2,349 American deaths in the Afghanistan war. 4,424 American deaths in the Iraqi war. 7,356 murders in Chicago. The frightening statistics over a fifteen-year period that fuels the frenzied anger of Nick Cannon’s aspiring rapper, as the deep wounded reds of its opening frames which resemble a lyric video, pepper the screen. A director reeling from the indifferent response to his tragic Hollywood remake of Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy, it’s perhaps fitting Spike Lee puts his own emphatic contemporary stamp on a work from a country renowned for its mythological upsets. Originally a Greek play by Aristophanes called Lysistrata, Chi-Raq is a compelling cinematic commentary on the excessive and senseless gun violence that continues to plague the streets of modern America.
‘Welcome to Chi-Raq. The land of pain, misery and strife.’ Samuel L. Jackson’s Dolmedes the flamboyant pimp and narrator of the piece as he delivers the fourth wall-breaking dialogue with rousing gusto, whilst the excitable crowd of his initial scenes could be mistaken for attempting the mannequin challenge, as they await the brash theatrics of Demetrius Dupree (Cannon).
Front and centre to catch a glimpse of his thriving talents? Teyonah Parris’ empowering female heroine, whose fierce attraction to him sees her caught up in the intense and unforgiving gang warfare raging between the Spartans led by Dupree and the Trojans headed up by Wesley Snipes’ eye patch-wearing Cyclops, as they wear their vibrant colours of orange and purple with a warped sense of pride.
Deeply affected by the isolated displays of dismay shown by Jennifer Hudson’s mourning mother Irene and Angela Bassett’s feisty activist in the heat of such heinous acts, Lysistrata (Parris) herself grows sick of the passive stance towards the tragedies occurring on a daily basis. In order to ‘Do The Right Thing’ and prevent further deaths, she looks to encourage her fellow fierce females to starve their men of sex, until they take their fingers off the triggers.
The thrilling tracking shots and superb use of split-screen by Spike Lee in the film’s widescreen format, painting his passionate and expansive picture as the opposing sides state their case, Chi-Raq sees the director rediscover his searing and satirical inner voice in exhilarating fashion.
Unearthing a wicked sense of humour from an ultimately sobering subject, as riotous uses of phallic symbolism in its encounters with white supremacists along with unlikely depictions of men suffering with ‘withdrawal’, prove hysterical and audacious viewing. Yet its dissection of such brutality in a time when the Black Lives Matter movement continues to gain traction and the desperate state of politics are continuously mocked is poignant and potent, as the lyrical prose of its original text is a seamless fit for the rousing rhythms of its timely, telling rap music, further enriched by the bombast of the brilliantly choreographed song and dance sequences.
The intentions of its director showcased firmly in one impassioned sequence involving John Cusack’s Father Mike Corridan, lamenting the racism that lingers in America along with the lack of economy building for seemingly abandoned communities torn apart by their third-rate treatment, as the morally corrupt remain showered in first-rate luxuries.
Eager to retain a sense of control in a frenzied landscape, Nick Cannon convinces as the thuggish Dupree, yet inevitably it’s the females of the ensemble that run this show. Angela Bassett puts in a raw, powerhouse performance as Miss Helen whom knows the ramifications of such bloodshed all too well, whilst Teyonah Parris is truly spectacular as Lysistrata. Owning every frame she graces with sensuality and sass in a style that would make a certain Beyonce Knowles proud, she proves the ideal poster woman for reasserting a collective female power in a world where they’re constantly being objectified and mistreated.
It may leave certain audiences craving a greater sense of subtlety. But bursting with vibrancy and vitality. Ferocious in its feminism. Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is an electrifying return to form and an essential ‘joint’.
Chi-Raq opens in select UK cinemas from today (Friday, 2nd December).