‘Chi-Raq’: Spike Lee’s look at Chicago’s pain is flawed, frustrating but focused

photo by: Parrish Lewis, Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios
Photo by: Parrish Lewis, Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios

Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq opens with a declaration of emergency and shortly thereafter, you hear the voice of Father Michael Pfleger, a white priest from Chicago’s South Side who has long been active against violence in the community. “Homicides in Chicago, Illnois have surpassed the death toll of Americans in Iraq,” Pfleger’s voiceover declares. The pain of a community sits centerstage in this film, and the movie’s idiosyncrasies don’t drown out that pain — nor do they truly amplify or effectively capture it.

Nick Cannon stars as Demetrius aka “Chiraq,” a gang leader who runs with the Spartans on Chicago’s South Side. His rival is an older banger named Cyclops, gleefully played by Wesley Snipes, who heads the Trojans of Troytown. In the center of their conflict is their community — and their women. After she Googles Leymah Gbowee, who organized the Women in Peacebuilding Network in Liberia and started a “sex strike” in response to the 2nd Liberian Civil War, Chiraq’s girlfriend Lysistrata leads the women in the community in a sexual hold-out to convince their men to put down their guns. The action both inspires and provokes, as the bangers come to grips with their lifestyle and Lysistrata becomes the leader of a movement.

With the classical play Lysistrata as its inspiration, Chi-Raq’s satirical soul often makes for an uncomfortably gripping experience. The film doesn’t mock or minimize the reality of Chicago’s violence — it does a lot in terms of exploring the various elements that got us here while also pointing a damning finger at everyone from insurance companies to politicians. It’s inspirations also play heavily into the direct approach; the characters speak heavily in rhyme and the violence on-screen is minimal. The “Greek chorus” of the movie, as it were, is the affable Dolmedes, as played by Samuel L. Jackson. Like a street savvy preacher — or a pimp with a heart of gold — Dolmedes gives the audience context and enlightment as to the goings-on around the South Side and Jackson plays him with just the right amount of humor and wisdom.

Lee isn’t known for his subtlety and Chi-Raq doesn’t subdue its messages. The film attacks the socio-economic indifference that resulted in inner city blight, the racism that fueled that indifference and the bangers who are now soldiers in a war that was created for them but not by them. Much of the film’s sermonizing comes, not surprisingly, from John Cusack as Father Corridan, who is based on Pfleger. In eulogizing a slain child, Corridan references things like the prison industrial complex and gun laws; and he later talks to Lysistrata and her cohorts about the Charleston shooting as it relates to historical racism. The other half of the film’s moral core is Miss Helen, a neighborhood matriarch played by Angela Bassett who serves as counsel for Lysistrata and the community’s conscience.

But the film’s heart and soul is Teyonah Parris. After first gaining notice as Dawn on Mad Men and in Dear White People last year, the actress really comes to the fore in Chi-Raq. As Lysistrata, she commands the screen in a way that evokes Pam Grier (and a younger Bassett) and shows that she’s as adept tackling broad comedy as she is with melodrama. Lee’s track record with female leads in spotty (to be kind) but Parris as Lysistrata never feels like an exploitative character and a lot of the credit should go to the actress. There may be bigger names in the cast but this feels like her movie.

As Demetrius, Cannon does well in scenes where he has to do more with less. He shows himself to be a capable actor in the movie’s most subdued moments, like when he’s discussing his father or talking to a wheelchair-bound former gangbanger about how futile this whole conflict really is. It’s easy to dismiss Cannon as a goofball lightweight, but the guy has real talent and dramatic chops—even in the movie’s more intense scenes.

There are obvious misfires. A scene in which Lysistrata seduces a racist horndog general (David Patrick Kelly) into giving her access to an armory stops the film dead in its tracks for a jarringly unfunny segment involving dry-humping a Civil War cannon; and Jennifer Hudson’s Irene character is too under-developed to ever register as more than a symbolic plot device. This is unfortunate because Irene represents the pain of so many who have lost loved ones as bystanders to senseless violence, but Lee doesn’t give the Oscar winner enough screen time for the audience to connect with her or care about how she’s coping with the loss of her young daughter. It does the film a disservice and indicates that Parris’ sex strike and Cannon’s inner turmoil are more of a priority for the storyteller than this mother’s pain, but it isn’t a fatal flaw.

Chi-Raq makes up for what it lacks in character with an overabundance of spirit. This is an energetic film, pulsating with music and rhythm — from Lysistrata’s triumphant strut through her neighborhood to the often-rhyming dialogue. The movie sits in an uncomfortable space — presenting a harsh reality in a setting that isn’t altogether realistic — but the satire affords the viewer the luxury of cringe-laughing one second and pondering the severity of what’s at stake in the next. In that respect, Spike Lee has made his most affecting movie in years. Whether or not this is the film that Chicago wanted or needed remains to be seen.

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