America’s third largest city, where homicides have surpassed the death toll of the American Special Forces in Iraq. Where the majority of these murders are of black males and by black males. Where 400 school age kids were shot in the year 2015. Where 55 people were shot and wounded on July 4, 2015 and ten more were murdered. This is Chi-Raq, Drillinois, the subject of Spike Lee’s most recent film.
Screenwriters Kevin Willmott (“Bunker Hill”) and Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing”) have crafted a retelling of Aristophanes’ Greek comedy “Lysistrata” written almost entirely in verse. In the ancient play, Lysistrata convinces all of the women of Greece to remain chaste until the men negotiate peace to end the Peloponnesian War. In the modernized “Chi-Raq,” Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, “Dear White People”) persuades the black women of South Side Chicago, and moreover the world, to withhold sexual relations from their men until the gun violence ends, until there is peace.
The dialogue is exceptional. It is simultaneously powerful, beautiful and hilarious while dealing with a controversial issue. The humor does not detract from the gravity of the film but uses comedy to alleviate tension. At first, for one who is unaccustomed to hearing verse, the dialogue is somewhat hard to follow; however, within minutes, the ear adapts to the rhythmic exchanges between characters. In fact, the rhythm of the verse creates a sensation of movement and continuity through the movie. The verse dialogue does, however, at times feels more like a gimmick than an aid for storytelling. The dialogue is comprised of a mixture of colloquial dialect and elevated language more often associated with the theater from which the basis of the story originates. This mixture attempts to make “Chi-Raq” a didactic epic grounded by the real world.
Often acting in conjunction with dialogue, the choreography of the movie furthers what the characters are saying and is visually thought provoking. The opening scene is an incredible dance number to “My City” by Nick Cannon (“The Killing Room”) who plays the character called Chi-raq. Throughout the movie, coordinated movements where groups on screen perform a distinct action, like when the women, while discussing deaths as a result of gang violence, hold up their hands and say “bang, bang,” are powerful.
Additionally, the music, consisting of almost all Chicago related songs and many original songs created specifically for the film, helps tell the story. The soundtrack ranges from rap tracks by Nick Cannon to tunes from Bruce Hornsby.
Although not as a result of dialogue, the story itself falls short. The film begins to lag about two-thirds of the way through while various groups figure out how to break the women’s strike. As the story continues, it becomes increasingly far-fetched and overly preachy. Although the style of the film is over-the-top, the suspension of disbelief is not maintained. The ending is completely contrived and forced. However, the film does achieve the goal it set out to do: to discuss gun and gang violence on the South Side. Despite dealing with a heavy subject, “Chi-Raq” is able to inform, be humorous and entertain.