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Welcome to “Chi-Raq”: Spike Lee’s latest film draws from Greek tragedy

Director Spike Lee harkens back to his early career.
courtesy of Wikimedia
Director Spike Lee harkens back to his early career.

To say that filmmaker Spike Lee is a controversial character would be an understatement. Ever since his first feature films like “Do the Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever,” Lee has charged head first into arguments with Charlton Heston and Clint Eastwood, most often ending up with more mud on himself than the opposing side. Regardless of this, one thing is certainly admirable about Lee: no matter what, he is never afraid to speak his mind and stand by his words, no matter what anyone else might think. 

So, when the award winning director was forced to bring his latest “joint” to Amazon because no other studio wanted to go near it, many people — myself included — were all ears. While Lee has faced some issues getting his movies put out there in the past, for entire movie companies to pass on it meant that whatever he had planned must truly be an interesting watch, whether good or bad. Lo and behold, Lee has found his groove again after all these years, “Chi-Raq” being one the director’s best works.

Taking inspiration from the Greek play “Lysistrata,” the film opens up with the city of Chicago suffering another death of a child due to a stray bullet from a gang shootout. 

For the residents of the city, this is nothing new for them, no matter how terrible. Because the total amount of gun related deaths in the city during 2014 is higher than the death toll of soldiers in Iraq, it has sadly become an accepted fate that most will eventually die at the end of a gun barrel. 

However, for Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), the girlfriend of the leader of the Spartan gang (Nick Cannon), it will be the last death. She convinces all the women in Chicago — strippers and prostitutes included — to refuse to offer sex to any male in the city until the violence and death is stopped once and for all.

From there, comedic hijinks ensue, but to limit it to that one genre would be incorrect, as “Chi-Raq” is so much more. Sometimes it’s a musical where everyone breaks out into a dance number as the military launches an attack via smooth jazz, then it’s a heartbreaking drama as a mother weeps for her dead daughter and next it’s a steamy romance flick as Chi-Raq attempts to seduce Lysistrata. Not to mention the fantastic lyrical rhyming throughout most of the dialogue which pays homage to the movie’s theatrical roots, as well as adding an interesting rap/hip-hop flavor to the debates that take place later on in the plot. While all these may sound like a complete tonal mess on paper, it works surprisingly well when combined with Lee’s passion for the various issues that he tackles throughout the movie.

While a good script and passion can do wonders for any movie, the biggest surprise here is how well-acted and good-looking “Chi-Raq” is. With a well-known cast staring the likes of John Cusack, Wesley Snipes and Jennifer Hudson, Amazon and Lee obviously didn’t kid around with the budget. Even Teyonah Parris, a relative unknown until recently, will certainly be getting more work after her role here as Lysistrata, and Nick Cannon did much better than anyone expected him to do. However, Samuel L. Jackson steals the show, as usual, with his role as the humorous Greek chorus, putting his own charm into his interpretations of the events occurring on screen.

However, “Chi-Raq” certainly isn’t without its issues. The film drags on for longer than it should, mostly due to a fifteen minute church scene that hurts Lee’s maniac energy. Some of the humor isn’t as funny as it thinks that it is, like one section where an elderly army general who happens to be a massive fan of the stars and bars goes overboard. The ending is a bit of a letdown as well — a massive convenience is revealed just to wrap up on the story on a happy note.

With awards season coming up, I can safely say that “Chi-Raq” probably won’t be nominated for best picture or any of the major categories. Does that mean that you shouldn’t watch it when it hits Amazon later in January? Absolutely not. In the end, Lee didn’t seem to be aiming for awards, but rather trying to get a message out about the horrors happening right here in America. The movie will probably garner much controversy for what some of the characters have to say about feminism, the NRA and police brutality, but interestingly, it doesn’t present any of them as the main problem or a solution to all the violence occurring. The film’s goal is to get people talking about these issues, whether by conservatives, liberals or anyone else, and in that regard, “Chi-Raq” is an absolute success.

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