Mark Reviews Movies


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Spike Lee

Cast: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, D.B. Sweeney, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix, David Patrick Kelly, Dave Chappelle

MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use)

Running Time: 2:04

Release Date: 12/4/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 3, 2015

Co-writer/director Spike Lee's take on the onslaught of gang-related violence in Chicago is alternately ingenious, powerful, and frustrating. One thing is for certain: Chi-Raq offers no quarter. Everyone—from individuals to institutions of power and influence—is fair game here, as Lee and fellow screenwriter Kevin Willmott address the causes and consequences of, as well as the possible solutions to, an epidemic that has left thousands dead or wounded—that has shattered families and has become a source of outrage of the genuine and insincere (read: mockingly, politically opportunistic) varieties. It's a film of pain and rage, equally bolstered and undermined by its humor and sermonizing.

Everything the movie argues needs to be said, and perhaps it should be said this directly and with a certain acknowledgment of the tragic absurdity of the situation. That Lee and Willmott can transfer the conceit of Aristophanes' comedy Lysistrata, which was written as a response to and performed in the shadow of an ongoing war that would continue for two decades after the play's initial performance, to the modern-day South Side of Chicago is alarming in and of itself.

The screenwriters see little to no difference between a war and the violence within parts of the city. The most notable difference comes at the movie's start, with that infamous comparison of statistics showing more American civilians killed in Chicago than American soldiers killed during either of the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The movie actually begins with a song pleading for people to pray for the city and a bold, capital-lettered call to action: "This is an emergency." Anyone who knows about what's happening in Chicago knows this to be true. Everyone can agree on the consequences: A lot of young men are shooting and killing each other for credibility, for misplaced feelings of loyalty, and/or for retaliation, and a lot of innocent people, including children, are caught in the crossfire. The reasons and the possible solutions are the things that get us arguing, and the "us" doing that arguing are usually folks who don't have to live every day with the reality of neighborhoods that have turned into areas akin to warzones.

Lee's movie is at its best when it taps into the righteous anger and the helpless outrage of those who do have to live with this reality. That makes it a movie with a very specific outlook on the causes of and answers to the problem. Lee and Willmott approach it without a trace of subtlety. When they want us to know their thoughts, they ensure that a character states them outright. The people who and institutions that are in the way or unhelpful are seen as fools. The movie is, after all, a comedy.

The strongest voices here belong to the movie's female characters. Chief among them is Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), the girlfriend of Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), the leader of the Spartan gang in the Englewood neighborhood of the city. The gang's rivals are the Trojans, led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). From Helen (Angela Bassett, in a very strong performance), Lysistrata gets the idea of enlisting the women of the neighborhood in a sex strike until the violence ceases. The men gradually become introspective about their lives when the sex stops.

As a riff on Greek comedy, the screenplay is startlingly successful. Lee and Willmott, for the most part, retain the concept of spoken verse ("To show our love for the universe"), and Samuel L. Jackson makes occasional appearances in the role of the Chorus to fill us in on expository information and to make the story's ironies painfully clear, such as in a scene in which two rival gang members are united in the devastating effects of the single bullets they fired into each other.

The movie's arguments, though, suffer at times, either from their directness or from a lack of follow-through. In the first regard, there are scenes such as a homily at a funeral Mass for the young victim of a drive-by shooting. The local Catholic priest (John Cusack) goes on a lengthy, blistering polemic about national and local politicians, gun laws, a black market for guns coming from neighboring states, unemployment, a culture of silence and fear, and the mentality of gang members who care more about their egos than the lives of others. It's the movie's thesis laid bare in manner that halts everything in its tracks. It needs to be said but, for dramatic purposes, perhaps not in such a plainspoken way.

The outrage at some of the movie's other targets is clear but underdeveloped. A lengthy siege at a National Guard armory has something to say about the role of the military, long-standing racism, and the incompetence of local law enforcement and government to do anything of consequence, but it simply becomes a setup for jokes. The elder men in the community finally become leaders, although their goal is unconcerned with the reason for the sex strike. There's something there that goes unspoken, too.

This is a rough movie, which is frustrating because it is also such a necessary one. Despite its stylistic indulgences, Chi-Raq does have the bite of reality. The movie offers solutions, which involve compassion and action on the part of corporate America and the government, and it's perhaps most depressing that such things feel like movie's only divergence into fantasy.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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