Classic Movie Review: Chi-raq (2015)

Posted: February 15, 2016 in Comedy, Drama
Tags: , , , ,


Chi-raq (Nick Cannon)  is a rapper and gang leader of the Spartans in modern day Chicago.  During a performance, members of a rival gang, named the Trojans, try to kill Chi-raq. Chi-raq and his girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) escape unscathed, but that incident combined with the shooting of a little girl named Patty shakes Lysistrata to her core.  While staying with a learned woman named Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) Lysistrata learns about a woman in Liberia who ended the second civil war there by banding all of the women together and making them withhold sex from the male soldiers.  That gives Lysistrata an idea on how to stop the shootings and violence in Chicago, a sex strike.  She starts small with the girlfriends of the Trojans, but soon the idea takes root, and Lysistrata and a small army of women take over an armory in Chicago.

Patty’s mother Irene (Jennifer Hudson) and a priest in her church, Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) try a more conventional way to find Patty’s killer, they offer a 5,000 dollar reward for any information on the killer.  Three months after the sex strike has begun, police commissioner Blades (Harry Lennix) is under intense pressure from the mayor of Chicago (DB Sweeney to end the strike, but the strike has gone to the White House and worldwide. Does Lysistrata get the peace treaty she wants, or does Chi-raq break the strike? Do the priest and Irene find Patty’s killer?

Chi-rac is an incredible movie.  It’s based on an ancient Greek play called Lysistrata by Aristophanes.  Some of the dialogue rhymes, I don’t know if that is a tip of the cap to Shakespearian quatrains or rap music, but it makes the movie more lyrical and whimsical.  Another aspect of the movie that I like is that it incorporates all aspects of African American life in the search for a solution to the problem of violence, including the black church, so many films forget that the black church is a vital part of African American life, Spike Lee includes the church, and I thought that added to the authenticity.  Lee knows there’s lots of blame to go around, so he spreads blame evenly, institutional racism, the gun lobby, the youth who glamorize the gang culture, none of the targets escape blame.  The comedy at times is a bit broad, but at its best reminds me of Dr. Strangelove. Any writer that can balance laughter and pathos like Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott do, they deserve credit for the effort.

I have one complaint about the acting, and that is the choice of Nick Cannon as a gangster rapper, no matter how hard Cannon tries, (tattoos, muscles, trying hard to look like Tupac) it just doesn’t work, he can’t ditch that clean-cut image.  The rest of the cast is stunningly good, Teyonah Parris owns this role, she is a strong woman who uses sex as a weapon, and realizes the power of that weapon.  It would have been easy to make Lysistrata a superficial woman, obsessed with her looks, but Parris gave the character depth.  She was also good in Dear White People.  Angela Basset is incredible as a woman who has lost a daughter to gun violence, and wants the next generation to learn lessons from the reckless violence before it’s too late.  There’s a lot of anger simmering just below the surface of the Helen character, and Bassett only wants to show so much. Jennifer Hudson gives a great performance of just pure raw emotion of a parent who’s just lost a child, it’s compelling.  John Cusack’s roaring performance as Father Corridan is spellbinding, it is no doubt based on father Michael Phleger , a real life Chicago priest, and social activist.  Cusack, Hudson, or Bassett could have easily been nominated for Oscars.

Like all Spike Lee films this movie pops with color.  There are all kinds of visual cues that control the mood.  The juxtaposition of scenes is masterful, just when the viewer thinks this is a comedy, Lee pulls the viewer back to reality, and shows what this film is about, the pacing is brisk, and Lee gets great performances from the whole cast.

Chi-raq:  Not shy at all.


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