Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee
Starring: Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris, Jennifer Hudson, Steve Harris
Chicago’s gun violence has become a political volleyball utilized for bad-faith motives with no care for the actual people suffering within the city limits. The issues stem from a larger issue, which Chi-Raq attempts to parse through in a truly unique way. Through its ambitious dialogue and unforgiving approach, this film proves to at least attempt to open up a conversation about this violence and why it needs to end.
Two warring gangs called the Spartans and Trojans get into constant firefights over territory and control, which results in collateral damage. Fed up with the carnage, Lysistrata (Tronah Parris), who’s dating the leader of the Spartans, decides to meet with the other lovers of these gang members to withhold sex from their men until they agree to cease the violence.
Experiencing Chi-Raq feels like its own explosion of style and substance because it talks about a topical issue in a very theatrical manner. The dialogue will make it or break it for anyone watching in its poetic style of delivery. From its rhyming to its flowery aspects, it promises to leave a mark in a way you will never forget. If one cannot vibe with this style of dialogue between the characters, I understand, but it does reinforce the conversations being held and what the words mean to these characters.
While the story remains mainly concerned with gun violence, the withholding of sex becomes one of the many forms of protest these women utilize to end the violence occurring in their community. The filmmakers put their inspiration on their sleeve by naming the main character Lysistrata after the Greek comedy where the women do what occurs in this film. This story and its origins flows throughout the film, from the name of the gangs to the type of dialogue utilized throughout. The form of protest utilized in itself serves as a commentary about the role of sex in our culture and how withholding could affect change. The world of gangs remains heavily dominated by men, and having someone sexually available goes with the power over others they seek. With the women refusing to participate sexually with the men, it emasculates them because of the machismo the gangster lifestyle swears by. The effectiveness of this protest gets put to the test in this story on both sides.
Like many Spike Lee films, Chi-Raq gets right in your face with the issues it wants to speak on and the use of color plays a major part. The Spartans and Trojans wear their distinct colors like any gang of purple and orange respectively. It clearly serves as a parallel for the two prominent gangs of our nation, who normally sport red and blue. As the women get more radical they take on a militaristic look by wearing camouflage to show a level of unity the gang members they date have. This level of unity looks at the power of women and what they can achieve even with the lower standing they have in society.
The acting on display in this feature goes from measured to completely out of control in a luxurious manner. You have the likes of Angela Bassett portraying a calm and assured activist, who gives the women the initial idea of withholding sex. On the other hand, there’s also Wesley Snipes and Nick Cannon going off the wall with their portrayal of the leaders of the Spartans and the Trojans. They each have a level of chaos in their performance to get things stirring at any moment. Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata meets right in the middle, as she has the assurance and calmness to navigate a movement while also being unafraid to use her voice to enact change. She remains the focal point of the story because she represents all of the women in the confrontations she has with Demetrius. She gives an assured performance, which highlights her in a way to be aware of the greatness she will have in her career.
While not an expert on the topic of gun violence in Chicago, I understand the concerns others had with Spike Lee telling this story. As someone who has lived and breathed New York in most of his films, Lee’s attempt of analyzing Chicago has rubbed some the wrong way. The specificity of the pain occurring in this city needs an inside voice because everyone else on the outside fails to care for the actual people and just utilizes them for political points. While some have criticized Lee’s approach, I respect the effort he puts into this story and how he gets to the human level of the pain encountered from gun violence. He centers the struggle on the people, even with the issue ranging to a larger plague occurring with guns. Lee offers solutions, as simple as they may be, and I certainly appreciate the effort.
Chi-Raq cannot be mistaken as something with no style and certainly no substance. It works with both at a messy yet poignant level. It seeks to have a larger discussion while also focusing on the people feeling the pain of their circumstances. From the costume choices to the dialogue, the film promises to tell this story of pain and unification in a way you have never seen before. It’s enthralling, moving, and ultimately important to add to the discussion around gun violence in this nation and how it harms those most vulnerable in communities.