In more than three decades as a filmmaker, Spike Lee has tackled topics from college fraternities, Jazz music, Malcolm X, the Son of Sam murder spree, to the British Petroleum oil spill, but his latest film, “Chi-Raq,” enters uncharted territory. It’s a film that’s already stirring people up, which is just what the gutsy 58-year-old filmmaker had in mind.
From its incendiary title — a moniker that combines “Chicago” and “Iraq” in a grimly satirical reminder of the violence currently plaguing the city, “Chi-Raq” is smart, wildly inventive, daringly different and laced with witty dialogue.
Starring Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson and John Cusack, it’s based on the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata,” about women who withhold sex until their men end the war.
Teyonah Parris and John Cusack
Lee’s contemporary version, which has a slightly different twist, follows Lysistrata (Parris) and her rapper boyfriend, Demetrius Dupree (Cannon) who raps under the name “Chi-Raq.” The leader of a purple-clad gang called the Spartans, he’s out for revenge after Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) and the rival Trojans killed one of his men during a club performance. When a retaliatory stray bullet from their gang war kills an 11 year-old girl, Lysistrata comes to her sense and rallies the wives and girlfriends of the gang members, as well as other women in the community to start a sex strike until both gangs make peace.
‘Nobody gets a piece before making peace’ is their motto in this simple enough artsy tale, which is filled with poetic diatribes, random skits and musical interludes.
John Cusack, plays a religious community leader, Samuel L. Jackson’s the films narrator, Jennifer Hudson and Angela Bassett play women who’ve lost their children to gang gunfire.
Never one to pull punches, Lee grapples with violence in America head-on in “Chi- Raq,” with a special focus on the sensitive subject of black-on-black crime. The film starts strong with startling statistics. From 2001 to 2015, Chicago has seen 7,356 gun-related deaths we are told. Comparisons show that the number outpaces the casualty totals in wars abroad, like in Iraq.
Nick Cannon. Photo credit- Parrish Lewis
“It is like a war out there,” says Lee. “It’s not just Chicago or New York — Baltimore or Maryland, but it’s on another level in Chicago because of the gangs. And it’s not just an urban issue. Right now, all across America, there are mass shootings. People are being gunned down left and right. This film is not only a declaration against the violence in Chicago, but the violence all across America.”
Like many of Lee’s films, “Chi-Raq” isn’t easily categorized, shifting between intense drama scathing satire, and a musical number.
“I don’t do films that can be whittled down to one word or one sentence,” continues Lee. “People have been programmed to think you can’t mix elements or tones or genres, that everything has to fit into the Cookie-Cutter Movie Factory. This is not one of those films. If you look at my body of work, I don’t make those types of films.”
Indeed, for Lee’s films have often straddled the fine line between tragedy and comedy, engaging an audience without overwhelming them with the weight of the serious issues they deal with.
“I hope people will come into this film knowing that this is very important subject matter,” continues Lee. “Guns are destroying this country. People are dying. Families are being changed. Human life has been devalued, and that’s something this film addresses.”
Written by Lee and co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott “Chi-Raq” is a searing satire of gun violence in America and is the first production of Amazon Original Movies.
With this film, Lee makes one thing perfectly clear — he is a clever satirist who takes risks, like all true artists.
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