In terms of Spike Lee’s entire filmography I can’t say that I am particularly well versed in it. I’ve only seen three of his films; ’25th Hour’, ‘Inside Man’ & ‘Old boy’, and I wasn’t a fan of any of them. This caused some trepidation for me when going into his latest effort, ‘Chi-Raq’. Combined with the fact that I knew very little about the film I wasn’t hopeful. The film title is a combination of Chicago and Iraq, a nickname for the south side of Chicago implying just how dangerous this place is due to the excessive levels of gang violence. The film explores this violence and a women’s protest that is born out of this, all based on a the classical Greek comedy play, ‘Lysistrata’.
From the offset you should know that this film is completely bonkers, as it is based on a play the dialogue is spoken by the cast in verse and the film is almost a musical in places. All being set within a culture so far away from everything I know too meant that it took me a while to settle into what I was watching as I’d truly never seen anything like this before. Lee clearly has a lot to say about gang violence in Chicago and he does this very well in places, the highlight being one scene in a church featuring John Cusack as a passionate priest preaching for the cause. However, alongside these moments of serious political statements the film features some of the most off the wall comedy that you’ll see in a film this year. Often I would find such a mixed tone to be quite jarring but somehow, and I’m genuinely not sure how, Lee made this dual tone work. The absurd comedy certainly needed to be included as over the running time of two hours plus the message of the movie does become slightly monotonous and Lee can come across as being rather preachy. The comedy and musical sequences break this up nicely but also open up debates for style over substance which is certainly one issue that the film has.
The narrative for the film demands quite a large cast and ‘Chi-Raq’ certainly features a very talented selection of performers. I’ve already mentioned Cusack who really gets to shine during his moment of the film. Samuel L. Jackson has a memorable role too, acting as a narrator figure for the audience, he’s in his element here and everytime he appears on screen you’ll be entertained. Nick Cannon and Wesley Snipes complete the main male characters, with Cannon especially impressing. I don’t recall seeing any of his acting work before but his performance here should definitely open up doors for future film work as he’s really good. Doing it for the ladies in ‘Chi-Raq’ are Jennifer Hudson and Angela Bassett who are both brilliant, Bassett is wonderful in whatever she is in and like Jackson all of her scenes are very engaging. It was unknown star, to me at least, Teyonah Parris who caught my attention most though. Her beautiful appearance aside, Parris held nothing back for this role and nailed her performance, which would definitely be easier said then done considering everything that had to be juggled here tonally. Lee has a lot of thanks to give his cast as without the strength of their performances I struggle to think that this insane film would have worked.
So if you choose to see this movie be prepared for one hell of a ride. Whilst this may be too much for casual film fans there is most certainly an audience for this film. Balancing strong political messages and absurd comedy shouldn’t have worked but somehow it does. A confident and convincing all round performance from the cast help to carry the film off too however, there is no denying that ‘Chi-Raq’ is better in its parts than it is as a whole. Nonetheless, I don’t think this is a film to be missed and for the shear experience alone I would reccomend it, just don’t blame me if it’s too much to handle!
Rating – 8/10
Question: What is your favourite Spike Lee film?
(Leave your answers in the comments section below!)
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