Pop Culture…With Soul

Chi-Raq Is Spike Lee’s Overstuffed Joint

Friends, Chicagoans, Americans
Lend me your eyes
I come to satire Gang Violence, not to praise it –Me (paraphrasing William Shakespeare)

I love Spike Lee.

My introduction to his vision was his first full length film, SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT,  in a movie theater on the University Of Alabama campus.  Looking back, I can only laugh at the thought that my first “40 Acres” moment happened on a college campus where, a little over two decades before, I wouldn’t even been able to step foot on.

Long story short, I’ve been down for whatever Spike’s put up on the screen, ever since. Haven’t liked everything that Spike’s done but for the most part, I have.  He’s just like family and just like some family, you’ve come to expect the unexpected and you’ve learned to roll with it, baby. So I’m cool with Spike, just as long as we don’t talk about SHE HATE ME, we’re good…pass the mashed potato and gravy.

So, needless to say, I was skeptical (but hopeful) about Cousin Spike’s latest film, Chi-Raq, his biggest, most attention grabbing work in years.

Based on Aristophanes‘ Lysistrata and using the contemporary moral decay of an inner city (Chicago, full disclosure, my hometown and part of my skepticism) as the backdrop.  In Lysistrata, the title character leads the women of Greece in withholding sex from their men in an attempt to stop them from fighting/killing one another and negotiate peace.  In Chi-Raq, Spike makes it clear what’s at stake.
When the movie was announced, every one from the mayor (no comment), the Chamber Of Commerce, the local rappers (some of whom were the first to give it the nickname) weren’t all that pleased with some New Yorker coming in and making a movie about their city and comparing it to a bombed out and depleted Middle Eastern country.
Do you think that Spike gave a damn.
The Englewood neighborhood of Chicago is embroiled in a gang war between the Spartans and Trojans that some feel is reminiscent of the war-torn country of Iraq, hence the nickname/title of the movie. The warring gangs are hell bent on taking one another out and claiming the area for themselves with the law abiding residents of the neighborhood, tragically, caught in the middle.  Lysistrata (a phenomenal Teyonah Parris)
is the girl-friend of rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon, far, far away from the clean world of America’s Got Talent and Wild’n Out, literally)
who just happens to be pulling double duty as one of the gang leaders (God bless a multi-tasker). Lysistrata has had enough of the fighting and killing and she has a plan that’s so crazy that IT.JUST.MIGHT.WORK!
The ancient play that this movie is based on is called a Greek Comedy and Spike embraces the comedy (and misogyny/sexism)  with gusto.  This is his funniest (and misogynist/sexist) movie, yet.
Um, hold up, Spike has something to say
“Some people are going to twist it and think that this is a comedy. Chi-Raq is not a comedy. Chi-Raq is a satire. And there’s a difference between satire and comedy.”–Spike Lee
I stand corrected but I was right about the misogyny and sexism (wait, actually I wasn’t because this is “satire”! You’re not supposed to take that seriously…but you are supposed to take his main message, seriously.  Now I’m confused)

Spike co-wrote Chi-Raq with Kevin Willmott (who created the 2004 satire C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA) and they chose to write it in part rhymed/unrhymed verse (not like rap, more like poetry) that brings to mind 1996’s Romeo + Juliet

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But, unlike Romeo + Juliet and Willmott’s Confederacy satire, both that are more based on fictional literature and alternate reality historical events, Chi-Raq’s “satire” is laced with “ripped from the headlines” situations and stats (that Spike unapologetically peppers throughout) that, for some critics of the film, hit too close to home, literally.  Like that critics have ever slowed his roll.
When he’s on, there are few in behind the movie camera that can touch Spike’s flair for pushing buttons.  So his fanbase need not worry.  All his gimmicks, the musical score playing in the background of nearly scene, the obligatory dolly shot are all in the mix. For every rip-roaring, Fourth Wall breaking speech given by Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson in Mister Senor Love Daddy in Iambic Pentameter mode), Good And Bad Hair type musical number or Jiggaboos vs. Wannabe’s type squabble, all well and good.  But, just when you’re settled on that aspect, there are moments when you’re taken out of “satire” into tear jerking realism. In particular, John Cusack‘s Father Mike, a Michael Pfleger archetype, who delivers one of the best on-screen sermons in recent memory
and (real life Englewood native) Jennifer Hudson‘s Irene, who heartbreak radiates every time she appears (even if you weren’t aware of her tragic family history).
Yeah , it’s been a while since we’ve seen “Classic Spike” have such a big spotlight on him and he knows it.  He’s got a lot to catch up on and he tried to tell you as much as he could all in one movie.  It seems like he wanted to make an satire, musical and urban gang drama mash-up.  Well, he succeeded and the final result is that Chi-Raq is all over the place, dizzying at times. There are three movies in Chi-Raq, one of them, with Hudson and Cusack at the forefront, is stellar; the mash-up of Spike’s Greatest Hits part is okay and the actual satire, if you separate it from the rest?
Bottom line, Chi-Raq is emotional, funny, aggravating, annoying, more complex at times than it needs to be, powerful and overwhelming, in short, it’s typical Spike Lee.  Chi-Raq could have been called Spike’s Big Comeback (You Mad?) and it would have been more on point.
3 (out of 5) Stars
Chi-Raq The Movie is currently in limited release in theaters and set to premiere on Amazon later this month.
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amazon videoAngela BassettChi-RaqJennifer HudsonJohn CusackNick CannonRomeo JulietSpike LeeSpike Lee JointTeyonah Parris

PCDS • December 7, 2015

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