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Chi-Raq
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by Peter Sobczynski

"She's Not Gonna Let Anyone Have It"
5 stars

Spike Lee has been making feature films for nearly 30 years now, ranging from a career-defining masterpiece ("Do the Right Thing") to a number of undeniably strong works (my list in this regard would include the likes of "Clockers," the wildly misunderstood satire "Bamboozled," the sly genre exploration "Inside Man" and such documentaries as "4 Little Girls" and "When the Levee Breaks") to a series of jaw-dropping clinkers (including such bewildering misfires as "Girl 6," "She Hate Me," "Miracle at St. Anna" and the misbegotten "Oldboy" remake). And yet, despite the unevenness of his output over the years, I still find myself a little excited every time he has a new movie to offer up. He is not a filmmaker who is content to simply coast from one project to another with a minimum of muss and fuss--he is one of those rare filmmakers who swings for the fences every time he comes up to the plate and while he may occasionally strike out in spectacular fashion (if ever there is a book dedicated to the most abysmal efforts made by the best filmmakers, Lee could fill his own section with such head scratchers as "She Hate Me" and "Oldboy"), he is just as capable of knocking one out of the park as well. In the case of his latest effort, the already-controversial "Chi-Raq," he connects in a big way with a wildly audacious work that is by equal turns hilarious, heartbreaking, angry, joyful, cynical, sloppy, stunning and more alive than practically any other American film to emerge this year. Most of all, it is a Spike Lee joint through and through--it is impossible to imagine another filmmaker working today who possesses both the cajones to conceive of a project as bold and brash as this one and the artistic gifts to pull it off as well as he has.

As you have probably heard by now--especially if you live in or adjacent to the 312 area code--"Chi-Raq" takes its name from the nickname given to a portion of Chicago's South Side where a combination of gang rivalries, unchecked machismo, a lack of economic and social growth, easy access to powerful guns and poor impulse control have led to an unrelenting bloodbath that has, over the course of the last 15 years, killed more Americans than our combined excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a story that demands telling--if only in the hopes that seeing it depicted on the big screen might finally be the thing to convince people to start trying to do something about it--but what kind of story should it be? I suspect that this type of material might have inspired other filmmakers to create an earnest and solemn drama that would present the facts in a sober and serious manner. In the right hands, this might have resulted in an strong film but there would have been an excellent chance that the results would have been a well-meaning but dull slog that offered viewers nothing other than the chance to wallow in real-life misery without ever really engaging in what they are bearing witness to from the comfort of their multiplex chairs.

Needless to say, that is not the approach that Lee has elected to utilize. Taking a cue from Stanley Kubrick, who originally intended his masterpiece "Dr. Strangelove" to be a serious exploration about the possibility of nuclear annihilation until he realized that a darkly comic take would serve as a better way of properly tackling the oftentimes insane subject matter, he has elected to use a brashly satirical approach to the subject at hand. Of course, as followers of Lee's career can attest, he has utilized satire several times in the past and with wildly mixed results--"Bamboozled," his 2000 "Network"-like comedy about African-American representation in the arts centering on a modern-day minstrel show that becomes the hot new TV sensation, much to the chagrin of the black programming executive who proposed it sarcastically, is one of the best and most unfortunately misunderstood films in his entire oeuvre while "She Hate Me" (2004), his muddled take on black male sexuality, the financial chicanery of Enron and WorldComm and whatever else was on his mind at the time, is arguably the worst film of his entire career. Perhaps mindful of that, Lee has enlisted the aid of two other noted satirists--co-writer Kevin Willmott (who made the brutally funny "CSA: The Confederate States of America," a mockumentary that posited what might happen if the South actually won the Civil War) and Aristophanes, the ancient Greek playwright whose still-relevant comedy "Lysistrata" provides the framework for the narrative--to help him present his story in a way that might entertain as well as edify.

Set in Englewood, one of the South Side neighborhoods hit hardest by violence, the basic set-up, as announced by colorful narrator Dolomedes (Samuel L. Jackson), is that the bloodshed in the area is in large part the result of a long-standing feud between two gangs--the Spartans, led by Demetrius (Nick Cannon), a popular local rapper who performs under the alias of Chi-Raq, and the Trojans, led by the one-eyed Cyclops (Wesley Snipes)--and as the story opens, tensions between the two gangs finally explode into gunfire during a Chi-Raq concert in a crowded venue. Soon afterwards, the Trojans attempt to burn Demetrius and his girlfriend, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) out of their house as a rejoinder. This violence is bad enough but things become especially tragic when a stray bullet kills the 11-year-old daughter of a neighborhood woman (Jennifer Hudson) whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with someone with lousy aim.

