Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Mike Brown and the city of Ferguson are a few names on the ever-growing list of black victims who have perished during the current civic rights crisis in America. Between 2001 and 2015, 7356 people have been killed by gun violence in the Southside of Chicago. These are the facts Spike Lee, Black America’s loudest agent provocateur, opens the film with and never lets us forget.
Using the narrative from Aristophanes’ classical comedy Lysistra, Lee has created a bold and flamboyant satire of the current incendiary climate. The city of Chi-raq is being ravaged by a war between two rival gangs, the Trojans, headed by alpha-male rapper Chi-raq (Nick Cannon) and the Spartans, spearheaded by his one-eyed nemesis, Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). A group of activist women, formed by Chi-raq’s girlfriend Lysistra (Teyonah Parris), decide to instigate a sex strike to put an end to the increasing violence. This leads to an almost global showdown between the sexes as the men seek to prove they would rather live without sex than violence.
The acting is partly rapped, mostly in rhyme, which works well to add to the hyperbolic tone of storytelling maintained throughout. There are moments where the veil slips and the poetic monologue of a character becomes Spike Lee directly soapboxing. His anger and disgust address the audience so directly, you can almost feel his spittle hitting your face. Chi-raq alternates smoothly between two tones, the first being frantic pontificating and rubbing our faces in the gruesome implications of the moral dilemma. The second, surprisingly considering the subject matter, is irreverent satire, much like radical 70s films like Putney Swope. The story twists and turns sharply into musical interlude, thought-provoking detours and cartoonish interjections from the animated narrator Dolomedes (Samuel Jackson).
It is truly rousing to see Lee play with style so vigorously, even if at times it seems as though its about to go off the rails and dive into absurdity. The comedy does not undermine the real tragedy of the Black Lives Matter movement, but rather reinforces it as only in this wacky parallel universe could there be a happy ending. Chi-raq is Lee’s finest work of late, articulating a boisterous spectrum of emotions with innovative style.
Chi-raq does not have a UK release date yet.
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Watch a clip from Chi-raq here: