You probably couldn’t name the last movie Spike Lee made. I had to consult his IMDb page to refresh my memory. He had a few films nobody really saw – Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and Red Hook Summer – and before that he directed the unnecessary Oldboy remake. It’s never great for a filmmaker of Lee’s stature to have such a forgettable string of movies as of late.
With Chi-Raq, another small film that many will sadly not see, Lee has finally made the first movie in a long time that will be engrained into your memory. Bold, weird and madly entertaining – and spoken mostly in rhyme – Chi-Raq is a Molotov cocktail of a film, unexpected and explosive.
First question you might have is what the heck does the title mean? Chi-Raq has a few meanings in Lee’s film: it’s the stage name of the rapper played with great fury by Nick Cannon and it is a combination of Chicago and Iraq. The opening of the film informs us that there have been more gun-related deaths in Chicago than Iraq in the last decade-plus. Told on title cards, set to Cannon’s “Pray 4 My City,” Chi-Raq grabs you from the first frame and keeps you in its grasp until the end.
The movie is a modern retelling of an ancient Greek play called Lysistrata. Set in Chicago, Chi-Raq is about a movement to end gun violence and bring peace among the great city. When Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) witnesses Chi-Raq, her boyfriend, firing off a gun in the night towards rival gang member, Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), she realizes she has had enough. Bullets and blood on the street, gunfire throughout the night are sounds she has become far too accustomed to. It’s time for a change.
Lysistrata seeks the help of Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), who has had her own share of pain due to violence. Together they enlist every woman around to withhold sex from their partners until peace is achieved. “No peace, no pussy,” they chant throughout the streets of Chicago.
Everyone is so good in the movie with Parris and Cannon standing out. Samuel L. Jackson brings some levity as Dolmedes, a one-man Greek chorus, who narrates the film. Jennifer Hudson has a small role as a mother whose life is upended by guns. She packs a massive emotional punch in just a few scenes.
Earlier, I called Chi-Raq madly entertaining – and it is. It’s fierce and in-your-face but it never takes the matter at hand lightly. This is Lee’s personal protest for peace, begging us to realize there is a problem. With references to Sandy Hook and Dylann Roof, Lee uses today’s headlines as evidence of a larger societal issue. Did we need Chi-Raq to tell us that? Maybe not. But it never hurts to hear it.
Chi-Raq is vibrant, vital filmmaking. Even at times when the movie seems preachy, it’s fine. Chi-Raq is necessary. Chi-Raq is now.
Chi-Raq rates 9 out of 10