Chi-Raq movie review: Ancient Greek comedy in 21st-century Chiraq setting
The star of Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is an astounding young actress named Teyonah Parris (Dear White People); she plays Lysistrata – the name of the titular character in Aristophanes’ comedy from about 411 BCE. That Greek play is about one woman’s attempt to end the Peloponnesian War (a messy thing involving Athenians and Spartans, among others) by soliciting all Athenian women to withhold sex until peace is negotiated.
It would have been a damn good idea to end a war. It was a great idea for a play. And it is a wonderful concept for a satirical film set amongst the very wars being fought on the streets of Chicago and in so many other cities around the world, here on the planet of angry men and their powerful guns.
Scary boyfriend and city
The Lysistrata of our film is girlfriend to a character called Chi-Raq, who is both alluring and frightening – and very well played by Nick Cannon. In the real world, Chi-Raq is also what the people of Chicago have come to call their city, as the murder rate in some neighborhoods has come to rival that of our many wars. Indeed, the film begins with a number of statistical comparisons, and they are staggering.
As for the character of Chi-Raq, he is a hot local rapper and gang leader – and at least part of the reason for the epidemic of shootings that plague the community. His nemesis is Cyclops – Wesley Snipes, playing it just south of insane; a cackling jester with an eye-patch and a lust for power, money, and sex. Snipes leads the Spartans, as it were, and he is a hoot in this movie.
The filmmakers, which include co-screenwriters Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott (C.S.A: The Confederate States of America) – in addition to Aristophanes, of course – have retained the verse and many of the names of the characters of the play, as well as its underlying theme.
The fact that Lysistrata convinces the women to stop the war by withholding sex is a desperate measure and it is played as such. The women are no happier about the idea than the men, which was true in the original play as well.
Also found in the play is a depiction of the gender politics (apart from sex) of the day, an idea that is carried over to Chi-Raq as well. This is a power play to stop a war in the streets that kills children, as well as a power play to establish a measure of respect for the female gender in general. To make women – what they think and feel – matter. Although the women here are not of a single mind, they all have one thing in common: they want the killing of their children to stop.
As for the men, generally speaking they are brutish, oversexed, egotistical, whipped, or otherwise dumb. Yet they are not irredeemable.
Also worth noting, the Chi-Raq filmmakers erase all coyness about sex, as did the play. In the movie, both the language and attitudes about sex are frank – if not base. The issue at stake is neither love nor affection, but the carnal pleasure and physiological necessity of sex. This may offend some and titillate others; either way, such honesty will definitely refresh the palate of everyone.
‘Wake Up’ plea
And then there is the actual point of it all. The murders and shootings that plague the streets of Baghdad and New York, and Kabul and St. Louis, and Paris and Chi-Raq. Epidemic. Overwhelming. Numbing. The play and the film are meant to pierce that numbness.
With Chi-Raq, director Spike Lee harkens back stylistically to the Spike Lee joints of old: Bamboozled (which is brilliant, no matter what you’ve heard), Do The Right Thing, and School Daze, in which a fervent plea to the audience to “wake up” is given actual voice.
Chi-Raq also resolves with a plea for us to Wake Up. It’s a tearful plea proffered by a broken mother over her murdered child. One among a number of murdered children, called out by name, several of whose names you will recognize. Many killed or shot by other young black men, some by police officers, others by vigilantes, and others still by no one in particular. All dead for no good reason, as if a good reason might be found.
It was one of a number of moments in Chi-Raq that brought me to tears. One – of a number.
Bravo Maestro Lee.
Director: Spike Lee.
Screenplay: Spike Lee & Kevin Willmott.
From Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata.
Cast: Nick Cannon. Teyonah Parris. Wesley Snipes. Angela Bassett. John Cusack. Jennifer Hudson. Samuel L. Jackson. David Patrick Kelly. D.B. Sweeney. Dave Chappelle. Steve Harris. Harry Lennix. Anthony Fitzpatrick. Anya Engel-Adams. Ebony Joy. Ldorado Jonez. Sarunas J. Jackson. Michelle Mitchenor. Felicia Pearson.
Chi-Raq movie cast info via the IMDb.
Teyonah Parris in Chi-Raq image: Roadside Attractions.