Spectacular “Chi-Raq” looms as a Comedy Masterpiece Where Gender, Sexuality & Sexual Politics Intersect

By John Townsend December 3, 2015

Categories: Arts & Culture, Featured - Home Page, Our Scene

Photo credit: Parrish Lewis, Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios.

Photo credit: Parrish Lewis, Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios.

If you don’t follow the films of Spike Lee, you don’t know what you are missing. Generally, I find that Lee lovers will cite one of two marvels: in my conversations with fans I tend to hear Do The Right Thing or Jungle Fever as their favorite. And of course, Malcolm X has a huge following, just like its subject. But Lee’s new “joint” (the maestro’s personal jargon for his films) is his greatest and clearly one of the foremost films of the decade.

Chi-Raq not only taps into the disquietude of Chicago’s present-day mean streets, but moreover, it captures the very zeitgeist of America in our times. The title comes from Nick Cannon’s high-octane tune, Pray 4 My City and its lyric “I don’t live in Chicago, I live in Chi-Raq.” This comes from the statistic that more Americans have died from crimes on Chicago streets than have perished in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. A sobering emergency stat that clearly demands someone to speak out in as big a way as possible. And Spike Lee has done that resplendently and triumphantly.

Photo credit: Parrish Lewis, Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios.

Photo credit: Parrish Lewis, Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios.

Chi-Raq is based on what is the most widely produced ancient Greek comedy ever, Lysistrata by Aristophanes — re-set now and written in verse vibrantly rendered by every single speaking role. The whole effect is larger-than-life and wildly madcap. Iambic pentameter follows the very beat of the human heart and Lee has accessed the heart chakra with wild humor and anguish as he relates how one woman, Lysistrata (a magnificent Teeyonah Parris), launches a sex strike against men until they lay down their guns. Few contemporary films have such idealism.

Lysistrata comes to a deep psychological realization early on when a little girl is killed in a gang war led by rivaling macho men played viscerally by Nick Cannon and Wesley Snipes. Jennifer Hudson plays the girl’s mother movingly. Lysistrata’s conscience is pricked and she is soon politicized by one Miss Evans played numinously by Angela Bassett.

One of Chi-Raq’s notable virtues is that the black community bravely turns the interrogational spotlight on itself. That said, the racism of whites has seldom been as uproariously portrayed as the The Citadel section of the film. That section is destined to become as historical in the annals of film comedy as The Citadel is in military history.

Photo credit: Parrish Lewis, Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios.

Photo credit: Parrish Lewis, Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios.

Though Lee’s work aggressively makes us aware of injustice against blacks, the black experience is not all he seems to draw from. The man has supreme regard for classic theater, classic cinema, and good sermons, no matter what the color is of those who have created them. I sense a vast apprehension of the larger world in Chi-Raq. Samuel L. Jackson utterly beguiles as a vaudevillian narrator. John Cusack is utterly breathtaking as a good priest absolutely fed up with weapons and violent men destroying his city, his region, his nation, and the world.

Film lovers will relish how Lee and his visionary cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, seem to pay implicit homage to major films and film makers. You can tell the imprint they made on Lee’s genius. There’s Bob Fosse with images of faces coming to the foreground as the background glides slowly backward still. There’s a glorious salute to George C. Scott and Patton. Stanley Kubrick’s manically heightened style, reminiscent of another irreverent comedy masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove, runs throughout. Chi-Raq’s relentlessly scathing sense of the madcap takes us back to Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville), There’s even one magnetic graffiti image stylistically reminiscent of ancient decadence in Fellini Satyricon. In sum, Chi-Raq is a mind-blowing comic marvel on multiple levels.

Photo credit: Parrish Lewis, Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios.

Photo credit: Parrish Lewis, Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios.

Note: Beware of media messages about Chi-Raq. It was victimized by conclusions recently drawn against it that simply came from a pre-release trailer. A classic case of judging against the film before having seen it! A similar pattern was suffered because of hysteria centered on the trailer to Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall released earlier this year. This is a pattern that has revealed its ugly head lately and audiences need to understand that films, like political issues, can be prejudged by those with axes to grind, by those too lazy to “get the facts” or who blindly follow the categorical thinking of both politically correct liberalism or politically correct conservatism. This is a pattern that needs to stop.

Opens Dec. 4 at area theaters

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