Sunday, December 6, 2015

Chi-raq (USA, 2015)

Nine Things About the Film Chi-Raq

1. This movie is rude, raw, raunchy, wrong... and right on the money. It's going to be too much for some people, but I personally think it may be the best movie of 2015.

2. It's a retelling of a 2500-year-old Greek play named Lysistrata. Writer/producer/director Spike Lee updates the play and sets it in a gang-run neighborhood of Chicago. Nick Cannon plays Chiraq, who is both a local rapper and the head of the Spartan gang. Wesley Snipes plays Cyclops, the aging leader of their deadly rivals, the Trojan Gang. Samuel L. Jackson plays the narrator Dolmedes (see what they did there?). After a small child is gunned down in the street and nobody wants to come forward to be a witness, the women in the neighborhood have reached their breaking point. They band together and vow not to have sex with any man until the gangs squash their beef for good.

3. The movie is a satire, an indictment, and a plea. It was written by Lee and film professor Kevin Willmot (who lives in Lawrence, KS). They must have dipped their pen in acid to write the script, because this film burns. Beneath the satirical humor, this movie is angry. Very very angry. And everybody is to blame.

4. Lee has been criticized for setting the movie in Chicago (and using the controversial title) when he's not even from there. Some people think the movie makes fun of the gang and violence issues. I understand those criticisms, but I think they are misdirected. The movie starts tightly focused on the street murder of a child in Chicago, but then it spirals outward until it's a glorious mess that sweeps more and more topics into its whirlwind. Chicago is a symbol of a much bigger cluster of issues. Besides, Lee gives a lot of love to Chicago.

5. Artistically, the movie is a masterpiece. It has a rhythm both in movement and speech. As a reference to the original play, most of the dialogue is spoken in rhyme.  You don't have to know the original Lysistrata to see this movie, but if you do, you gain an extra layer of appreciation as you see how Lee translates ancient Greece into modern urban America. In addition, Lee uses colors to great effect, especially the colors of the rival gangs.

6. Nick Cannon blew me away with his portrayal of Chiraq. Before this, everything I'd seen him in made him seem mild and rather family-friendly. But in this movie, he not only leaves his Nickelodeon and "America's Got Talent" fun goofiness behind, he obliterates it.

7. John Cusack's character is based on a real priest in the neighborhood where the movie takes place. His church sermon is not only one of the high points of the film, it gave me a new appreciation of why church and spirituality are so important to the black community.

8. The movie will not be appreciated by everyone. Some people will be turned off by the explicitness of the topic. Some people will not get the satire. Some people will not be prepared for the amount of concentration it takes to understand it. Some people will get overly defensive. The easily offended should find something else to watch.

9. This is the Spike Lee that I love. It's his best and ballsiest movie since his classics Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. It's confrontational, relevant, smart, funny, and heartbreaking. For a movie with so much absurd comedy, I found myself with tears in my eyes more than once. The movie transcends itself and lights the American powder-keg. People will be talking about this movie for a long time.