Chi-Raq | reviews, news & interviews
All singing, all dancing: Spike Lee puts a gloss on gang violence in Chicago
“This is an emergency. Homicides in Chicago, Illinois have surpassed the death toll of American special forces in Iraq.” This news bulletin forms the opening of Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, pronounced Shy-Rack, a stylised, bombastic take on the gang violence that’s decimating Chicago’s South Side (7,916 Americans have been killed there since 2001, as opposed to 6,888 in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Based on the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes in which women ended the Peloponnesian war by withholding sex, Lee’s advice is for the ladies of the ‘hood to do the same until their men have put down their guns. Or, as the sisters have it, “No peace, no pussy”.
Just like the original, Chi-Raq, co-written with Kevin Willmott, is mainly in verse – yes, verse, though there’s a hiphop/rap soundtrack as well, featuring R Kelly and Mali Music, among others. Samuel L Jackson is Dolmedes, a one-man Greek chorus (pictured below). “Welcome to Chi-Raq, land of pain, misery and strife,” he begins, swinging a cane and wearing the first of a selection of pimped-up suits, ties and hats. Lysistrata (the vibrant Teyonah Parris, recently in Dear White People and formerly Don Draper’s secretary in Mad Men) is the girlfriend of gangsta rapper Demetrius “Chi-raq” Dupree (Nick Cannon), head of the Spartan gang, locked in rivalry with the Trojans, led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes with an eye-patch and a weird giggle).
She is OK with the gang-banging status quo – “Everyone here got a man bangin’ and slangin’ / fighting for the flag / and risking that long zip of the cadaver bag". Then an 11-year-old girl is killed (off-screen – we don't see much violence) in a drive-by shooting. (Last year – in real life – a nine-year-old boy was killed as part of gang retaliation.) The girl’s mother, in a moving performance by Jennifer Hudson, whose mother, brother and seven-year-old nephew were killed in 2008 in gang-related murders (real-life again), scrubs the blood, hyper-real, crimson and foamy, off the pavement. She appeals for witnesses but no one comes forward, even after the local church, led by Father Mike Corrigan (John Cusack, looking very white) offers a reward. Corrigan is based on celebrated Chicago activist Father Michael Pfleger, who was a consultant for the movie and whose foster son was killed by gunfire.
Lysistrata is horror-struck and moved to act, influenced by intellectual Miss Helen (the formidable Angela Bassett, who was also in Lee’s Malcolm X and is now in Stephen Poliakoff’s Close to the Enemy). In one of the more thought-provoking scenes, Miss Helen sees off a vile life-insurance salesman who’s pressurising her to take a policy out on her nephew. Lysistrata unifies the women of the two gangs – this is strictly musical-fantasy land, so nothing makes much sense – and gets them to agree to “deny all rights of access and entrance” because "saving lives is our job, it’s ‘bout breaking strife / givin’ da hood da true meaning of life”. Soon the no-peace-no-pussy cause goes global – Brazil, Lahore, Santo Domingo, Montreal and more are all in on it.
There’s plenty of raunchy dancing, singing, craziness and sex, with strip-joints unable to open because of the edict: “The situation’s out of control / Because I’m in front of an empty stripper pole,” proclaims Dave Chappelle in a cameo, not very funnily. It’s all frenzied, dazzling and finally empty, in spite of Corrigan’s impassioned words from the funeral pulpit about self-inflicted genocide and mass incarceration as a “legal form of lynching”, as well as a scene where real women holding up pictures of their dead children surround Chi-raq.
But Lee doesn’t tackle any of the complex reasons for gun violence – the fracturing of gangs, leaving them leaderless and anarchic; the hopelessness of young men without prospects; the dismantling of public housing. He thinks he can reach more people in a feature film (it’s the first production by Amazon Original Movies) than with a documentary. But why? Lee’s HBO doc about New Orleans after Katrina, When the Levees Broke, was a triumph and gave people a voice. Sadly, I can’t imagine that Chi-Raq is going to reach Lee’s intended demographic – the gang members – nor inspire them to lay down their guns.
Overleaf: watch the trailer for Chi-Raq
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