Starting with a rap from Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), the film is a modern re-telling of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata with the Peloponnesian War being substituted for gang wars in Chicago in the present day. At the head of it is Chi-Raq, a local rap artist, who also is dating Lysistrata (Teyonnah Parris).
After a rival gang lights her house on fire while she is inside with Chi-Raq, she becomes angry with the amount of gang violence and guns in her neighborhood and teams with other women in the area to enact a sex strike. The men will put down their guns if they want to get down with their ladies again.
Parris commands the lead with a strong-willed ferocity, echoing the atmosphere Lee is capturing with this film. Her voice carries with purpose and definition, which again falls in line with the director’s vision. Chi-Raq is a flawed film that falls too often into saggy pacing and irrelevant sequences — but when it works, man, does it work. Words fly like daggers through silk, and the faults are swiftly forgotten.
In what could be the most powerful scene, Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) speaks to his congregation following the death of a child in the community. The child’s mother, Irene (Jennifer Hudson), sits in front and weeps as Father Corridan challenges the community to rise up and not allow these acts to continue. Lee and Cusack make us feel as if we are also in the audience and Father Corridan is speaking to the people in the theater as much as he is speaking to the people of this congregation.
The immediacy of his words is what strikes you most — dropping in modern references to make it feel even more relevant to today. The events in Chi-Raq are absurd for the most part — as much as I would like to think a Confederate-favoring general rode atop a cannon in his boxers — but it finds the truth in these absurdities and allows for Lee to touch and challenge us as much as Father Corridan does.
Chi-Raq is not perfect, but neither are we, and neither is this world. We have the power to change what is happening and by sitting idly, we allow nothing to happen. The cast speaks to the camera — almost as if no camera were there — and forces us to understand the climate of the situation. Chi-Raq may not be perfect cinematically, but it works perfect as a call to action and a wake-up to the society we have built for ourselves.