Spike Lee’s CHI-RAQ: The Most Inventive & Poignant Film of The Year

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“Has the world gone crazy?” This is the refrain coming from the San Bernardino, Calif., and the Paris mass shootings; but it also echoes in filmmaker Spike Lee’s new movie Chi-Raq, which opens Dec. 4. While Chi-Raq is ostensibly a high-art adaptation of Aristophanes’ Greek satirical classic “Lysistrata” set in the inner city, it is a call-to-action on the shock topic of gun-related violence worldwide. And the cast is spectacular, from Juilliard alum Teyonah Parris, Samuel L. Jackson, Nick Cannon, John Cusack, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, D. B. Sweeney, to the unexpected resurrection of Wesley Snipes, both as a career milestone and a meaningful return to the screen.


SLChiRaqKnown for his socio-political power-punch, Spike Lee is also back with the original voice that garnered 1989’s Do The Right Thing an Oscar-nomination for screenplay. While this isn’t the first indie film to leverage storytelling conventions from Ancient Greece, as in Woody Allen’s 1995 film Mighty Aphordite with a full-throated Greek chorus in place, Chi-Raq turns this conceit on its head with a scope that uses urban “gang war” as a lens to view conflicts globally, from race to religion, from domestic violence to sexual politics in general.

Spike Lee opens his proscenium arch on gritty urban decay, peopled with the fully dimensional men, women, and children who live under duress. (Poverty and violence are almost shadow lead characters in this film.)


Samuel L. Jackson is our pucklike narrator Dolmedes, who squires us through the storyline and the neighborhoods of a mythic Chicago in a role he was literally born to play. Jackson does what he does best, plays crazy like a fox as he leads the audience on a goose-chase that, by the end of the film, will eloquently break down into all the pieces of a puzzle-pattern he has known all along. That said, Jackson’s wily Dolmedes introduces Teyonah Parris’ lead character Lysistrata, as a virago who is about to ignite a powder-keg of whoop-ass on all the piece-packing thugs by denying them sex.

SJChiRaqSoon, Jackson reveals two rival “organizations, we don’t call them gangs anymore.” The Trojans are led by Snipes’ Cyclops, and the Spartans are led by Cannon’s Demetrius ‘Chi-Raq’ Dupree. These sworn enemies fly their colors in typical fashion of their real-life counterparts. Orange and purple accents echo, one assumes, The Crips (blue) and The Bloods (red) style factions who will soon be under Lysistrata’s sex-denying siege.


But then the action spirals out of Chicago as a microcosm for these issues; news footage of armed conflicts globally indicate the real audience Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq addresses.  And, yes, it is all done in verse. The press notes for the movie handle this script twist in a sentence: “In a bold move, Lee and his co-writer Kevin Willmott have taken inspiration for Chi-Raq from a play written almost 2,500 years ago, transferring the action of Aristophanes’ satirical masterpiece “Lysistrata” from ancient Greece to the South Side of Chicago.” Willmott is “a writer and director, as well as a professor of film studies at the University of Kansas.” How he came to co-write this epic directed by Lee is based on Willmott’s “2004 mockumentary ‘C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,’ a satirical comedy of the United States — written as in the South had won the Civil War.”

TPJCChiraqAt the press conference, when Spike Lee is asked “Is the script in rhyming couplets?” he glares back, because, it’s really not about whether this screenplay has a magic bullet in literary terms, but how the element of rhyme is mastered and incorporated by the cast. To a person, each character is thrillingly precise in their execution of what has to be very difficult dialogue on the page. Lee is seated with cast members Wesley Snipes, Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, and John Cusack. Cusack plays Father Mike Corridan, who is based on real-life activist Father Michael Pfleger, again from the production notes, who is “the spiritual leader of St. Sabina’s Church” in the vicinity of the South side of Chicago. The “why is there a white man in this” question is already answered in the movie, so mostly the journalists serve up softballs and admiration for the bravery of this film.


NCChiRaqTeyonah Parris is complimented on her radiant outfit. Wesley Snipes, who is actually very funny in person, laughs when Spike Lee asks the seated press: “Who has a question for Wesley Snipes?” Nick Cannon has a few things to say about “the four pillars of hip-hop,” when a music question is tossed his way. The four pillars he loosely defines as “it’s not just about the music,” but lifestyle, clothing, and the philosophy behind it.  He wears a fedora hat the whole time, and doesn’t harsh his cool by removing it. Snipes wears prescription glasses and looks like an academic, whereas in the film, he crushes his role as rival to Cannon’s rap character (also the name of the film), Chi-Raq. John Cusack throws a few astute glances, since he is actually from Chicago, and knows the city better than anyone else in the room.


But all eyes are riveted on Spike Lee, who turned 58 this year, and wears a paramilitary style tracksuit, complete with a beret that bears the movie’s logo. And if you say the title often enough, the sonic resonance of ‘Iraq’ in the name “Chi-Raq” bleeds through all the merchandise, again putting the emphasis on the seriousness of this rhyming musical, so-called satiric, masterpiece. ChiRaqOSIf the names Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray mean anything to you, you’re in for a heart-wrencher moment where Nick Cannon’s leader-of-the-pack frontman will be brought low by real-life mothers of victims. The other reality is, based on Chi-Raq’s theme marketing colors of red, green, and black, plus the stars in a row that are eerily (and likely intentionally) reminiscent of the flag of Syria, the tension around this film is understandable. Paris had just been attacked around the time of the press conference.

In fact, ironically, this films opens with an image of the United States landmass divided into three solid color bars of red, white and blue that look like an homage to France, the French flag. Statistics for gun-violence deaths scroll in a Sam Fuller-like style, black-on-red, sensationalism with a purpose. In this day and age in America, where the term ‘police-state’ is thrown around, Chi-Raq manages to glide the line between incendiary and magnificent filmmaking. Hope the Oscar nominating committee is listening.

This film asks us to shelve the fear and follow the story. Chi-Raq is truly the most inventive and poignant film of the year. The performances, intent, and stylistic touches of this movie offset the flash-points it contains. Spike Lee’s newest “joint” opens tomorrow, 12/4/15, in New York and Los Angeles with a wider roll-out planned by Amazon Studios. See the official website for details.

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