“Chi-Raq” Directed by Spike Lee

By on April 28, 2016








Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing”, “Malcolm X”, “Inside Man”)

Main Cast:

Nick Cannon (“Drumline”)

Teyonah Parris (This is the first movie I’ve seen her in)

Wesley Snipes (“Jungle Fever”, “The Waterdance”, “Rising Sun”)

Angela Bassett (“Boyz n the Hood”, “Malcolm X”, “What’s Love Got to Do with It”)

Samuel L. Jackson (Multiple major releases every year, which still doesn’t make up for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar he should have been nominated for and won for “Jungle Fever.”)

Running Time:  127 Minutes


chi-raq posterSay what you want about “Chi-Raq“, director Spike Lee’s heart was in the right place in making it.  The disparity between the film’s Rotten Tomatoes (81%) and IMDB (5.4) ratings is understandable.  This is not the easiest film to watch.  I thought about using an intro like, “The phrase ‘hot mess’ is used a lot these days . . .” but that’s too simplistic and not a fair assessment of the film.

“Chi-Raq” is an adaptation (Lee with co-writer Kevin Willmott) of the comic play “Lysistrata” written by the ancient Greek poet and playwright Aristophanes.  The female title character meets with women from other city states in Greece and persuades them to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers in an effort to force an end to the Peloponnesian War.  What the strategy does, however, is inflame the eternal battle of the sexes.  Pretty progressive for a play that was performed in 411 B.C.

Lysistrata drawing

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley, 1896.

The setting of “Chi-Raq” is updated to modern-day Chicago and the warring factions are gangs, the Trojans and Spartans.  While there are definitely comedic moments, “Chi-Raq” is more satire, drama, and musical (with some choreography) than comedy.  The title is a name young people in Chicago have nicknamed their city, comparing it to battle-worn Iraq because of the frequency of gunfire and gun-related deaths that have made that part of the city a war zone.  I’m not sure whose residents should be more offended by the portmanteau (two words smashed into one that retains the meaning of both).

Typical for a Spike Lee movie, “Chi-Raq” begins energetically, this time skipping his usual slick opening credits for the Nick Cannon written-and-rapped intro “Pray 4 My City”, displaying the lyrics in striking red lettering on a black background.  “This Is An Emergency” then flashes in giant red letters before graphics appear comparing the number of deaths of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq with the number of gang-related deaths in Chicago.  To start the story, narrator Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) freezes the action behind him to explain to the viewer what we are about to see, which he does in rhyme, which is how the dialogue for the entire movie is delivered.

chiraq cannonIn a role originally intended for Kanye West, Nick Cannon (left) plays the title character, both rapper and gang leader, but context takes away from his performance.  While he has the physicality and delivery that fit the character, his Nickelodeon background, his role in “Drumline”, his much-too-publicized marriage to and divorce from Mariah Carey, and especially hosting the reality show “America’s Got Talent” all detract from his credibility in playing a thug.

chi raq hudson cusack

Cusack and Hudson at a real-life anti-violence demonstration in Chicago

Wesley Snipes plays rival gang leader Cyclops and Teyonah Parris plays Lysistrata, girlfriend of Chi-Raq.  In support are Jackson, ageless Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson and, in his first film appearance since 2002, Dave Chappelle.  All put their hearts into their roles but the stars of the movie are the energy and rhythm of the directing, storytelling and dialogue, which are often explosive.  An Amazon-produced film, I saw it on Amazon Prime, which lacks an element that would help the viewer fully digest what’s happening; subtitles to understand and emphasize what’s being said.

Chi-raq (12)Chi-raq (8)Chi-raq (7)







i like when movies reference other movies.  David Patrick Kelly, who played bad guys named Luther in the Walter Hill films “The Warriors” (1979) and “48 Hrs.” (1982), has a comical cameo as a General Patton-esque character.  In another “Patton” reference, the film ends with Diomedes addressing the audience in front of a giant American flag.   Chi-raq (19)There’s also a paraphrasing of Kelly’s “Warrrrrriorrrrs, come out and play-ay!” in “Chi-Raq.”  Another is the name of the strip club, Love Daddy, which is Sam Jackson’s character in “Do the Right Thing”, who serves as quasi-narrator of that film.  The all-female war council scenes are reminiscent of “Jungle Fever.”

The battle-of-the-sexes scene with the cast singing along with the Chi-Lites 1972 classic “Oh Girl” is a musical high point of the film.  Another high point is the multi-country segment where women from all over the world join in the fight to end senseless killing, chanting emphatically in different languages.


Thug, narrator, cop

While sexuality is a big part of the storyline, I could have done without the nudity and graphic language and sex scenes (nothing new for Lee) and still got the point.  Non-prudes will find they augment the story appropriately.

The production quality, dialogue, acting, music, choreography and multi-layered storyline are all well done, thoughtful and, again, energetic.  In addition, the movie introduces many of us to a classic piece of literature we otherwise might not have come across.  There have been at least six other film adaptions, but Lee is the highest profile director to bring the story to the screen.

“Chi-Raq” requires your full attention and makes you work for it.  This is absolutely a movie you have to be in the mood to watch.  More accurately, your mindset should be very open before you view it and you should just let it play out in front of you.  It’s a little long and uneven but, when it’s over, you’ll appreciate that someone took the effort to make it and that viewing it was time well spent.  You’ll  also wonder why it wasn’t acknowledged more.


Parris and Cusack

This may be as thoughtful a film as Spike Lee has ever made.  Twenty-seven years after “Do the Right Thing”, “Chi-Raq” reminds us that, like him or not, Lee is still a significant and provocative film director.


April 28, 2016


I mentioned in my “Turning Cobra into Python” article (August 1, 2013  http://pennsquarepost.com/turning-cobra-into-python/) how I’ve experienced odd and eerie coincidences for as long as I can remember.  In recent years they usually come in the form of conversation, movies, TV shows, music and Jeopardy.   The same day I posted this review, this was a Jeopardy clue:


About Dan Walker

As part of an Air Force family, I went to elementary school in Great Falls, MT, junior high in Cheyenne, WY and high school and college in the San Francisco Bay Area, graduating from San Francisco State University with a degree in business. I was fortunate to have worked for great companies in Silicon Valley (Oracle Corp) and Hollywood (Miramax Films). I also lived and worked (primarily in financial services, which has no great companies) for eight years in Manhattan, New York City. I now reside in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley.

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