“You simply don’t find enough films like Chi-Raq

by Steve Pulaski

Living in the suburbs of Illinois, for the last several years, I’ve been seriously fascinated by the wealth of young rappers to emerge out of the city of Chicago. This new wave of rappers, often put under the blanket classification of “drill rappers” – music that emphasizes snares, synthesizers, and cold lyrics concerning murder and violence – range from ages nine to late twenties, and the music is often used as an auditory backdrop and grave detailing of harsh realities facing black youth in Chicago today. Rappers like Chief Keef, Lil Durk, Lil Herb, Montana of 300, and Young Chop (also a producer who appears in this film, as well) have made careers off of emphasizing their struggle and their reality in a way that echoes much of the sentiments five young black men had in Compton back in the 1980’s. Their story was transformed into a triumphant film this year about rap, gang violence, and gritty business called Straight Outta Compton. Now, the culture of drill rappers, careless bloodshed, and pervasive murders gets its due in Spike Lee’s latest joint Chi-Raq.

Lee opens this film in a manner that exercises pop art and contemporary flashiness in a way that would make Andy Warhol grin. The film begins by showing a lyric music video of Nick Cannon’s song “Pray 4 My City,” concerning the culture of Chicago and living in or near a haven of brutality. Following this video, Father Michael Pfleger, one of Chicago’s most well-known and controversial pastors, delivers a sermon about gun violence in the city, before Lee makes very clear, in bright red text, that this situation is an emergency for the city.

Directed by
Spike Lee
Samuel L. Jackson, Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris
Release Date
4 December 2015
Steve’s Grade: B+

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The film is a modern, farcical retelling of Aristophanes’ famous story of “Lysistrata,” a story about Greek women withholding sexual privileges from their men in punishment for fighting the Peloponnesian War. Revolving around a Chicago rapper named “Chi-Raq” (played by Cannon), Lee focuses on the women in neighborhoods on the south side of Chicago, particularly Englewood, withholding the same sexual pleasures until gang members agree to stop the violence and start spreading peace; the decision comes after a seven-year-old girl is killed with a stray bullet. Inciting this protest is the film’s own Lysistrata character, played by Teyonah Parris, who was also in last year’s “Dear White People.” All of the women in Chicago choose to take part in this protest, especially after hearing the fiery sermon of Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack, a fellow Chicago native doing his own Pfleger impression with great passion).

The result is a city divided between abstinent women and horny men, with rival gangs, the Spartans, of which Chi-Raq belongs, and the Trojans, led by a one-eyed pimp known as “Cyclops” (Wesley Snipes), bitterly torn between their desire to command the streets of their city and exhale their frustrations and find some kind of romanticism in a cold environment. Meanwhile, Lysistrata and other women of the city, including Miss Helen (Angela Bassett in one of the best roles I’ve seen from her) and Irene (Jennifer Hudson, another Chicago native), the mother of the murdered seven-year-old, stay true to their concept of “no peace, no piece” (the latter p-word is just a tad more vulgar in the film).

If you live in Chicago, then you’ve undoubtedly heard about the needless controversy surrounding this film since the very moment Lee had any interest in making a film about the city’s gang violence. The nonsense surrounding this film’s title has made Lee seem like the person who, not only came up with it (the origin of the word is questionable, though the term “Chiraq, Drillinois” was made popular by Chicago rapper King Louie at the dawn of the new decade), but also somehow started all the violence in the city. This is sad because the bulk of the attention this film has been getting locally, not only seems like the only attention the film is getting (I question if this film has much national appeal), but the kind of attention that simply emphasizes some sort of controversy thanks to negative remarks by Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Lee’s film is an uproariously funny, bitterly angry, and thoroughly enjoyable farce on the very real and frightening issue of gang violence. This is incendiary filmmaking at its finest, uncommonly urgent and begging for attention without groveling for cheap pathos or an emotional response simply by tossing around words like “homicides” and “murders.” Lee has made a career out of profiling race relations, but the sad thing is, from the time he started making films in the late eighties with his amazing Do the Right Thing, things in the black community have ostensibly stayed the same or gotten worse. This adds to the reason Chi-Raq bills itself and its situation as an emergency; it’s sad this film even has to exist in the modern day.

Being that Lee has always been a very meticulous filmmaker, using small details in both primary and secondary to embody larger themes and create more believable environments, I found myself loving little intricate things about Chi-Raq. To begin with, Nick Cannon delivers a very believable performance here, despite someone not growing up in Chicago nor, to my knowledge, being affiliated with the musical culture of the region. One of the film’s earliest scenes has Cannon’s Chi-Raq character rapping before an energized crowd with Young Chop blaring trademark drill beats in the background. Cannon convincingly spits lyrics concerning “tooleys” (guns), “lacking” (being caught off-guard), the unflinching desire to kill a man’s entire family, and other lyrical hallmarks, all while showcasing a strong ability to rap. With that, I especially enjoyed Samuel L. Jackson’s Dolmedes character, who pop ups frequently in the film to narrate the story in rhyme, as the original Lysistrata story was told, which is about as hilarious as it sounds, in addition to Cusack’s pastor who tries to intervene in the lives of troubled black youth, and the brazen but wisely articulated auteurism Lee seemed to be going for in the film’s style.

Chi-Raq, given its subject matter, is playful and a lot of fun, which is a huge plus for an overarching story this grim. Make no mistake, however, for this isn’t a film to lift your spirits nor does it disrespect or do anything to trivialize the violence in Chicago (something that politicians and the cynical public will assert despite never buying a ticket to see the film). This is the rare case of a film taking a serious issue in a light-hearted way and creating a piece of outspoken filmmaking that emphasizes pop art principles, whilst giving its respective culture its due. You simply don’t find enough films like Chi-Raq, in terms of quality, bravery, and scope, and that, indeed, is the double truth, Ruth.