The most talked about film of the year in Chicago, Chi-Raq, finally hits theaters nationwide this Friday–the first feature film from Amazon Film Studios. Directed and co-written by Spike Lee, the film goes well beyond its controversial title.
It is a modern day version of Lysistrata, set in Chicago, and if you’re not into Greek literature, Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott based this script on the anti-war comedy by ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes first staged over 2,400 years ago.
The main character, Demetrius “Chi Raq” Dupree, is played by Nick Cannon (Drumline, Bobby). He is an aspiring rap artist who leads a tough street gang, the Spartans. His girlfriend Lysistrata, played by Teyonah Parris, is a street smart, sensual vixen who sports her bravado through her sexuality and charm.
After a stray bullet kills a nine-year old girl, Lysistrata begins to see the severity of the gun violence that is a daily occurrence in her neighborhood. She takes the lead on attempting to stop the violence by ceasing to have sex with Chi-Raq and encouraging the girlfriends of the Spartans and the rival gang, the Trojans, to do the same.
Jennifer Hudson plays Irene, the grieving mother of the child gunned down. The role was all to real to the actress, who lost her mother, brother and nephew in October 2008 in her Englewood family home in a tragic triple homicide.
Hudson says of the role, “It wasn’t too far from home for me. I totally understood it. At times, I felt like in so many ways I was there on behalf of so many others. I’m here as someone who lost her family. I am here as a Chicagoan. I’m here thinking of my sister. She lost her child and lost my nephew.
“Those are the things that helped me be able to portray Irene. Again, I felt that it was me and it was necessary because I don’t want to see another mother outside scrubbing the ground of their child’s blood, or crying over it.”
One of Chi-Raq’s highlights is its musical score, composed by Terrance Blanchard and featuring songs by R. Kelly and Hudson. The film opens up with the new rap sound of Chicago – drill music. Each lyric and verse sprawls across the screen, setting the mood for the storyline.
Chi-Raq features Hollywood heavy hitters Samuel L. Jackson (Dolemedes), Angela Bassett (Miss Helen), and Wesley Snipes (Cyclops), along with Chicago natives Harry Lennix (Commissioner Blades) and Steve Harris (Ole Duke).
Jackson is no stranger to working with Lee and co-starred in his earlier films Do the Right Thing, School Daze and Jungle Fever. In Chi-Raq, he takes on the role of narrator/neighborhood hustler/street poet, while wearing flashy and colorful suits that would make most steppers proud. At times, Jackson spits the sweet poetry of the script so smoothly that you wonder if he is still filming a Capital One commercial.
It’s no doubt that there was a great deal of input from Father Michael Pfleger in this film as a spiritual advisor/consultant, and it shows through the character Father Mike Corridan, played by award-winning actor John Cusack (High Fidelity, The Paperboy, The Raven), another Chicagoland native.
Having to deal with the backlash of Chicago City Council members threatening to block a $3 million tax credit for the film because of the controversial name, Lee pushed ahead filming over the summer throughout Chicago neighborhoods.
He prides himself on his long-term commitment in providing job opportunities for people of color on his crew, including local production assistants, location managers, caterers, non-union extras and other paying job roles. Throughout the film, you recognize familiar Chicago personalities such as Windy City Live co-host Valerie Warner, comedian/actress Erica Watson, and comedian/radio personality George Willborn.
Chicagoans will recognize some familiar Chicago landmarks in the Wicker Park, Englewood, Auburn-Gresham and Washington Park communities, with key scenes filmed at St. Sabina Church and the General Richard L. Jones Armory.
Different Takes On The Film
Without losing the base of the storyline, Lee tries to incorporate various concerns that are at the top of the list in communities of disparity – unemployment, gentrification, lack of economic development and police distrust.
Pfleger feels that Lee connected the message with raw reality and truth, which is not always pretty at times, but necessary.
“It’s about shining the light, holding up the mirror and having a conversation. When you’re making a dramatic film as opposed to a documentary, it’s not actual facts. It’s not the story itself, but it’s a symbol of the story – a satire,” Pfleger said.
“You’re telling the story differently than from a documentary, but in doing that, we’ve found in the past that it started a dialogue. If you can start a dialogue and get this out there in the papers and get people talking about it, sometimes it tends to help fix it.”
Lee wants moviegoers to understand the reality of what’s taking place in Chicago and why it’s not just a police problem.
“We gotta be honest. The police have killed so many African-Americans, but many times, we’re pulling the trigger ourselves,” he said. “I’m not trying to slam Black Lives Matter because I’m with them 100 percent. I took my son to Michael Brown’s funeral. I wanted my son to see that because that could’ve been him. It could’ve been any young, Black male. But I think that we have to be honest. We can talk about the police and private citizens, but we cannot become deaf, dumb and blind to what we are doing to ourselves. This movie looks at this evenly.”
But, as Chi-Raq does its best to portray the reality of the gun violence and economic disparity within the Black community, it can also lose viewers.
Between its themes of “No P*ssy, No Peace” or “No Peace, No Piece,” sometimes the scenes didn’t flow and often left you wondering, did I miss something?
The same attention to detail that Lee is most recognized for – his directorial precision on both HBO documentaries, 4 Little Girls and When the Levees Broke, and films Malcolm X, 25 Hour and Clockers – seems to be missing at times in Chi-Raq.
However, this film is not a documentary nor does it belong in the category of non-fiction, though is message and script is mirrored on a major epidemic that we deal with daily in our city. The serious nature of Black-on-Black crime is a problem that provokes the same shell shock stress that is found in war-torn countries.
As much as we recognize the “power of the p*ssy,” the simple solution of withholding sex to stop Black genocide can be viewed by some as patronizing.
Lee tries to lace the serious subject with humor, but is it really funny once we leave the theater? We all wish it was as simple as curbing the vagina buffet for our spouses, but we know there will always be a T.H.O.T. around the corner.
Steve Harris, who has a small role in the film, grew up on the city’s West Side and feels honored to finally participate in a movie being filmed in his hometown. He believes once people see the film, they will understand the message and begin to have solid dialogue.
Harris said of the movie, “It’s different, it’s ambitious. This is a special problem and we’re doing something with a special solution. In real life this is a problem, even though the answer is simple – stop killing each other. This film represents that, but through an artistic approach.”