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Seasoned Ticket, The Scarecrow Wire

The Seasoned Ticket #265: CHI-RAQ

Posted April 19th 2024

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. This series of "critic's notes" is chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connect them to the riches of Scarecrow's collection.

Scarecrow Academy meets Saturday, April 20 at 2 pm Pacific Time for another session in our "Politics on Film" discussion series; our subject this time is Spike Lee's Malcolm X, from 1992. I don't know where my review of that movie is, but I thought I would revive a 2015 piece on Chi-Raq, one of Lee's craziest movies, originally published in The Herald. It got some bewildered notices at the time, but the movie struck me as heady proof of life from a free-swinging filmmaker. Here's that piece—and maybe we'll see you at Scarecrow Academy.

His lifetime-achievement Oscar—awarded last month—was a reminder that Spike Lee makes movies that aren't remotely like anybody else's. Chi-Raq, for instance, is one enormously bizarro film.

Any filmmaker might make a study of inner-city violence, circa 2015. But only Lee would play it as an update of an ancient Greek comedy, with rhyming dialogue, song-and-dance sequences, and direct address to the audience. It's also got Samuel L. Jackson as a natty onscreen narrator and Wesley Snipes as a one-eyed gang leader named Cyclops. But that should come as no surprise.

In other words, Lee is really letting it rip here. And although in a variety of ways Chi-Raq is overbearing and stilted, the thing is so unusual you can't help keeping your eyes glued to the screen.

The title suggests that the gang turf of Chicago has approached the level of a war-torn Middle Eastern country. The neighborhood women are fed up with their community getting killed in the crossfire. And so—borrowing the plot device from Lysistrata, the classic Greek play by Aristophanes—the women announce that they will withhold sex from their men until the violence stops.

Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) puts the brakes on her relationship with Demetrious (Nick Cannon). He's the leader of the gang that wears purple; Cyclops (that's Snipes, in whimsical form) leads the gang that wears orange. They will kill each other because of their gang colors. You know, the way people will kill each other over national identity and religious affiliation.

Providing moral authority for the sex strike is elder statesman Miss Helen (the always-mighty Angela Bassett) and grieving Irene (Jennifer Hudson), a mother whose daughter is the latest victim of the rampant gunplay. They all speak the rhyming dialogue, concocted by Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott. Off-putting at first, the artificial delivery becomes part of the texture of this very stylized movie.

Never one for understatement, Lee stops the movie so a preacher (John Cusack) can deliver a looong sermon on current events. There's also a zany scene—one of the film's funniest—in which a military general strips down to reveal undies made of the Confederate flag. A one-scene cameo by Dave Chappelle, as a strip-club owner bemoaning his sudden lack of dancers (they're on strike too), adds a nice kick.

As in his most hectoring works, Spike Lee wants to ring a bell, the better to wake people up. Given that the first words in the film are "This Is an Emergency," this crazy, clumsy movie is more like an air-raid siren.

April 19, 2024