Friday, December 2, 2016

Review: 'Chi-Raq', directed by Spike Lee

Chi Raq is a mess. A loud, energised, angry, colourful, adventurous and usually pretty goddamn cool mess. It's one of those movies that makes you wonder how they got the budget to pull this off, but are thankful that someone stumped up the cash. After all,  a contemporary Chicago gangland reimagining of Aristophanes' 411BC play Lysistrata, reworked as a fourth-wall bustin', satirical sex comedy, quasi-musical with dialogue in loose rhyming verse is a high concept to scale.

But Spike Lee is definitely the man for the job, Chi Raq positively trembles with the amount of enthusiasm, sincerity and unalloyed self belief that he pours into just about every frame. 

Chi-Raq opens to Nick Cannon's Pray 4 My City, printing the lyrics in block capitals on the the screen. We learn that more Americans have been shot to death in Chicago than were in Afghanistan and Iraq, Cannon's song, delivered with coolly straightforward anger, explains what it's like living in urban wartime: "This is an emergency / Police sirens, everyday / People dyin', everyday / Mamas cryin', everyday".

Lee quickly sketches  up in the Trojans v Spartans gang war: the opposing sides locked into a retaliatory spiral of death. Someone gets shot at a concert, causing a house to get burnt down, causing machine gun fire to crackle through the city streets, causing.. well you get the picture. It'd be a tragedy if it were just young men gunning each other down, but the situation comes to a head when a young girl is senselessly killed by a stray bullet.

Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), the girlfriend of gang leader Chi Raq (Nick Cannon) decides to take action. Inspired by the true story of Liberian peace activist (and Nobel Prize Winner) Leymah Gbowee, she corrals Chicago's women and commits them to a sex strike, chanting "no peace, no pussy!" or, as the men put it, "these hoes have shut down the penis power grid!". 

That kicks off the film's descent into hot-blooded lunacy, which begins with the women taking control of the National Guard building (via a Porky's style kinky ruse), propelling their strike to a global feminist movement that concludes with a pay-per-view 'first to cum' showdown between the equally horny Lysistrata and Chi-Raq ("This is better than the Superbowl!").

You can say one thing about Lee - he's rarely dull. This is film-making with a bad case of ADD, Chi-Raq sometimes feeling like ten overlapping music videos are running concurrently. Still, the badass gangsta scenes are firmly lodged in caricature; the rival gangs looking like they've strolled out of The Warriors, and, though Lee peppers the film with shots of Chicago graffiti, the film lacks the powerful sense of time and place that (among other things) makes Do The Right Thing an all-time classic.

But Chi-Raq steamrollers its way through most of this stuff with a pure hearted, righteous indignation about the state of the world. Lee wants us all to know in the most direct terms, the precise, abhorrent nature of the way African-American urban communities are fucked over by the police, the government, gun manufacturers, druglords, gangsters, materialistic culture, substandard housing, lack of healthcare and lack of jobs. Lee sprinkles these didactic speeches throughout the film - be it through the snazzily suited narrator figure of Dolmedes (Samuel L Jackson munching his way through the scenery), Angela Basset's bruised yet noble Miss Helen or the feminist revolutionary awakening of Lysistrata herself.

Though Chi-Raq is sprawling, overlong at two hours and with a lot of quasi jokes that fall flat (many feeling like they're improvised on set), it's like few other films you'll see in cinemas. Lee wears his heart on his sleeve - using Chi-Raq as an imaginative and impassioned plea for sanity, justice and humanity. 


Chi-Raq is in UK cinemas now. 

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