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Film Review: Chi-Raq (2015) No Peace No Piece

Chi-Raq is almost critic-proof, a morality tale spun like a musical Greek tragedy with Samuel L. Jackson as the chorus. It’s jarring, violent, frightening, funny and beautiful, a film that challenges, blatantly invites controversy, and succeeds as the best film writer / director Spike Lee has made in a very long time.

The film opens with the title rap track played over a black screen with the lyrics splashed like sprays of blood. It’s four minutes of music that invites the viewer to listen to the anger in the voice and the story in the words. The man singing is Demetrius “Chi-Raq” Dupree (Nick Cannon), the leader of the Spartans, a gang marked in purple who have a long-running (deadly) feud with the Trojans, led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), an eye-patch wearing warrior whose clan wears orange. There is hate between them and between them innocents are dying.

At a rap concert, a shootout interrupts Dupree’s show. That night, his house is set on fire. The next day, an 11-year-old girl is gunned down. The city is a war zone. In the middle of it is Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), Dupree’s girlfriend who is put out by the fire and moves in with a neighbor across the street. Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) is tired not only of the violence but the apathy in the neighborhood. She inspires Lysistrata to Google a woman in Africa who challenged a war with a strike, where all the woman refused entrance to their bodies until the men put down their arms. Lysistrata rouses her girls and crosses the enemy line, recruiting the women on both sides to take an oath and deny their men any and all access to sex.

The strike works. It works with incredible speed. Lysistrata and her army take over the city’s US National Guard Armory as the cause spreads from household to household, business to business. The prostitutes join, phone-sex girls join. It’s a total shutdown. It spreads through the neighborhood, the city, the state, the country, and finally, the world. All the women join, from wives and girlfriends, the partners of the rich and powerful, the lovers of politicians, police, teachers, lawyers, and just about every man on the planet. The world’s city are denied physical love until the guns are put away. Naturally, the man aren’t taking it lying down. A counter-plan and revolt is staged.

John Cusack makes an appearance as an impassioned priest named Father Mike Corridan. Preaching at a black church, he delivers one of the film’s most emotional pleas that grows from a hesitant whisper to a harrowing volley of anger and judgment that only ends when his voice grows hoarse. It’s a stirring speech and ignites the congregation and the audience. His performance is empowering, but so are others, like Jennifer hudson who has a brief role as a grieving mother that is heartbreaking when tragedy strikes and more so when she meets her daughter’s killer. As good as they are, they pale next to Parris who is a wonder as Lysistrata. A bright shining star, she embodies the cause and leads with a thunderous voice and conviction that make it easy to follow.

Spike Lee never shies away from doing something different. There are some truly breathtaking moments that reveal just how close to perfection he can come. A scene between Chi-Raq and Father Corridan is beautifully staged and photographed. So too is a moment when Lysistrata faces a band of men who are convinced they will put down the movement. Like many characters in the movie, she stares into the camera and challenges the viewer to really listen. Often like a stage play, many scenes have a three-wall feel to them, as if we are watching a theatrical presentation, heightened by the sporadic comings and goings of Jackson who melodiously keeps us up to date on the story’s progress.

I say melodious, because the film is performed like a rhyming spoken song, with the entire dialogue having a harmonious quality, like they are singing without music. It’s a bold choice, as it could have easily worked as a gritty drama, but might have also disappeared amid a dozen others. As it is, it stands as a unique commentary that is both hysterically funny and deeply moving, a satire with blistering effect.

Not all of it works. Some of the characters don’t find the right tone or go over the top, and a late showdown feels a little awkward while also fitting, but most of it is genuinely on target. The message is hopeful and Lee only offers the gambit not a solution, which is surely his intent. Lee strives for conversation, for arguments, for debate, for acknowledgment, and Chi-Raq does all of that exceptionally well. It’s impossible not to feel something when it’s over.

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Director:

Spike Lee

Writers:

Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee

Stars:

Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, John Cusack

Film Review: Chi-Raq (2015) No Peace No Piece

Director(s): Spike Lee

Actor(s): Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, John Cusack

Genre: Drama

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  1. A Tale of Two Dans December 30, 2015
    • David December 30, 2015
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