Thursday, December 01, 2016

Chi-Raq - Spike Lee’s satirical musical about deprivation in gangland Chicago (QFT until 8 Dec)

The film’s title Chi-Raq is a portmanteau of Chicago and Iraq that sums up the gang violence in parts of Chicago’s South Side. It’s also the nickname of the part-time rapper and full-time gangster Demetrius Dupree (played by Nick Cannon). His rival is Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) who sports colour-coordinated sequinned eyepatches.
“Guns have become part of America's wardrobe.”

A shooting at Chi-Raq’s gig shocks his partner Lysistrata and is quickly followed by a case of coitus interruptus when her house is burnt down in the middle of the night. But it’s only when a child is shot dead in the street during a shootout that she finally wakes up to the appalling and needless loss of life.

Teyonah Parris oozes confidence in her role as the leading protagonist. Inspired by Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee’s sex strike, Lysistrata’s solution is to sign up women in the rival gangs to a policy of “no peace, no pussy”. Their plan is to (sexually) starve the warring men into negotiation and a cessation of hostilities. The oath they repeat starts:
I will deny all rights of access or entrance
from every husband, lover or male acquaintance
who comes to my direction in erection …

Director Spike Lee not only grabbed Aristophanes' Greek comedic play Lysistrata and pulled it kicking and screening into modern times, substituting rhyming rap for the Greek poetry to create an anti-gun crime musical. It’s an unpredictable and unconventional offering with a pumping soundtrack, humiliation of the military, and a narrator in a succession of loud three piece suits (who else but Samuel L Jackson!) who turns to face the cinema audience to keep them up to speed with developments.

It must have been a hair-raising pitch to the funders and production companies. But Amazon Studios signed up and Chi-Raq is the first original feature film they have released.

The script is laden with puns and laced with innuendo and sass. It’s not subtle. The imagery is rich in boobs and bums (and that starts with the men). Text messages flash up on screen to give a flavour of reaction to events, barely visible long enough to read in any detail. The pumping bass totally overpowers some of the lyrics and dialogue, but the story is simplistic and often visual rather than burdened with a need to hear the words. It’s a musical, so expect a song and dance even at little Patti’s funeral, though it’s marred by the appalling creative decision to include tinkling more appropriate to a piano bar.

Cinema doesn’t have to be easy. It doesn’t have to be palatable. Yet there is definite discomfort watching death being used as a vehicle for entertainment and I’m still not convinced that the excuse of Chi-Raq being satirical fully absolves the writers from the crass suggestion that sex is the most powerful weapon available to the black womenfolk in Chicago. Perhaps if it had been funnier, but with the tone remaining so serious for much of the movie it was frustrating. Yet for all its flaws, it’s a creatively clever film with stacks of ambition that plays with form and boundaries.

Homicide is more prevalent in Chicago than the death of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the US government invests in the economic development of Iraq to help its recovery, this musical satire questions why there is no similar investment in homes and jobs in Chicago. Spike Lee’s message is to “Wake up” to the reality and not to wait for someone else – like the state – to do something about it.

Chi-Raq is being screened at Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 2 and Thursday 8 December.

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