Chi-Raq – A Review By Liz Casanova


By Liz Casanova

Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, John Cusack and Jennifer Hudson

Written by Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee and Aristophanes (based on the play Lysistrata)

Directed by Spike Lee

Running time 118 min

MPAA rating R

Selig Film Rating Dollar

It is said that art often imitates life. And no other film is more relevant to the times than Spike Lee's Chi-Raq. The setting is Southside Chicago, which is sardonically referred to as Chi-Raq. Lee immediately supports the point by presenting statistics that compare the Iraq and Afghanistan death tolls to Chicago's, from 2011 to present day. After the stage is set, the everyday lives of criminals and innocents give the audience a peek of a community riddled with violence. 

Chi-Raq is actually Lee's ghetto fabulous version of the play Lysistrata by Aristophanes. Anyone who took a literature or theater class will vaguely remember that it's a satire about a woman who has the brilliant idea of stopping the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex from her man. In Chi-Raq, the sexy neigborhood queen, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), builds an army of 'sexless sistas' to force their men to give up their guns. Chi-Raq also happens to be the name of Lysistrata's man, played by the incredibly intense Nick Cannon. On the flip side, there are the innocents, include grieving mother Irene (Jennifer Hudson), Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) and community organizer Miss Helen. It is truly a war of interests. 

As always, Lee excels in casting. There is a parade of old-school actors, but the surprises come from Cannon, Parris and Hudson. Cannon especially is transformed from that guy who was married to Mariah Carey, and hosts America's Got Talent, to a hardened and heartless street lord. It's equivalent to the shock of hearing Wayne Brady or Bob Saget use foul language. Cannon, however, shocks with the ability to harness a depth that usually only seasoned actors can pull off. Hudson too is convincing as the mother whose young daughter is senslessly murderd at the playground.  

The greatness of Chi-Raq is those serious moments that pull us in the story and lets us relate and not relate. It's an interesting balance of knowing what the characters feel like when it comes to the emotional moments, as well as introduce a situation that the majority of middle America feel alienated from. There is also the device of using poetry instead of straight dialog. It keeps the audience paying attention and gives a musical element. Speaking of music, the soundtrack is solid, including tracks by R. Kelly, Jhene Aiko and Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers.

But as awesome as the first half of the film is, it has its irritating pitfalls. Chi-Raq is a satire and there are plenty of comedic moments. However, at times it pulled me out of the film. I can pinpoint it to the scene where Lysistrata invades the military compound. Without giving too much away, she seduces a racist general, pulling down Confederate flags and shaking her booty. It is a little too Mel Brooks and the racism narrative feels forced. What starts out as an intellectual and artistic discussion about the situation in Chicago, turns into a watered down political rant. I'm not discouraging political themes in films (Lee especially should be discussing it) but there is no added value. It is too obvious, when the film starts out so beautifully character driven.  

There is a lot of movement currently going on in the Chicago Police Department that is deliciously foreshadowed. But I left the theater a little disappointed. Lee had the opportunity to go deeper than what we see on the news, but instead Chi-Raq ends up preaching to the choir. However, if you go in knowing you're not going to see the best Spike Lee film ever, it's worth checking out for the comedy and admissible theme.  I have deep mixed feelings about Chi-Raq. As a Spike Lee fan, I really wanted to love it. Like how I really love 25th Hour and She's Gotta Have It. Chi-Raq lacks that independent filmmaking spirit that would have made it epic. 

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