‘Chi-Raq’: Spike celebrates Chicago as he slams its gun culture

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This just in: Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” isn’t a broad comedy that makes light of the tragic levels of violence in Englewood, nor is it a gratuitous slam at our great city.

It’s a shattering, thunderous wake-up alarm, a call to lay down arms, a gutsy social satire and a highly stylized work of fiction that sometimes feels as accurate and sobering as the crime reporting you see on the front page of this newspaper.

From the opening sequence reminding us in the last 15 years, more Americans have been killed in Chicago than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, with Nick Cannon’s blistering and electric “Pray 4 My City” pounding home the point, Lee makes it clear “Chi-raq” isn’t interested in polite discussion. This movie is in your face and reaching for your conscience.

For a film about violence, “Chi-Raq” has a much lower body count than, say, “The Hunger Games” or just about any superhero movie of the last decade. Most of the gunfire takes place in the first half-hour — first when a hit man opens fire at a South Side club where up-and-coming rapper and gang leader Chi-Raq (Cannon) is performing, and later that night, when the rival gang leader Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) sets fire to Chi-Raq’s home and roars away as Chi-Raq comes running out and unleashes a hail of bullets into the night.


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It’s the latter episode that pushes Chi-Raq’s girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) over the edge and out of Chi-Raq’s arms. (As you probably know, “Chi-Raq” is an update of the Greek comedy from 411 B.C. by Aristophanes.)

Lysistrata moves in with a neighbor known as Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), whose life was marred by tragedy a generation ago. Sickened by the escalating levels of violence in the neighborhood, Miss Helen urges Lysistrata to wield the power of her, um, sexuality as a weapon for peace. Within days, Lysistrata has enlisted every wife, girlfriend, mistress, stripper and hooker to the cause — much to the chagrin of gangbangers, law-abiding family men and even the bumbling, fumbling Mayor McCloud (D.B. Sweeney), who blows a gasket in City Hall because his wife is on full lockdown.

“Chi-Raq” is filled with wild shifts in tone. Characters sometimes speak in verse. Sweeney’s Mayor McCloud and Harry Lennix’s political operative Commissioner Blades provide comic relief. Samuel L. Jackson is at his yelling-est best as Dolmedes, who dresses like a pimp and serves as the narrator for the story. There’s a dance number to “O-o-h Child” by the Five Stairsteps.

And we get a bizarre and not particularly funny bit involving a racist Southern military man (David Patrick Kelly) who runs the U.S. armory that’s taken over by the striking women. (Kelly is probably best known for playing creepy gang leader Luther in “The Warriors.” For no discernible reason, Lee pays tribute to Kelly’s famous “Warriors, come out to play!” line in “Chi-Raq.”)

Just as often, though, Lee strikes a serious, straightforward narrative tone, in particular with scenes involving John Cusack’s Father Mike Corridan (modeled after Saint Sabina’s Father Mike Pfleger) and Jennifer Hudson’s Irene, a grieving mother who doesn’t understand why no one will come forward and identify her young daughter’s killer.

Cusack’s fiery sermon at that little girl’s funeral is virtuoso stuff — as impressive as anything he’s ever done. Hudson, whose mother, brother and nephew were murdered in 2008, is heartbreakingly effective, especially so in a scene where she arrives on the crime scene and realizes the child under a white, bloodstained sheet on the street is her baby.

“Chi-Raq” takes aim at the gun culture, the gang culture, the government and a society that doesn’t always care about killings as long as those killings are taking place OVER THERE. Of course the notion of a citywide sex strike is ludicrous — but so is the reality of young men shooting each other over gang colors and turf wars. Wesley Snipes plays the one-eyed Cyclops as a twisted clown with a weird, high-pitched laugh, while Cannon is raw and powerful as Chi-Raq, who clings to his gangster ways in part because he just doesn’t know any other way. (His absentee father was a hardcore gangbanger.)

Teyonah Parris is a force as Lysistrata. Angela Bassett delivers some of the best work of her career as the world-weary but still passionate Miss Helen. Steve Harris is strong as an old-school chauvinist.

Chicago is also a star of this film. Deep into the story, the focus shifts briefly from Englewood to downtown, with Lee giving us postcard-perfect glimpses of Chicago’s glimmering magnificence.

It’s a startling reminder we’re watching a tale of two cities.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios presents a film directed by Spike Lee and written by Lee and Kevin Willmott. Running time: 127 minutes. Rated R (for strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use). Opens Dec. 4 at local theaters.

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