In association with the Glasgow Film Theatre
Amid the rising tide of disillusionment and anger among black and ethnic minority groups in America, veteran director Spike Lee brings us musical drama Chi-Raq. The film, which takes its title from the real nickname given to Chicago (more people have been shot and killed in Chicago since 2001 than American soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan combined), is a modern retelling of the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes’ magnum opus, Lysistrata, which tells the story of a woman who refuses to have sex with her husband, a soldier, unless he and the other soldiers agree to end the Peloponnesian War. Lee relocates the characters and the outline of the plot to gangland America, with explicit references to George Zimmerman and Sandy Hook, while retaining the tone and theatricality of a stage production.
The asides and bookending monologues of Samuel L. Jackson’s Dolmedes adds to this theatricality. Jackson plays the part in his own distinctive style and it is a perfect fit. The performances are excellent for the most part, with the exception of Wesley Snipes’ absurd gangster caricature and Jennifer Hudson’s completely unbelievable and unlikeable grieving mother. Teyonah Parris gives what will surely come to be known as her breakthrough performance, leading the drama with arresting confidence and poise while Nick Cannon proves that he has more talent than his previous projects have allowed him to employ. The likes of Angela Bassett and David Patrick Kelly are also superb, but the star of the show is John Cusack as Father Mike Corridan, the local church minister and outspoken critic of both the establishment and the gangs. His impassioned speech on gun control, the militarisation of the police, the lack of opportunity for those drawn into the gangs and the treatment of the minority groups by the establishment – “mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow” – may well put him in contention come awards season.
The film is not without its problems. While the vibrancy of the music and visuals make Chi-Raq an engaging experience, the tone is uneven to say the least. The handful of musical interludes, while entertaining and enjoyable, only exacerbate the problem. Ranging from broad comedy to tear jerking drama via documentary, it seems as though Lee is never quite sure what kind of film he wants to make. Nevertheless, the film is entertaining, thought provoking and most of all timely. Whether this works in its favour or not as the years pass remains to be seen.
[Tim Abrams – @timabrams123]
The film will be running at Glasgow Film Theatre from the 2nd until the 8th of December. Tickets are available here.