DVD Review - Chi-Raq (Black History Month)

Black History Month doesn't have to be all about what happened fifty, a hundred or even two-hundred years ago. It can also be recent history. Co-writer and director Spike Lee deals with recent history in his latest film.

He places words on screen. At first, the words are lyrics in red against a black background, lyrics to a rap song, "Pray 4 My City." Performed by Nick Cannon, the song is pure rage and sadness over what's happening in Chicago. Lee then puts on screen words to a startling statistic, and now recent historical fact. The words read that the deaths, mostly murders by gun violence, in Chicago have been greater than all the deaths of combat troops in the Middle East wars like Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2005.

A lot of the murders are gang violence between rival African-American men. Aggressive policing and subsequently aggressive incarceration are not the answer, but for the government it's the only answer. Lee proffers another answer, one that comes from both recent and ancient history. Because Chicago has been compared to Iraq, in fact "Chi-Raq" is a combination of Chicago and Iraq, both being seen as horrible war zones, Lee proffers a solution to force peace between men at arms.

This film is an adaptation of a play by Aristophanes. Aristophanes was a Greek writer who created Lysistrata in 411 BC. Lysistrata was about a woman who decides that the best way to achieve peace between the warring men was to deny them sex.

Fast forward nearly 2500 years, Lee probably shows his process when he has his female protagonist named Lysistrata, played by Teyonah Parris, literally do a Google search of this idea, denying sex to stop war. It's a sex strike or sex ban. There have been several, successful, sex strikes over the past decade or so. One occurred in Liberia, orchestrated by Leymah Gbowee, resulting in her winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Lysistrata here decides to copy Gbowee's sex strike. She lives in Englewood, a neighborhood in the south side of Chicago, which has the description as being "the most dangerous" neighborhood in the city. Lee fictionalizes the gang violence as occurring between the Spartans in purple and the Trojans in orange.

Lysistrata is the girlfriend to the leader of the Spartans. She decides to go to the girlfriend of the leader of the Trojans, Indigo, played by Michelle Mitchenor, and get her to get all women on both sides to agree to the sex strike and stand strong to it.

Angela Bassett co-stars as Miss Helen Worthy, a woman who has lived in Englewood longer than Lysistrata and Indigo. She steers them toward coming up with the sex strike and is instrumental in getting older women and all other women who aren't linked to the gangs or who even live outside Chicago and beyond to join the sex strike.

It's an interesting premise that could have led to a great satire about the battle of the sexes. Instead the whole thing feels like a rant that Spike Lee is giving in movie-form rather than telling a cohesive story with a structured narrative and character development. For example, Lysistrata is more an idea or concept than a fully fleshed-out character. We never learn if she has a family or what her interests are beyond the movie's premise. Why or how she was attracted to the Spartans' leader is never explored either.

Nick Cannon who plays the Spartans' leader and titular character, Chi-Raq, and Wesley Snipes who plays Cyclops, the Trojans' leader, are more just concepts as well. Chi-Raq is a rapper and Cyclops has one eye, and that's really the extent we learn about them. Except, both like sex, which stereotypically all men like.

What Lee doesn't reconcile is that women like sex too. However, Lee never really shows women struggling with the denial of sex. Even if we accept the stereotypical premise that men desire sex more, he doesn't fully account for soldiers in war zones like in the Middle East or even men in prison who are already denied sex. He dismisses masturbation or homosexuality, and he doesn't dare tread on the dark ground of rape.

The best sequence is a 10-minute scene where Mike Corridan, played by John Cusack, delivers a very powerful sermon as a priest at a local church in Englewood. Cusack also delivers the best acting performance of any person in the film. Mike becomes a vehicle for Lee's rant in purer form, but Cusack makes it work. He lays out the bigger problems like economic inequalities, contributing to the crime rate. Yet, sadly, those bigger picture problems are ignored for the rest of the movie.

By the end, Lysistrata wants the Spartans and the Trojans to give up all their guns, but she makes no mention of them not selling drugs or not picking up a book and getting an education. Gang violence results from drug trafficking and one gang trying to dominate or consolidate and make more money. Giving up guns won't magically lift all the men and women out of poverty, get them educated, trained or give them jobs with a living wage.

Lee's attack of the problems in Chicago are ultimately superficial. It addresses the symptoms but not the cause or root of the real problems.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for strong sexual content including nudity, language, some violence and drug use.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 7 mins.


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