Innovative filmmaker Spike Lee returns to the silver screen with one of his most resourceful, creatively inclined features yet, adapting Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata. Chi-Raq takes a unique perspective of the ongoing gang warfare taking place on the streets of Chicago – a narrative similarly explored in the excellent Barbershop 3 earlier this year – but not one told quite in the same indelible manner as this story is presented.
Rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) heads up the Spartans, in perpetual conflict with the Trojans, led by the unhinged Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). When an innocent young girl is caught up in the crossfire, the wives and girlfriends of those involved decide that enough is enough – with Chi-Raq’s partner Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) at the forefront, presenting the gang members with an ultimatum, whereby they will refuse to have any sex until the guns are put down, once and for all.
Though it’s Greek mythology that lays the foundations for this narrative to thrive off, there is something distinctly Shakespearian about Chi-Raq. Samuel L. Jackson plays a local pimp and works as the film’s narrator, almost like Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a notion enforced by the fact the majority of dialogue within this feature is spoken in rhyming couplets. There’s a grandiosity to proceedings that derives from this surrealistic, overtly cinematic approach, not to mention the musical numbers that feature, but it’s a film grounded persistently by the important, relevant themes that take a barbed look at crime below the poverty line, while also pointing the finger at the government, particularly by the local priest, played by John Cusack, who provides the film with its political edge. Lee is sure to emasculate the protagonists too by giving the power to the women, ridiculing the members of the gangs in the process.
The choreography is remarkable, and the stylistic approach is featured in a way that is not contrived, which can be a challenge for filmmakers to pull off. Chi-Raq is a little all over the place, but that’s not necessary a bad thing. Instead what transpires is a film unlike anything else you’ll have seen in a long time, and yet maintains its pertinency, proving that there are many ways to depict the harsh severity of the real world, and sometimes stepping so far out of it can breed the very best results.