Review by Pamela Zoslov
Where Spike Lee goes,
controversy inevitably follows. The latest imbroglio for the
58-year-old filmmaker was over the making of CHI-RAQ, a film
about gun violence, in Chicago. Windy City mayor Rahm Emanuel
objected to the title, which uses a street nickname — pronounced
“Shy-rak” — that likens the gun-plagued city to war-torn Iraq.
Emanuel gave Lee the go-ahead anyway, over objections of Chicago
alderman Will Burns, who said the title would hurt Chicago's brand,
labeling as violent “whole parts of the city,” where people
“already walk around with a chip on their shoulders.” Media
outlets piled on Lee, a resident of Brooklyn, for focusing on the
violence in Chicago. And the Huffington Post wrote a damning screed
against the movie, based solely on the pre-release trailer!
Well, Lee didn't name the
city “Chiraq” — that moniker was earned by bloody statistics.
Forty-five people shot during Easter weekend in 2015, six of them
children. Five kids under 15 shot in a playground where they had gone
following Easter services. The weekend before that, 37 people were
shot, four of them dead. Over the July 4 weekend, 82 people shot, 14
of them dead. All of these lost souls –— daughters, sons,
sisters, brothers, fathers — victims of gang warfare. Occasionally
the violence has received national focus, as when Hadiya Pendleton,
the 15-year-old honor student who sang at President Obama's second
inauguration, was killed just a week later by a stray bullet, less than a
mile from the president's Chicago home. “Until we do something
about guns,” said Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy,
“don't expect things to change overnight.”
That is the setting for CHI-RAQ, Lee's 58th film, a stylized modern adaptation of
Aristophanes' Lysistrata, the famous satire from 411 BCE
about one woman's mission to end the nearly three-decade
Peloppenesian War by engaging her fellow women in withholding sexual
favors from their husbands until they agree to a truce. Gorgeous
Teyonah Parris is the film's Lysistrata, the girlfriend of notorious
gangster Chiraq (Nick Cannon). The couple's relationship is a very
sexy one (“Ready for daddy to smash that cake? You're finer than
The movie, co-written by
Kevin Willmott, is electric, crackling with energy, music, swagger
and sex – and language, much of it, impressively, in verse. Not
for everyone is the ribald language — “No peace, no pussy”;
“total abstinence from knockin' the boots”; couplets rhyming
“conjugal couch/nappy pouch” “Do your duty/Give up that booty”
— but, combined with the passionate condemnation of gun violence
and its roots in corrupt politics – the film is a balls-out
masterpiece. It's the first film produced by Amazon Studios, which
greenlighted the project after other studios passed.
This very theatrical piece is
entertainingly narrated by the stylish Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson),
wearing an orange three-piece suit and carrying a gold lion-topped
An ongoing gang war between
Troy Town and the Spartans and one night shooting breaks out at a
hip-hop club. Later that night, Chiraq and Lysistrata's apartment is
set afire. Scared and weary of the violence, Lysistrata seeks refuge
with wise, older Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), who long ago lived in
the notorious Cabrini-Green apartments and is no stranger to gun
violence. Seated on Miss Helen's couch, Lysistrata asks, “Where's
your flat screen?” but soon is persuaded to research Leyman Gbowee,
a Liberian activist who promoted the idea of a sex strike for peace.
She determines to enlist her friends, and all the women in Englewood
and eventually all over the U.S and abroad, to join the movement.
The film weaves the story of
the women's abstinence movement, by turns serious and absurd, with
the story of the killing of a little girl, Patti, by a stray bullet.
Her mother, Irene, is played with genuine anguish by Jennifer Hudson,
whose mother, brother and 7-year-old nephew were murdered in Chicago
in 2008. Few scenes in film, or in life, are sadder than the sight of
a little girl's beribboned hair peeking out of a body bag, a bereaved
mother scrubbing her daughter's blood from a sidewalk, or weeping at
the funeral of her baby girl.
Lee does a couple of
interesting things in CHI-RAQ. Patti's funeral is in a Catholic
church (with a black Jesus), and the fiery eulogy is delivered by a
white priest, Father Mike Corridan, played by Chicago resident John
Cusack, an actor known for his political activism. There's genuine passion in his screed from the pulpit, decrying lax gun laws, the
“urban murder reality gun show” that has children “admiring the
thug life.” His sermon drills deeper. “Because our politicians
are in the pocket of the NRA! Because of an economy that has
abandoned the poor!” Poor people, he declaims, go “from
third-rate schools to first-class high-tech prisons.”
The church, St. Sabana's,
offers a $5,000 reward for information about little Patti's killer,
and no one will come forward. Father Corridan and Irene desperately
pass out flyers on the streets and are met with indifference.
Lysistrata and 74 other
“unarmed women of color” invade and occupy the city's National
Guard Armory, following a wildly ridiculous mock seduction that finds
General King Kong (David Patrick Kelly) riding an antique cannon and
stripping down to his Confederate flag undies. Mayor McLoud (D.B.
Cooper) is upset, not least because his former stripper wife is also
denying him sex, and the police decide to “Noriega” the Armory,
playing on huge loudspeakers “slow jams from the '70s” –
namely, the Chi-Lites' “Oh Girl” –— in order to get the women
back with their men. They call it “Operation Hot and Bothered.”
This is a film that would
work quite well as a stage piece, with a series of choreographed set
pieces like the slow, sensual group dance in the Armory gym, the
divided chorus of men's and women's picket lines, climaxing, as it
were, in a sexual pas de deux between Lysistrata and Chi-Raq,
complete with a brass bed.
Reality intersects with
fiction and myth. There's a very moving march across a bridge —
“Chicago peace is our Selma” — that includes real victims'
family members carrying photographs of their murdered loved ones.
As in Lysistrata in
ancient Greece, there is eventual reconciliation. There are painful
revelations and some justice for little Patti. Following the tragedy
and farce, some hope in new programs for education, health and
Lee's farcical impulses
sometimes grate, and the script's leering banter feels a little uncomfortable next to the film's serious message. But this is an
important film, a strong and emotional polemic that could not be more
urgent. 4 out of 4 stars.
Read more of my reviews at http://cinemaweb.co/.