‘Chi-Raq’ Looks at Life, Violence in Chicago

Three words that would perfectly describe Spike Lee’s newest film, “Chi-raq” (2015) would be satirical, sexual and poetic. With trademark lines like “No peace, no p****,” “Chi-raq” stands in a category of its own using sexuality and cliché pick-up lines to communicate the ever-present threat of gang violence.

“Chi-raq,” a modern day adaptation of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” takes place on the gang-ridden streets of Chicago, where gunshots are more common than heartbeats. With dialogue written mostly in rhyming couplets (“In the style of his time / Aristophanes made that s*** rhyme!”), the film resembles that of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 drama adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” syncing the ancient language of theater with guns violence, gangsters and sex.

The film opens on a black screen with lyrics of the film’s title track performed by Nick Cannon. For approximately four minutes, we listen as he raps about Chi-raq, setting the tone for the film.

Then, we see a shootout during a rap show, where Demetrius (Nick Cannon), the leader of the purple wearing Spartans, taunts a member of the Trojans, an orange clad gang led by Cyclops (an eye patch-wearing Wesley Snipes). Shortly after this scene, we are again faced with gunfire, except this time the victim is an innocent child, killed by a stray bullet during a shootout between the Spartans and the Trojans. When questioned, the people stick by the phrase “snitches get stitches” and claim they saw nothing, but this isn’t good enough for Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris).

In her modern portrayal of Lysistrata, Parris makes this character reach new heights as she sashays her way across the screen, demanding to be heard and respected. Her character in this film is an extreme contrast to her role in “Dear White People” (2014), where she plays Clendrea Conners, a born and bred south side Chicago chick who tries her hardest to remover herself from the ghetto life, only associating with “high class” blacks, and white people. If you were to place both movies side by side, you wouldn’t even be able to recognize her because the differences greatly outnumber the similarities, which makes Parris’ performance 10 times better. Nevertheless, Lysistrata (Parris) is unlike any other female character in Lee’s past films. She refuses to be placed on the sidelines while the men make decisions, and would rather be at the forefront of the problem. Or in the words of Dolemedes (Samuel L. Jackson): “It all started with a gorgeous Nubian sista they call her Lysistrata, a woman like no other . . .”

With the likes of Jackson (Dolemedes), Angela Bassett (Miss Helen) and its lead actress Parris (Lysistrata) this film is, as Lee called it in an interview with ABC, “a serious movie with a little comedy that’s designed to shake up the status quo.” It gives no answers as to how this issue should be tackled, but it does draw us to start the conversation on how to begin the change.
“Chi-raq” is rated R for violence, nudity and inappropriate language, and it is now available on Amazon.

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