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Monday, June 27, 2016

Chi-Raq

At long last I have come to the end of my Spike Lee retrospective, if only because Chi-Raq is his most recent film (there a few that are not available from Netflix). As usual with Lee, Chi-Raq is about as subtle as a hand grenade, but it's message is well-meaning and pointed--black youth are killing each other at much too high a rate.

Lee and co-write Kevin Willmott have adapted Aristophanes' play Lysistrata into present day Chicago, pejoratively dubbed Chi-Raq because of the seemingly endless slaughter. Two warring gangs, the Spartans and the Trojans, have just added another innocent person to the dead by a stray bullet, and the women of the community, led by Teyonah Parris, decide to have a sex strike. As they put it, "No peace, no pussy."

I admired Lee's moxie in tackling this, and he pushes it further by sticking to the Greek form and writing it in verse. Samuel L. Jackson is the Chorus (sporting a fantastic wardrobe). The emotion he gleans from his cast, particularly Jennifer Hudson as the mother of the dead child (she, of course, has lost family to violence) is gut-wrenching.

Where the film struggles is the balance between tragedy and comedy. Aristophanes wrote comedies, but Lee has to be careful here, and pointedly says this film is not a comedy. But there are certainly broad comic moments, such as a meeting of the "Euphrates Club," a group of middle-class blacks, that manages to sneak in obvious Oedipus jokes. There are many dick and pussy jokes. Wesley Snipes, as the leader of one gang, wearing a jeweled eye-patch and called Cyclops, basically is giving a comic performance throughout. That would be fine, but Lee has no delicacy as a director, or at least hasn't shown any since the '90s, so it can seem callous.

But mostly I found this film moving and profound. John Cusack, as a white priest, gives one of his best performances, highlighted by a rousing elegy for the young girl. When he talks about politicians in the pocket of the NRA, it rings true, and to see this film right after Orlando hit home hard. The opening image of the film is a map of the United States using silhouettes of firearms. True dat.

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