Genre: Musical/Crime Drama/Satire
Year Released: 2015
Distributor: Amazon Studios/Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions
Running Time: 126 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: R
Related Films/Series: Daughters of Destiny, The Second Greatest Sex, The Girls, Salvar Davasi, Lisistrata, Prologue
For Fans Of: Crooklyn, Chicago, Lisistrata, BlacKKKlansman, Detroit, New Jack City, Atomic Falafel
-Some political and racial topics will be brought up in this review. Reader be warned.
-Chi-Raq is a modern urban tragicomedy adaptation of Aristophane’s Lysistrata. That was a classic Greek story where the women in the community give up having sex with their husbands and boyfriends to stop the Peloponnesian War which occurred from 431-404 BC. The combatants were the Delian League led by Athens and the Peloponnesian League led by the Spartans. Notice the several Greek references or how the top gangs in this story involve the Spartans against the Trojans (Troy was one of the allies of Athens, so the parallels still apply).
-While Chicago is the only locale of Chi-Raq for obvious reasons, most of the plot takes place specifically in Englewood. It’s a community on the South side of the city with over 30,000 people living there as of recently. Some notable residents of Englewood involve Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis, Lil Durk, Mavis Staples, Bernie Mac, and Jennifer Hudson who stars in this movie.
-In addition to Jennifer Hudson playing Irene, there were others from Chicago much less Chicagoland at large who contributed such as actors Harry Lennix and Steve Harris, Some musical contributors from that city involve Sasha Go Hard, Sam Dew, and Young Chop. As far as other Illinoisans are concerned, Evanston’s John Cusack acts in this one and Calumet City’s Tink sang in one of the songs.
-This is the 4th Spike Lee film that features Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, and Wesley Snipes since they were all previously in Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, and Malcolm X. Outside of Lee’s movies, what do all of these actors have in common besides being African-American? All of them have played Marvel characters since Bassett was the Queen Mother in Black Panther, Jackson is Nick Fury, and Snipes was Blade even though that trilogy predates the MCU, but it still counts.
-Hilarious in Hindsight: When the Knights of Euphrates reach the Chicago Armory’s perimeter, they parody Luther’s “Warriors! Come out and play-ay!” line from The Warriors which I won’t quote given how naughty it is. Oddly enough, “Luther” was already there earlier in the movie when you consider that his actor David Patrick Kelly played the Confederate-idolizing General King Kong. Also, Dave Chappelle makes a cameo as a strip club owner and is in the same movie as Samuel L. Jackson. Knowing that, all I could think of was the famous Samuel L. Jackson Beer skit on Chappelle’s Show. “NO, I CAN’T STOP YELLIN’! CUZ THAT’S HOW I TALK! YOU AIN’T NEVER SEEN MY MOVIES?” HAHAHAHA XD
-This was scored by jazz musician Terence Blanchard. He’s a regular Spike Lee contributor that is a five-time Grammy winner. Some of his other film composition work consists of Love & Basketball, Da 5 Bloods, Barbershop, and One Night in Miami among other films.
-Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee is briefly referenced via archived footage. She is a Nobel Peace Prize activist for stopping the 2nd Liberian Civil War partially due to her sex strike (yes, that actually happened). One of her allies was then-president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who was the first female president of an African nation.
-Most of the dialogue is in rhyme. Given how hip-hop plays a role given the title character being a rapper, it makes a lot of sense.
This review involves something involving The Windy City. That’s right, we’re talking about Chicago, Illinois. It’s the largest city in that state and third only to Los Angeles and New York City in terms of population in America. Chi-town’s got multiple sports teams, awesome deep dish pizza, lots of art, and plenty of things to do in the city. Unfortunately, that city had issues with gang violence in certain pockets, drug abuse, and homicides that have happened. It has become a talking point on the news for years with actual tragedies and some perceptions of that part of the Midwest for better or worse (don’t worry, I’ll get to that detail later here). Spike Lee of all people decided to throw his hat in the ring by remixing an old Greek tale in a 21st century setting down on the South Side with a mix of musical theater, hip-hop, dark comedy, gritty satire, crime drama, and heart-wrenching tragedy all in a colorful fusion.
Will Lee be successful in this R-rated adaptation of Lysistrata taking place in the hometown of Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Walt Disney, CM Punk, and Mr. T to name a few?
