There’s a point in Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq after a period of kinetic preamble and set-up when it seems the film is about to relax into a classic battle of the sexes comedy, a hip-hop flavored modern retelling of ancient Greek comedy The Lysistrata, not dissimilar to Baz Luhrman’s 1996 guns n’ gangs take on Shakespeare’s classic star-crossed lovers tale. Any notions of the film relaxing and acquiescing to pure popcorn entertainment are dispelled, however, when John Cusack, as preacher Fr. Mike Corridan, delivers a blistering, relentless five minute-long speech calling out every governmental inadequacy, racial bias and gross inaction responsible for the decline of black majority urban areas in Chicago and across the entire country. Cusack delivers the speech to a packed congregation and holds his audience transfixed with what is likely one of the most overtly political messages ever committed to film. At this point it becomes clear that mellowing into familiar men vs. women comedy territory is not on the cards and the pace and punch established by Cusack’s speech never lets up for the remainder of the film’s running time.

‘Chi-Raq’ Movie Review: Four Stars

The film’s plot mirrors Aristophanes original text closely. Rival gangs are tearing Chicago’s inner city apart and following the death of a local woman’s (Jennifer Hudson) little girl in a drive-by shooting gone wrong, gang leader Chi-Raq’s girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) has a novel idea to help stop the violence and bloodshed once and for all. Like her ancient Greek namesake, Lysistrata believes that the only way to put an end to the conflict is if all women on both sides unite and deny their men sex until they broker a permanent peace. The “No Peace! No Pussy!” slogan sparks a global movement and Lysistrata and her gang of female warriors infiltrate and hole up in an armory, vowing to remain chaste and separated from their menfolk until their demands are met.

Chi-Raq not only borrows from its ancient Greek source in plot but also through its blatant theatricality. The characters speak in a kind of hip-hop inflected verse and there is a real intelligence and wit to the rapid fire wordplay. Music numbers are interspersed throughout and choppy editing, bright colours and slick dance routines often give the film an extended music video feel. This can, however, dull some of the more emotional scenes which often feel rushed and tonally jarring. One or two plot points are resolved with unconvincing ease and some may find the relentlessness of the politics wearying.

Nick Cannon seriously impresses as the conflicted Chi-Raq and the battle for the character’s morality becomes the central drive of the narrative. Teyonah Parris is phenomenal as Lysistrata, managing to embody a sense of sexual power coupled with real intelligence. Angela Bassett shines in a supporting role, while Jennifer Hudson, saddled with a part that demands she cry for the majority of her screen time, comes off a tad one note. Samuel L. Jackson serves as the film’s narrator and helps ground the frequently ridiculous plot developments with his hilariously cutting asides.

 “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY” flashes across the screen in bright red at the film’s opening and that message carries the film on rails right up until we’re told to “WAKE UP” just before the credits role. If the film had managed to strike a better balance between its humor and drama it would have made for better viewing but it doesn’t weaken the power of the its message. Lee commands our attention for the duration of the film and you’ll leave the movie theater feeling energized, angry, invigorated and frustrated.

 

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