Film Review: Chi-Raq at BFI London Film Festival

Spike Lee, known for his political films that often explore race, poverty and crime, has excelled himself with his latest, ‘Chi-Raq.’ The opening image is immediately striking: a graphic of guns arranged to form a map of the United States of America, coloured in red, white and blue. This image is a simple yet stirring commentary on the US and its major problem with gun crime. Nick Cannon’s ‘Pray 4 My City’ plays, with the lyrics flashing up on the screen, hammering its message home. This is followed by the number of deaths of Americans in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, compared to the number of deaths in Chicago as a result of gun crime, which shockingly outweighs them, and led to the city’s controversial nickname of ‘Chi-Raq.’

Based on the classical Greek play ‘Lysistrata,’ the story follows a group of women who, fed up of the gang warfare and regular murders in their neighbourhood – Chicago’s south side – decide to deny sex to their boyfriends or husbands as a protest for peace. Devastated at yet another accidental death of a child during a drive-by shooting between the rival gangs the Spartans and the Trojans, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is inspired by Miss Evans (Angela Bassett), an intellectual woman who takes her in for the night, to use abstinence to end the fighting. She convinces her friends – and rivals – to do the same, and only when the men in the community agree to put down their guns will they continue having sex with them. ‘No Peace, No Pussy’ they chant, much to the men’s outrage. The protest expands beyond the women Lysistrata initially enlists; Miss Evans rounds up her older friends; local strippers and sex workers agree to take part; the wives of high up officials like the Mayor join in; and all across the world women withhold from sex to protest against violence, shown in video news reports.

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Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott have forged fantastic dialogue in iambic pentameter while maintaining a modern urban vernacular, with the characters almost rapping their rhyming lines. It recalls Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ which transported Shakepeare’s language into the modern world, and had a similar backdrop of gang warfare. This innovative combination of urban speech and slang with iambic pentameter has the effective of being both poetic, profound, but also humorous, with some excellent quips and witticisms.

The portrayal of female sexuality as a powerful influence over men is extremely interesting. The women use the very thing that some men have used women for throughout history against them, finally making them agree to give up their guns. And not just for the promise of sex – the men’s consciences kick in. The film does rather pit men and women together in a battle of the sexes, casting each gender as opposites, where all the men are sex driven and the women caring saviours. However, given the hyper-masculine gangs the men are part of, this attitude is perhaps more realistic, as the men try to live up to a myth of masculinity where men must be hard, aggressive, and successful with numerous women. Furthermore, the films satirical tone mocks this hyper masculinity and polarised view of the genders.

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The film balances the outrage, sorrow and anger felt at the shooting of the young girl with exaggerated, theatrical and often sexy sequences, including skits and dance numbers. But this injection of silliness doesn’t at all lessen the solemn message against gang and gun violence or the grief felt by the community. Jennifer Hudson plays the mother of the murdered girl, a devastating performance of sorrow at her loss and anger at her community, where no one will come forward as a witness, afraid of ratting one another out. The light sequences are equally powerful with their satirical humour, and Parris shines as Lysistrata, a powerhouse of powerful sexuality and female agency.

‘Chi-Raq’ is a furious and sorrowful critique of gang culture, gun crime and the government’s lack of support in Chicago, which Lee skilfully balances with satirical humour, fun and sexy sequences, superb poetic dialogue, and a hopeful message of love to end the film. It’s an important work by an important director, and a key commentary on issues of race, class, poverty and crime in urban America.

Watch the trailer for ‘Chi-Raq’ below:

Chi-Raq is currently playing at the BFI London Film Festival on 15th October and 16th October. The film will be on general release in the UK from 2nd December 2016 and in the US from 4th December 2016.