What exactly is “Chi-Raq”? This is a question I still have no clear answer to even after watching the brilliant piece of art written and directed by the glorious mind of Spike Lee.
There hasn’t ever been in the history of film such a thing as Chi-Raq and I hope it won’t be the only case. The film, in its uniqueness, tells a fairly simple story: two rival gangs in the streets of Chicago go wild after the Spartans’ leader, Chi-Raq (one of the two gangs – the other goes by the name of Trojans) loses his house on fire. What comes next consists of a series of armed conflicts narrated in a very unusual and captivating way.
The war between the gangs leaves many innocent victims, among which the case of a young girl brutally killed by a pistol shot creates a momentum of suffering within the neighborhood and that leads to a change. Chi-Raq is based on a very old and well-known true source: Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. In the Greek classic’s storyline the women from both sides of the conflict make an arrangement to refuse their husbands sex in pursuit of an armistice.
As we can see from the beginning, the whole movie loyally follows the idea behind the Greek classic, from the actual plot to the names of the characters. Lysistrata – played by Teyonah Parris, best known for her role of secretary in Mad Men – is herself the girlfriend of Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), the leader of the Spartans, while the Trojans are led by Cyclops, who is played by Wesley Snipes with a ruby-encrusted eyepatch.
The film is more than reconstructed around the ancient idea of the Greek classic; it even follows a similar structure in the movie opening with a tremendous overture. Cannon’s Pray 4 My City is an anthem that comes back in the movie several times to remind us the truth underneath it, that is Chicago is one of the most dangerous cities in the United States, where gun deaths outnumber those in America’s foreign wars. The movie opens with a shocking overture with the lyrics of Pray 4 My City on the screen.
Following the Greek classic, the movie introduces us to Samuel L Jackson as the sharp-dressed narrator who speaks in iambic pentameter. This gives an intro to a whole movie where every phrase and every line is a mix of urban dialects and iambic rhymes. John Cusack, as the the non-black local preacher, deserves a special mention. It is his left-liberal speech at the funeral of the little girl shot to death that really kickstarts the plot. It is one of the finest and more touching moments of the entire movie and lets everything that comes after release smoothly.
Even if Chi-Raq is a movie about deaths and mortal wars between gangs, it is undoubtedly a funny, entertaining and very sexy movie. It explores and revisits many of the episodes of Aristophanes’ original opera in a very modern way. It is a crazy and unrealistic story to some extent, but it is the one that succeeds in raising awareness of a very real problem while entertaining in the most musical way. The idea behind the No Peace, No Pussy anthem, as chanted by the female opposition is what drags the whole plot for the entire lengths of the movie and it is that plot device that lets every absurd and fantastic situation happen in the story. But at the same time it is a reminder and urgent J’accuse against all the bloody wars that the gangster culture in Chicago is filled with.
So, to come back at the original question: What is Chi-Raq? It is the unexpected living proof that original movies can still make it to the big screen and be successful. It is a pure piece of art that tells an incredible story in a very interesting way and with a moral need clearly displayed. At the same time Chi-Raq is a movie that feels a bit too long and slow, especially in the first act, where it fails at a timely kick off. That said, people who aren’t accustomed to adventurous and courageous directing choices might find it a bit boring.
Nonetheless, it is a statement of great film-making I hadn’t seen in a very long time.