J. Johnson’s “Chi-raq” (2015) Review
Written by: J. Johnson
To be a more astute and informed moviegoer when it comes to satires, one really should do the background homework to understand what is being satirized in a given film. Without doing that, you either miss the point of the mockery, miss the underlying message, or both. Upon the reveal of the controversial title of Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq,” people have been missing the point for months. True, satires can backfire as well, by overdoing the parody or forgetting their basis of reality. Powered by vivid intelligence and bracing honesty, “Chi-Raq” does not fail. It may be “bat-s–t crazy,” as “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah says, but it does not fail. It’s time to get educated.
Seething with a sense of purpose yet also stylishly cinematic and playful, “Chi-Raq” is Lee at the top of his game. Coming after a long list of films that were largely ignored (“Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” “Oldboy,” “Red Hook Summer” and “Miracle at St. Anna” among them), “Chi-Raq” puts Lee back in the middle of the cultural conversation with a ferocity not seen since the days of “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X.”
And it’s landing at a time when Chicago violence has strong-armed its way back into the news cycle, with the murder of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee by a reputed gang member, and the death of Laquan McDonald at the hands of police.
“This is an emergency,” a title card declares at the start. “Wake Up!” the picture exhorts at the end.
Wake up to the fact that gun violence claims far more American lives per year than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The title itself is emblematic of that fact, being a mash-up of Chicago and Iraq, equating the South Side of the city with a war zone. In Chi-Raq, the combatants are black gangs and the carnage claims not only gang members, but scores of innocent random black victims, too often young children.
There’s rage in the picture over that, and sorrow. But also, surprisingly, humor. And even, unexpectedly, rousing song and dance numbers.
The movie seems seems fresh and new, yet Lee and his co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott have reached back more than 2,000 years for the narrative and structure of the story, back to 411 B.C. to the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes. It’s a play about sex and violence, in which women deny sex to their men as a means of stopping the violence of their warring.
The entire concept is based on ancient Greek writer Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, so characters use modern language but often talk in verse, and one – narrator Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) – speaks directly to the camera. At the heart of “Chi-Raq” are Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) and her gang-banger/rapper boyfriend (Nick Cannon), who goes by the name Chi-Raq. After a gang shootout in the street leaves a child dead and a mother (Jennifer Hudson) grieving, another neighborhood mother (Angela Bassett) who has lost a child to violence convinces Lysistrata that there has to be a better way to live.
Most of the violence happens off screen. Rather than showing shootings, Lee is far more interested in conveying the toll violence exacts. That toll is there in the faces of bystanders looking down at small body circled by police tape lying still in the street. It’s there in the photos of the dead held up silently, en masse, by their grieving loved ones. It’s there in the face of a gang member with a walker, telling of his bullet-shattered organs.
“This ain’t living. This ain’t life,” a man in a wheelchair says quietly. “This is self-inflicted genocide. This is a disgrace,” says Cusack’s priest in a scalding eulogy for a slain child that lays the blame throughout the shooters and the suppliers of guns and the social stratification that extinguishes hope and creates killing zones in the city. John Cusack might seem an odd choice as South Side activist priest Father Mike Corridan, though he’s based on real-life white priest Michael Pfleger.
Take this lesson in a general scope of the movie;
An entire community is needed to solve an entire community’s problems– No issue, cause, blame, or topic is safe in “Chi-Raq” and the finger-pointing covers everyone. Everything is put on the table as roots for the central problem of gun violence, from inadequate gun laws, police discrimination, mass black incarceration, a poor education system, unemployment, the underground economy of drugs, insufficient government resources, gentrification, and racial inequality. Any progress on these real-life issues is going to take an entire community. It will take more than protests and some signatures on pieces of paper. It will take an entire community that chooses to love their city and each other.