For Lysistrata, this act of senseless violence is the breaking point and she decides to finally do something about it by hitting the two gangs where it will have the most immediate impact--she and her fellow Spartan women as well as the Trojan women vow to withhold all sexual relations with their men until they agree to a peace settlement and even manage to convince the local strippers and prostitute to join their cause. Although this drives the men to distraction, it doesn't quite get them to the negotiating table and it is then that Lysistrata and the others step things up considerably once they take over a local armory and embark on an extended sex strike that captures the attention of the world and inspires women all over to take up the cause. As the siege continues on for months, the women face opposition not just from their men but from a group of overtly misogynistic local guys (led by Steve Harris) determined to put them back in their horizontal place and a bumbling mayor (D.B. Sweeney) and police commissioner (Harry Lennix) desperately trying to control a situation that slipped out of their hands long ago.

Based on the title alone, one might expect "Chi-Raq" to be a violent film with endless scenes of people being gunned down in the streets to underscore the problem of contemporary gun violence. In fact, there is relatively little physical violence in the film beyond the opening 20 minutes or so and most of that is kept off-screen for the most part. Instead, Lee and Willmott have chosen to use words as their weapons for getting their points across and for the most part, they hit with more visceral impact than any conventional brutality. Most of the dialogue is delivered in rhyming couplets that simultaneously suggest the writing style of Aristophanes and the sounds of contemporary rap without ever coming across as being too self-conscious. At other times, the action stops so that the characters can deliver blatantly theatrical speeches that allow Lee and Willmott the chance to make their points fully explicit. In the most memorable of the bunch, local priest Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack in a role explicitly inspired by real-life Chicago priest and social justice champion Father Michael Pfleger) uses the funeral of the dead little girl to lambast the various ills that have befallen the community and which led to the death of an 11-year-old girl, ranging from the lack of government involvement or investment to the glorification in the media of gang culture to the lack of a sensible nationwide gun policy that ensures that the streets of Chicago are still flooded with arms despite some of the strictest local laws in the country (thanks Indiana).

The end result is occasionally uneven but never less than spellbinding throughout. Of course, Lee is no more seriously suggesting that denying sex is the answer to inner-city violence than Jonathan Swift meant it when he recommended eating Irish babies as a method of population control. However, as a metaphor for a culture in which the combination of unchecked machismo and deadly phallic symbols adds up to what could legitimately be called a genocide, the conceit is pretty damn potent and watching Lysistrata and her hordes seizing upon and subverting those very same symbols with the power of their sexuality is undeniably compelling. The satire does go all over the place and there are moments when it falls flat--the scene in which Lysistrata seizes the armory from a dipshit general (David Patrick Kelly) whose office contains a confederate flag is the single most embarrassing moment to be had and the final scenes are a bit of a muddle--but when it does hit, it hits hard while never letting anyone forget the seriousness just beneath the surface by means ranging from up-to-the-minute references to the likes of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Charleston to the casting of Jennifer Hudson in a role that cannot help but recall her own tragic real-life connection to Chicago's street violence.

Her performance is undeniably wrenching and it is but one of the number of strong turns on display here. As Chi-Raq/Demetrius, Nick Cannon displays previously untapped dramatic depths and as a bonus delivers an opening theme song, "Pray 4 My City," that basically does for this film what the classic "Fight the Power" did for "Do the Right Thing." Teyonah Parris, who first made an impression in last year's campus satire "Dear White People," is equally magnetic here as Lysistrata--Spike Lee may not be known for creating well-rounded female characters but she breathes life into what might have been just a joke in the hands of a lesser actress. There are also a gallery of nifty supporting performances from the likes of Snipes (despite being perhaps a little too old to be believed as a gang leader), Angela Bassett (as an activist type who has a mesmerizing scene where she dresses down a predatory insurance salesman stalking the neighborhood looking for mothers of teenage sons to sign on the dotted line), Cusack and Jackson, who tears into his hilariously profane monologues with obvious relish.

With its wild and controversial approach and audacious cinematic style, "Chi-Raq" is a film that seems destined to divide audiences between those who share Lee's particular wavelength and those who will criticize him for allegedly trivializing a serious subject and failing to provide any concrete answers for the problems that he has illustrated. Count me in with the former group because while it may not offer any legitimate solutions to the issues that it raises, it does so in such an instantly galvanizing manner that it will leave viewers almost dizzy from the varying range of emotions that it inspires, including humor, sorrow, rage and, dare one hope, a determination to start changing things at last. Hopefully that--and not the silly local contretemps over the title--will be the lasting legacy of this powerful film.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=29844&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/03/15 16:44:20
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USA
  04-Dec-2015 (R)
  DVD: 26-Jan-2016

UK
  N/A

Australia
  04-Dec-2015
  DVD: 26-Jan-2016




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