Chi-Raq takes place in modern-day Chicago in the Englewood neighborhood. That area on the South Side has been infested with two rival gangs. There are the orange-clad Trojans led by Sean “Cyclops” Andrews who is a high-strung one-eyed gangster. Their nemesis involves the purple-wearing Spartans who are led by the hotblooded rapper Demetrius “Chi-Raq” Dupree. The action starts at Chi-Raq’s concert where guns blaze mid-way during his first song and three people get shot involving both Trojan and Spartan casualties. Later that night, a child named Patti is shot and her mother Irene is heartbroken and outraged by all the gang violence especially since no one is willing to say who did it given the hurtful no-snitching policy. This sets off Chi-Raq’s girlfriend Lysistrata (Lys for short and sounds like “Liz”) who leaves her gangster rapper main squeeze after an arson attack on their apartment and stays with a middle-aged bookworm woman named Ms. Helen Worthy. Helen is a lifelong resident of the Second City and encourages Lys to do something to stop the gang violence. After doing her Googles and stumbling upon Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, she concocts a plan starting with the girlfriends, wives, and side chicks of both gangs to deny their men access to sex to stop the violence. This leads to more women joining them and the sex strike gets enough momentum to spark worldwide protests. Their motto is “No peace, no p***y”, and they manage to hijack a local armory while donning camo-wear and chastity belts. This causes panic among the gangs, strip clubs lose major money, and even national economies are tanking due to this mass abstinence. Meanwhile, Father Mike Corridan supports the cause and offers a bounty to find Patti’s killer even though he has mild critiques of this form of protest. However, he calls out both the gangs and the systemic issues that lead to this situation in Chicago. Chi-Raq is frustrated as his fellow Spartans and rival Trojans start to get reluctant about gangbanging. Will Chi-Raq see the errors of his ways? Will the violence be curbed by these protests? How long will the men be denied access to any romantic or erotic encounters?
I had first heard of this film from a Rap Critic video years ago, but I never saw any trailers or clips from this particular film. While I haven’t seen as many of Spike Lee’s new-school works until recently, I will start by saying that Chi-Raq is better than Red Hook Summer, so that’s a plus. For starters, they did their homework when it comes to portraying Chicago by filming it directly in the city and making references that someone familiar with the city would know. The news scenes had the ABC Channel 7 logo there with the trucks and microphones. The music has a mix of R&B and the rap songs have a clear drill influence which originated in that city (Young Chop being involved in music production does make sense from that standpoint). St. Sabina Church is mentioned multiple times and Fr. Corridan namedrops real-life wealthy suburbs in the Chicagoland area such as Kenilworth and Wilmette in part of his roaring funeral speech. I’ve actually been to Wilmette before years ago and there are only two things you need to know about that town: it’s Fall Out Boy’s hometown and one of the biggest McMansion ghettos I’ve seen in my life. Trust me on this. The production was masterful with the elaborate costumes, sets, and epic camera work. There were some sweet editing effects like the opening being like a lyric video for the theme song, various texts or tweets happening at pivotal points or when a character uses their phone, and there’s some amazing choreography with the concert scene or some of the musical numbers. Those people need to get a raise and I’ve seen musicals and music videos that wish had that kind of presentation. Oddly enough, the chants in the armory with the women dancing with the call and response promises reminded me of some of Beyonce’s later music video/video album works, but with more meaning and nuance compared to her filmography. It was impressive with the big names they got in major and minor roles, but the acting was on point. I wasn’t that much of a Nick Cannon fan partially because I wasn’t a fan of his rapping work and thought of him as an almost forgotten All That cast member (Am I the only one who remembers his Nickelodeon days when he was starting out?), but I was shocked by how well he portrayed this character especially in the finale when the walls really close in on his character and breaks down in front of his community with a plot twist that will hit you like a sledgehammer. They certainly put a lot of effort and no one was phoning it in with their star power for this release. Samuel L. Jackson was hilarious as Dolemedes, the narrator and one-man Greek chorus. His rhymes and eccentric delivery while still having some trademark Samuel-isms were a treat. David Patrick Kelly as the bigoted General King Kong was funny in his role as he’s humiliated by the protestors while completely oblivious to his hypocrisy of being in the Land of Lincoln wearing Confederate flag boxers while claiming that the Black women are “traitors” when they trick him. That was some good nuance there with the messages.
I do want to talk about some of the themes and the depiction of Chicago in this film. Earlier on in the film, I was concerned that they would use strawman arguments about crime in that city and only blame Black people. Seriously, that city has been used as a dog whistle, especially from the right wing and if anyone uses it as such will be called out. Thankfully, it does subvert that fodder while still acknowledging the gang and murder issues in that city. Since this is a Spike Lee joint™, there wasn’t going to be any mincing of words with the messages. They bring up the double standards of when white people do mass shootings (Dylann Roof and Sandy Hook are mentioned) and how they’re treated compared to their Black counterparts. Fr. Corridan destroys the “thoughts and prayers” rhetoric and even calls out politicians in the pocket of the NRA which is a bipartisan potshot since both Republicans and Democrats are funded by that organization. There are even discussions about how gangbangers are proxies for white supremacy by indirectly doing their bidding with these killings (come on, do you really think Black people personally flooded their own neighborhoods with guns and drugs they made and manufactured all by themselves?). The discussion of unarmed Black people dying by both gangs and police is brought up multiple times. Also, the double standard of Afghans and Iraqis getting more aid than African-Americans in their own country is even more powerful in hindsight as America withdrew from Afghanistan and that’s not even getting into how many billions of dollars went to that quagmire war. Would it be that much of a hassle to spend it on schools, hospitals, crisis centers, or even reparations back here in America? Yeah, that’s a sad reality there. I’m glad those issues like systemic racism, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the double standards of “ammosexuality” in America were brought up while still calling out the dangers of gangbanging.
