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‘Chi-Raq’ – Spike Lee: fight the power, not yourselves… (review)

‘Chi-Raq’ – Spike Lee: fight the power, not yourselves… (review)

December 7 2016

New film highlights shocking statistic and has lessons for any community turning in on itself…

BALLSY, steamy and fun – “Chi-Raq” once again demonstrates the talent that is Spike Lee.

It also contains a powerful message, so while it is primarily an entertaining film on many levels, and one not to be taken totally seriously on every – its goal and point is one that should not be lost on anyone.

In the last 15 years or so, there have been more black people murdered in Chicago than the all the US Army personnel who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Teyonah Parris is Lysistrata in Spike Lee's Chi-Raq

That is totally shocking. More than 7,000 men (in Chicago and mostly, but not exclusively) have lost their lives to gun crime in the capital city of the state of Illinois.

Much of it is spurred by turf wars – with one gang taking umbrage at another and often over nefarious business practices, territory and sometimes even, women.

It is around them that Lee centres “Chi-Raq”.

Leaning on the ancient Greek tale of “Lysistrata” whose central character urges the women to withdraw from all sexual activity with their menfolk in a bid to stop them fighting, Lee uses the same device to explore many facets of the violence a community inflicts on itself.

It is when a seven-year-old girl perishes in the cross-fire and no one seems to care that Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) comes to the fore and gets help from the matriarchal ‘Miss Helen’ played with great luminosity by the one and only Angela Bassett and things begin to get hot.

‘Chi-Raq’ is actually the rap name of Lysistrata’s boyfriend (Nick Cannon), a gun-toting, blingtastic bad boy who has a major beef with Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), an equally reprehensible character with few moral scruples; and the battle lines are drawn.

As the sex ban begins to gather momentum, the men bicker but stay firm. Lee has always been a champion of women but his advocacy seems a little compromised by his rather unqualified objectification in parts.

That Lyistrata is beautiful no one should doubt – but both she and her crew do battle in hot pants and revealing attire… It’s very easy on the eye for any heterosexual man, but it still leaves you asking whether such provocations were truly necessary in a film that does have a serious core message.

Nevertheless, Lee might argue he is making a movie not a treatise and that this is a fun, upbeat musical with plenty of hip-hop, soul and funk – and brothers and sisters must be entertained and no one needs to feel bad about their sex appeal.

With interspersed narration from Dolmedes (as in the original) from Samuel L Jackson, imperious as always, the film keeps moving along nicely and the last segment ends up with the women taking over a military base and refusing to leave until the men have renounced violence.

There is a final bedroom scene (practically with the world watching) that does stretch the imagination but at one level it is totally in keeping with the whole fable.

Lysistrata (third from right) leads the battle

Lee pays homage to the women’s movement not just in the US but globally, showing protests (less directly about sex) in others parts of the world, including India and Pakistan, and calling for an end to violence perpetrated and sponsored by men.

John Cusack as Father Mike Corridan looks like a dubious, empathetic figure but is really a good guy, and is fighting for everyone.

This film has a big heart, great music and is an entertaining watch but does it really address the central issue of violence?

There are no easy or magic bullet solutions and racism against – and limited opportunities within – certain communities blights even the best and those with energy and purpose.

Lee seems to be suggesting that a more united front and agreement on the central problems would be a major step forward and that the problems themselves are exacerbated by a sense of hopelessness and mistrust. He seems to be saying, remember who you are and fight The Power.

ACV rating:*** ½ (out of five)

‘Chi-Raq’ is out on release in cinemas in the UK now

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture