Chi-Raq

Posted on December 3, 2015 at 3:37 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: A theme of the film is gang-related violence, guns, shooting, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Race and gender issues are the theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 4, 2015
Date Released to DVD: January 25, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B017W1P79I

“WAKE UP!” Laurence Fishburne pleads at the end of Spike Lee’s incendiary movie, “School Daze,” not just one of Lee’s best films but one of the most important films of the 1980’s. He was not talking to his fellow students. He was not talking to the camera. He was talking to us in the audience. He was telling all of us to rise above fear and petty differences — and fear of petty differences and stop hurting each other.

Copyright Amazon 2015
Copyright Amazon 2015

That message is even more urgent now, and so “Chi-Raq” is an even more powerful call for all of us to wake up, and it is Lee’s best non-documentary film in many years. It is more than a film; it is an anguished wail of grief and fury and the most important film of 2015.

We call the great Illinois city on the shores of Lake Michigan Chicago, but as the opening lines of the movie explain, for the residents of a South Side community with more violent deaths than the US military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is Chi-Raq. In the film a little girl is killed by a stray bullet in a gang-related shooting. She is collateral damage. The week I saw the film, there was a funeral in the very community where it is set for a nine-year-old boy who was a deliberate murder target as an act of reprisal against his father. Even the ultimate symbol of Chicago gangster violence, Al Capone, never went that far. This is not a documentary and the mode of storytelling here is heightened, but there can be no credible claims that what it portrays is unfair or exaggerated.

They feel completely isolated from any kind of help from the outside. Businesses are afraid to come into their community, so there are not jobs or services. The government does not help. The newspapers do not tell their story. Their news is reported by rappers, and in a sensationally dynamic scene in a club a rapper known as Chi-Raq (a fierce Nick Cannon) tells the truth about what they see all around them.

Lee, working with co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott, brilliantly positions this vitally contemporary story as an updated version of a play written in 411 BC, “Lysistrata,” by Aristophanes. Just as the savvy strategist of almost 25 centuries ago plotted with the other women of her community to bring an end to the Peloponnesian War by withholding sexual favors from all of the men, “Chi-Raq’s” Lysistrata (a sizzling performance by “Mad Men’s” Teyonah Parris) sits down with the women from the opposing gang (to continue the classical themes, the gangs are the Trojans and the Spartans) to get them to pledge that there will be no loving until there is no more shooting. The heightened classical overtones include a narrator/chorus who has a Greek-sounding name Dolmedes — inspired by the Blaxploitation hero Dolemite and played by Samuel L. Jackson in a series of natty, brightly colored suits. And then there is the dialog, all in verse, somewhere between rap and iambic pentameter, which actually have a pretty broad overlap.

Lee makes it clear that this is a widespread, even universal problem as women around the world join forces with Lysistrata. And no one escapes responsibility for the carnage, with a searing climax of tragedy and redemption. We see a mother (Jennifer Hudson) scrubbing her little girl’s blood off the street. We see people tweeting the details of a shooting as it happens. Lysistrata is inspired not just by her namesake but by the real-life Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, who brought the Christian and Moslem women of Liberia together to stop the fighting in their country. Lee is very clear about who is to blame and who is responsible for making it better: all of us.

And when we see mothers holding pictures of their children killed by guns, we are seeing real mothers, holding pictures of their real children. All of the flash, music, sex, and spectacle are balanced with moments of intimacy, connection, and poignancy, and all are anchored in Lee’s passion for his community. That reality makes this a rare movie that can change the conversation.

Parents should know that this film features gang-related and other violence with tragic outcomes including characters injured and killed, explicit sexual references and situations with nudity, smoking, drinking, and drug use.

Family discussion: What is the best way for the community, the government, and business to stop gang-related violence? How can a movie like this make a difference?

If you like this, try: “School Days,” “Do the Right Thing,” and “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” and read “Lysistrata”

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