Chi-Raq does have a few droughts that are as big as the lack of championships the Bears got in their existence as a team (I’m quite apathetic to football, so buzz off, NFL fans). I get that sex (or the lack thereof) plays a role in the plot, but things can get way overboard with some of the scenes and some crazy visual innuendos/double entendres. A tank with the words “penis envy” on the turret? Subtle. REAL subtle, guys. Guys prancing around with keys trying to seduce the women in the armory? I get it, the metaphor isn’t that hard to figure out. Besides the visual puns, some of the dialogue gets too bawdy like Oedipus really living up to his name by being in love with his mom and bragging about how he was breastfed until he was 12. The other example that was very disturbing while mentioned in passing was how the Chi-Raq character talks to a side chick later in the film and reveals that when he was also 12, his late father allowed him to have intercourse with one of his dad’s “bottom” mistresses. WHAT?!? Are we just going to ignore the fact that his father pimped out his then-twelve-year-old son and how that woman committed statutory rape offscreen in the backstory? Do I even have to mention how heinous that is for BOTH adults to do what they did to Demetrius? For that to be just mentioned just as a piece of dialogue and nothing more really bothered me. If Chi-Raq was a woman with that history, there’s NO WAY they would write a character like that and would make her way more sympathetic. While the on-site filming of Chicago was an authentic touch and there were good critiques against gangbanging, police brutality, gentrification, and other big issues, there were still stereotypes about the city on display. Don’t get it twisted, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t any crime in Chi-town. Despite not being a Chicagoan, I have friends and family from there (side note: My mom is directly from the South Side), and have been to that city several times in my life. There are things that are blown out of proportion and there are parts of the city I felt safe in even on the South Side. Some of the depictions do border on Fox News talking points and it’s not just how most of the movie takes place in the “hood” parts of the Windy City. That’s the thing about geographically specific locations as a film critic. If I have been somewhere multiple times when it comes to some movies, I will definitely say whether it’s accurate or not. The last major critique I have would be finding out some unfortunate contributors after watching this movie. The first one is the supporting character Dania played by rapper/actress Felicia Pearson (of The Wire and Love & Hip-Hop: New York fame). I found out that she served six and a half years for murder and I am trying not to burst a blood vessel in explaining why she wouldn’t get hard time for a crime like that and it isn’t because of her race. The other questionable person involved was in the music department. One of the songs had a familiar voice that I swore I heard at some point. Turns out one of the songs was a duet between Tink and a certain controversial Chicagoan named R. Kelly. OOF! I know it was only one song, but knowing he helped out with the soundtrack REALLY does no favors and I hopefully shouldn’t explain why that’s a bad idea even in 2015. Since Dave Chappelle is in this movie, I will refrain from referencing an obvious Chappelle’s Show sketch involving that singer for this review. Because of those two examples even if they aren’t major players in this movie, I will dock the score a bit.
This Spike Lee work was definitely worthy and more enjoyable than I thought. I did have some concerns about this movie turning one way, but I was thoroughly corrected. The satire and healthy balance between morose tragedy and knee-slapping comedy were golden. The cinematography, acting, and choreography was quite impressive. However, a couple of collaborators did ruin this film a bit and the sexual humor gets overboard at times. Chi-Raq was an original take on this Greek tragicomedy, but I do have reservations especially after doing post-reviewing research.
Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1-2 points if you like Spike Lee joints.
-Add 1 point if you like atypical musical works.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you don’t like seeing the nastier side of Chicago.
-Subtract 2-4 points if you get skeeved out by sex jokes or visual innuendos.
-Amazing cinematography and creative editing
-Doesn’t pull punches with social commentary (racism, gangbanging, sexism, etc)
-Great balance of tragedy and comedy
-Sexual humor can go off the chain
-Not all of Chicago is “gangland”
-The inclusion of Felicia Pearson as an actress or R. Kelly for one song does NO favors.
Final Score: 7/10 points
Content Advisory: Chi-Raq is ABSOLUTELY NOT FOR KIDS! The language is very strong and frequent. Expect the “No peace, no p***y” line heard multiple times (and in different languages with the worldwide protest montages!) and since Samuel L. Jackson is in an R-rated movie, expect the MF word dropped in his narrations even though he’s not the only one who says it. There are sex scenes with both full frontal female nudity and even some male rear nudity. It’s not just limited to those scenes but there’s strong innuendo with dialogue and with some visual double entendres. A child is murdered offscreen which plays a big role in the plot and gangbanging is shown, but never glorified. There are heavy topics such as racism, sexism, the prison-industrial complex, police brutality, child abuse, and one blink and you’ll miss it reference to female-on-male-statutory rape is mentioned. Drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes are some of the least objectionable things as hard drugs are consumed including a scene where Chi-Raq is mixing himself a cup of purp to drink next to his reluctant Spartans.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Chi-Raq is property of Amazon Studios, Roadside Attractions, and Lionsgate. The poster is from IMDb and is property of Amazon Studios, Roadside Attractions, and Lionsgate.