Finally, a movie about something important.
Finally, a picture that’s as current as tomorrow’s headlines; a picture that tackles the scourge of gun violence in America and, specifically, Chicago. One that goes at it head-on, with anger and exuberance.
“Chi-Raq,” Spike Lee’s latest, is bursting with vitality and purpose. It has the feel of a movie made by a young man, new to the craft and consumed by a mad joy in the sheer act of filmmaking. And yet it’s the work of a seasoned veteran who brings everything he’s learned over a long career to the picture. Lee brings his visual chops, developed and refined over nearly 30 years of crafting feature films. And he brings his searing passion, which has informed his best work over the years — “Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever,” “Malcolm X” — and is apparently undiminished by the passage of time.
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The emotions in “Chi-Raq” are big and bold. Nothing subtle here.
“This is an emergency,” a title card declares at the start. “Wake Up!” the picture exhorts at the end.
Wake up to the fact that gun violence claims far more American lives per year than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The title itself is emblematic of that fact, being a mash-up of Chicago and Iraq, equating the South Side of the city with a war zone. In Chi-Raq, the combatants are black gangs and the carnage claims not only gang members, but scores of innocent random black victims, too often young children.
There’s rage in the picture over that, and sorrow. But also, surprisingly, humor. And even, unexpectedly, rousing song and dance numbers.
The movie seems seems fresh and new, yet Lee and his co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott have reached back more than 2,000 years for the narrative and structure of the story, back to 411 B.C. to the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes. It’s a play about sex and violence, in which women deny sex to their men as a means of stopping the violence of their warring.
So it is in “Chi-Raq,” where Lee’s Lysistrata, a headstrong young beauty played by Teyonah Parris with a confident strut, organizes a sex strike. The first target is her gangbanger boyfriend, also named Chi-Raq and played by Nick Cannon. She enlists girlfriends of other gang members and before long the movement spreads to other cities, then other countries (and even, in a sly dig, to the White House).The men are flummoxed, dismayed, angered. And ever so slowly attitudes begin to change.
Lee’s passion for this story apparently was communicable. Parris, Cannon, Wesley Snipes in the role of a rival gang leader, John Cusack, playing an activist priest, and Samuel L. Jackson playing a nattily dressed one-man Greek chorus commenting cogently on the action, give fervent performances. Their lines are written in rhyme, and the actors deliver them with such skill that they sound like natural conversation.
Most of the violence happens off screen. Rather than showing shootings, Lee is far more interested in conveying the toll violence exacts. That toll is there in the faces of bystanders looking down at small body circled by police tape lying still in the street. It’s there in the photos of the dead held up silently, en masse, by their grieving loved ones. It’s there in the face of a gang member with a walker, telling of his bullet-shattered organs.
“This ain’t living. This ain’t life,” a man in a wheelchair says quietly. “This is self-inflicted genocide. This is a disgrace,” says Cusak’s priest in a scalding eulogy for a slain child that lays the blame throughoutthe shooters and the suppliers of guns and the social stratification that extinguishes hope and creates killing zones in the city.
Wake up! Indeed.
5 stars out of 5
Cast: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett and John Cusack.
Director: Spike Lee.
Running time: 2:07.
Rated: R, for for strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use.