Friday, April 19, 2024

Movie Review: “Chi-Raq”

Composed with a bleeding heart and a rhyming dictionary, Spike Lee’s latest “joint,” “Chi-Raq,” preaches its message with all the subtlety of a 48-point headline. But what a message it is.

A picture of pure, unfettered agitprop, “Chi-Raq” is a fascinating, messy paradox of a movie. It’s a timeless parable wrenched from recent history—a fanciful feature film that still carries the urgency of a ripped-from-the-headlines documentary. And it’s unlike anything else I’ve seen.

It takes its name from a morbid portmanteau: It stands for “Chicago” plus “Iraq,” the implication being that Chicago’s brutal South Side is like a war zone. It’s worse, in fact, if you compare the numbers; since 9-11, there have been more gun deaths in Chicago than American casualties in Afghanistan, our longest conflict in history.

It’s in this setting, where characters speak forcefully and pungently about events as recent as the mass shooting in South Carolina’s A.M.E. church, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the unlikely ascendency of presidential candidate Ben Carson, that Lee has managed to remake “Lysistrata.” In Aristophanes’ prescient 411 BCE comedy, the title character persuades the women of Greece to withhold sex from their husbands in order to end the Peloponnesian War. In “Chi-Raq,” following the accidental gun death of a young girl, Lee’s Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) rallies the women on both of Chicago’s gang war—in another nod to ancient Greece, they’re called the Spartans and Trojans—to likewise vow chastity until the city’s gun violence ceases. (Lee and co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott ensured that nearly all of their lines rhyme, even when some of the results are silly, thus linking the poetry of Aristophanes’ time to contemporary hip-hop cadence.)

The rest of the film proceeds as a madcap satire bursting with uncomfortable truths—many of them delivered in the film’s stirring centerpiece, in which John Cusack, brilliantly and incongruously cast as Chicago’s most zealous reverend, sermonizes on the issues that keep the city’s African-Americans relegated to second-class citizenship: mass unemployment, lack of upward mobility, politicians bought and owned by the NRA. “Mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow!” he preaches. “Guns have become part of America’s wardrobe. Sirens and gunshots are our soundtrack.” It’s enough to make you jump out of your seat and scream, “Amen!”

Scenes like this throb with a consistent, driving pulse that “Chi-Raq” is missing in its unwieldy totality. The film is more sketchy collage than straightforward narrative, with a shapelessness that suggests that perhaps Lee, granted full autonomy as director, producer and writer, needed to be a reined in a scoche.

But there’s no denying the unconventional wallop of this hilarious and powerful site-specific satire. Lee’s cinema hasn’t felt this inspirationally cast and formally liberated in decades. And as a call to action, there may be no 2015 film more important than this one, if it’s seen by the right people. “Chi-Raq” is unabashedly preachy, but it’s exactly the kind of confrontational approach to a problem that this country, and its cinemas, need.

Gun violence in Chicago doesn’t make news, save for the occasional white-on-black police shooting. It’s become too routine, too much an everyday reality. We need Spike Lee, the cinema’s foremost chronicler of the African-American experience for the past 25 years, to remind us that it shouldn’t be.

“Chi-Raq” opens Friday, Dec. 4, at AMC Aventura 24 and AMC Sunset Place 24 in South Miami. Other theaters to come.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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