The Passion of the Message: Our Review of ‘Chi-Raq’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - March 20, 2016
The Passion of the Message: Our Review of ‘Chi-Raq’

Inspiration comes from some pretty surprising places.

With Chi-Raq finally hitting theatres up here in Toronto and eventually all over Canada we get what will be a widely misunderstood mostly genius social commentary wrapped up in some classic storytelling that is dripping with satire.

Taking the ancient Greek play of Lysistrata by Aristophanes and bringing it to the streets, Chi-Raq is a powerful tale that takes us to the aftermath of child being taken down by a stray bullet during a gang conflict which inspires a group of women led by Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) to organize themselves against the ongoing gun violence in Chicago’s South Side by refusing sexual access to their men who are themselves the cause of the gang violence in a hopes of maintaining a lasting peace.  As the movement grows the nature of race, sexual politics and violence gets challenged in ways they never thought were possible.

A bold social statement, Chi-Raq takes the classic issues of men and women and the violence that surrounds the inner city streets so damn beautifully it all wraps up into what is one of Spike Lee’s undoubtedly most misunderstood films but also one of his most important.

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Musical satire and Spike Lee aren’t two things that necessarily go together but with Chi-Raq he is obviously making a passionate statement about the violence going down in the city streets all across American every day.  The film has an unmistakable style and flow, as from the opening minute he isn’t trying to give us a documentary he is giving us raw drama in its most classical form.  Splashing the lyrics of the poignant “Pray 4 My City” across the screen at the opening credits he is setting this story up as pure opera.  It has scope and scale from minute one and even in the moments that play a little goofy it is a story that needs to be told and the more unique it is presented the more likely it is to stick with us.  Going with Aristophanes is in and of itself a statement as the issues around the Peloponnesian War and the Gang Violence of the streets of Chicago really aren’t all that different because as much as we evolve as a species so many of the things we do to hurt one another stay the same.  Lee lets is all come out with a shocking clarity that manages to entertain at the same time as he gets to the deep root absurdity of it all and how it needs to stop.  He makes a statement by making us laugh, cry and shock the shit out of us all at the same time.  Rarely has something this urgent, also felt so vibrant and kinetic all at the same time.  Spike voice as a storyteller and social commentator has never ever been sharper, he never hits us over the head with anything heavy handed but lets it all play out in a natural way.

Teyonah Parris doesn’t have a ton of screen credits to her name but as Lysistrata she commands the screen leading a movement that starts from her block and spreads across the globe.  She plays well off of Nick Cannon in an over exaggerated performance as gang leader and rapper Chi-Raq who comes across as borderline goofy but in the context of an operatic performance it works perfectly and he comes across with great stage presence.  Wesley Snipes is great as the veteran gang adversary while Angela Bassett works well as the sage community leader and John Cusack as the over the top revivalist preacher all fit into the narrative as they examine and struggle with what the impoverished inner city communities truly need, and with the iconic Samuel L Jackson serving as Superfly/narrator of it all, it flows like an important fable that needed to be told.chiraq_0

It’s not a movie that will be for everyone, as hits a lot of hard and awkward beats throughout but when a veteran filmmaker like Spike Lee can come through with an impassioned project like Chi-Raq obviously was, then audiences can’t help but pay attention to everything that it has to offer.

Chi-Raq is now playing exclusively in Toronto and is rolling out across the country over the next few weeks and is also available via iTunes.

This post was written by
David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like Examiner.com, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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