Film, Arts & Entertainment


Chi-Raq: Tale of Two Cities

Posted March 28, 2016 by qotsm in Film

Spike Lee’s latest offering “Chi-Raq” is a film about gang violence plaguing the city of Chicago and a group of women who devise a plan in order to do something about it. Although the scene is set in the present, the story itself is based off an ancient Greek play written by Aristophanes, around 411 BC. In the play, a Greek woman, named Lysistrata, persuades the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers as a means of forcing the men to negotiate peace.* Chi-Raq is a retelling of Aristophanes story with a modern twist provided by Spike Lee, utilizing Chicago’s mean streets as it’s subject.

Being from Chicago, I’ve seen better days. Growing up on the city’s Southside wasn’t perfect, but I enjoyed my youth. Now, with the ever increasing violence, rising rate of murders and other crimes, it’s like another city; one I don’t know. So it’s admirable when someone wants to bring awareness to such atrocities, which focus attention to Black on Black violence. I can appreciate Spike Lee wanting his film to tell a story, which would bring the audience closer to an understanding of what’s really happening in Chicago and cities like it. I get that, and normally I can get behind that; just not this movie.

After listening to an interview with Spike Lee and another interview with two of the lead actors of the film (Nick Cannon and Teyonah Parris), my take on Chi-Raq would have been much different had I not seen the film. The interviews gave me a sense that the purpose of Chi-Raq was to bring a voice which speaks out against the violence and enlightens the viewing audience about the senselessness of it all. I sat and watched the movie, but didn’t get the sense of purpose or enlightenment about gang violence in the streets of Chicago. Instead, I saw a film that was, at times, entertaining (because there were talented individuals throughout the film), and at times disappointing.

Chi-Raq shows Lee’s sense of artistry by utilizing poetic verse as the language for conversation in the film; much like the modern version of Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes (1996), which uses Shakespeare’s original dialogue. Poetic verse is not so different than Rap or what’s known as Urban Poetry Slam. I can see this appealing to a younger more modern, Hip-Hop cultured audience. And for me, that was one of the better parts of Lee’s film. This was the part that I got. The rest however is what I didn’t get.

It felt like I was looking at a movie that didn’t portray what was really going on in Chicago’s streets. More, it felt like a mockery (an absurd misrepresentation or imitation of something**). The fact that people have been impacted so severely by the unnecessary abuses that gang crime invokes, made it even harder for me to watch this film. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of some of Spike Lee’s work. I can even embrace some of the controversy associated with many of his films. Here with Chi-Raq, there is no controversy.

This is an average film at best. Maybe my being from Chicago, and living on the Southside most of my life, brings its own bias to the critique of Chi-Raq. And perhaps I’m not being fair to Lee’s portrayal of my city and its obvious gang problems. But this film isn’t about Chicago at all. For me, It was a farce, which masquerades as a hard hitting example of what street life is like as a gangbanger […West Side Story did a better job, even with it’s over the top expression and scope]. You can’t just plug-in a story and make it fit, when the audiences you are trying to impress and entertain has to continue to live through the pain, suffering and hardships, that are misrepresented and belittled by the essence of such a film. Spike Lee may call his movie a work of art; an extension of his creativity, with a positive message at the end about “doing the right thing”; I’ll give him that. And let’s face it, much like the swashbuckling films of yesteryear, I can see a younger crowd being attracted to the allure of money, power and belonging to something (seemingly) greater than oneself; which is troubling because of what you see on the screen. Making too much about riches through violence, and glamorizing gang life, even in this movie, is over the top.

Clearly, this is a “tale of two cities”; the city of Chicago, troubled, trying to deal with real life gangland issues. Then there’s the Chicago as depicted in the film Chi-Raq. Sure the issue of gangland violence is at the core of the movie, but it loses credence as the film goes on to resemble the tragic comedy that it attempts to recreate.

It’s important to see movies that have perked your interest and curiosity; as I did in seeing Chi-Raq. The advantage you have of reading about, or speaking to someone who has seen the film prior, is not only helpful, but a gift. You literally have the upper hand when it comes to deciding what films to watch. So here’s my gift. Chi-Raq, with all its best intentions, doesn’t make grade.

Gregory Morgan

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    I personally didn’t see the movie, nor did I want to see it. I live in the city and watch the news daily. The previews didn’t depict anything that’s seen or heard daily. I think the movie should have been entitled something else.

    Kathy Hey

    Excellent insight. I grew up on the South Side as well. If this film was supposed to illuminate and give voice- it was an epic fail. I like Spike but he should stick to Brooklyn.

    Carla Sprattling

    I have yet to watch Chi-raq because I didn’t want to view a movie that didn’t truly being forth dialogue and discussion to help change the tragic events happening in Chicago. After reading this review, which was great, I’m even less inclined to watch it. Greg, your review on this movie is well written and I can definitely appreciate your view as someone from Chicago.

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