BY SARA MILLER
Chicago. Known to most as “The Windy City” and home to the Chicago Cubs. But for some residents, the city is called by a different name: “Chi-Raq”. Coined by the local hip-hop/rap scene, the name is a mash-up of “Chicago” and “Iraq”, two places where chronic violence is commonplace. In his latest cinematic feature, Spike Lee addresses the city’s out of control gun issue and violence with frankness and unvarnished truth.
The film Chi-Raq is a loose, modern day adaptation of the 2,426 year old Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes in which the women of Greece withhold sexual privileges to end the Peloponnesian War. Starring Samuel L. Jackson as the film’s narrative, Chi-Raq is set in the violent southside of Chicago. Teyonah Parris plays Lysistrata, a strong and beautiful woman who is romantically involved with Demetrius “Chi-Raq” Dupree (Nick Cannon), leader of the purple clad gang the Spartans. For years, the Spartans have been at war with their rivals, the orange wearing Trojans who are controlled by their formidable leader, Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). When the Trojans set fire to Lysistrata apartment, she takes refuge in her neighbor’s home Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), an activist who lost her daughter to gun violence years before. When a little girl dies in a cross fire between the two gangs, Father Mike Corridan (played by John Cusack) and the child’s mother, Irene (played by Jennifer Hudson) plead to the community to help identify her killer without any luck. Shaken by the sorrow and grief of Irene, Lysistrata devises a plan to end the violence and bloodshed once and for all: all women who are involved with men in the gang are to withhold all sexual relations until both sides agree to sign a peace treaty and put down their guns. The film’s story line also touches on the issues of poverty, police brutality and unemployment.
First released in the U.S. in 2015, Spike Lee’s latest satire film finally made its debut on Canadian soil premiering at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto. But it hasn’t been an easy road. Ever since word got out that Lee would be tackling the issue of black-on-black violence on the big screen, criticisms and accusations from all directions have been quick and harsh. Feminists raised concerns on the film’s portrayal of women, local residents questioned Lee’s satirical take on a serious issue and politicians including Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel blasted the legendary director for his choice of title for the film.
Accusations, which put Lee in defensive mode.
“There is always that concern. I didn’t come up with the name or title of “Chi-Raq. I think the mayor should raise his concerns with the rappers in Chicago who coined that term,” Lee said. “As for the feminist angle, we stay true to the source material. We wanted to show, strong, sexy and intelligent women. The same people who might have not liked this film’s imagery, love Beyonce’s “Formation” music video. What’s the difference between “Formation” and the women in “Chi-Raq”?”
Despite the negativity from some, the film has also been praised for it’s beautiful cinematography and creative rhyming dialogues. The film in short, manages to be brash, earnest and to the point about the issue of street crime that needs to addressed not only in Chicago but in other urban cities as well. Just like his previous films, Lee strives not only to start social commentary but also start finding the solutions to the problems that plague our society.
Just like his 1989 film, I implore you to “Do the Right Thing” and watch Spike Lee’s latest joint, “Chi-Raq” which in addition to showing at the TIFF Lightbox, is available on ITUNES and VOD.