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Review: Chi-Raq (2015)

Chi-Raq (2015)

Directed by: Spike Lee

Premise: An adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes. Set amid the gang violence of contemporary Chicago, a group of women organize a movement to deny sexual privileges to all men until the violence stops.

What Works: Despite how much satire there is to be found in American media these days, there is nothing in the movie marketplace quite like Chi-Raq. This is an audacious film in both its style and its politics and like any good piece of satire each of those things informs the other. Like the ancient Greek play it adapts, Chi-Raq is almost entirely spoken in verse and includes Samuel L. Jackson as Dolmedes, a one man Greek chorus. The movie is at some level a musical with the dialogue as rhythmic as a musical number and the action is frequently choreographed like a dance routine. What is especially impressive about the poetic and musical aspects of Chi-Raq is that the actors are able to give naturalistic performances while delivering very specific line readings. That allows the movie to have the slickness and showmanship of a musical and the reality of a street drama. Chi-Raq has several impressive acting performances. The film is led by Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata, a local woman who leads the sexual embargo. She is a commanding presence on the screen and the character’s journey from a passive member of the community to a revolutionary figure is credible. Nick Cannon is cast as a local gang leader and Cannon is able to be frightening but also reveal glimpses of vulnerability that are at odds with the character’s gangster persona. The movie also includes an impressive supporting performance by Jennifer Hudson as a woman whose child was killed by a stray bullet. Hudson’s grief is palatable and makes the human cost of violence real. The stylistic choices of Chi-Raq are in service of its ideas and the movie is a provocative web of gender politics and sociological commentary. The movie is very sexual and it links Eros and Thanatos, suggesting that one holds the key to the other. Chi-Raq is also explicitly feminist in the way it characterizes violence as a masculine problem and suggests that women hold the key to curbing it. But despite all of its heavy themes and big ideas, Chi-Raq is also very funny. The picture has a naughty sense of humor that is inherent to its premise but also a sardonic sense of the absurd on par with the work of Stanley Kubrick.

What Doesn’t: Spike Lee tends to be a didactic filmmaker and Chi-Raq is on-message to the point that it hurts the picture. At several points the movie stops dead for the characters to go on at length about gun violence or some other issue. This is most obvious in a eulogy delivered by a local pastor played by John Cusack that attacks the National Rifle Association and the gun industry. It’s fine for movies to have a point of view—most works of art of any value have a greater purpose than just entertainment—but there is a difference between embedding the idea within the drama and leading the audience to an epiphany versus stopping the story to lecture the viewer. In the filmmakers’ fervor to draw a comprehensive portrait of contemporary violence they overreach. The picture incorporates footage of real life activism, namely the demonstrations of the Black Lives Matter movement. This footage does not always fit into Chi-Raq either stylistically or thematically. The irony of the overreach is that the movie is also simplistic. The causes and solutions of violence are more complex than this movie makes them out to be. That creates a problem for the end of the picture. The resolution to the gang conflict and the sexual embargo requires a peace treaty but without changing the underlying structures that encourage and support violence it is difficult to take the conclusion seriously.

DVD extras: Deleted and extended scenes, featurette, and a music video.

Bottom Line: Chi-Raq is an uneven picture but its irregularness is exactly why it’s unique. The film is heavy handed but it also has a sense of humor. The passion of its message and the ambition of its ideas make this an impressive piece of work.

Episode: #604 (July 24, 2016)