Brilliant stylisation in a film that deals with home truths about America today.



This extraordinary film comes across as a work of two halves, the first of which marks a remarkable return to form for Spike Lee although possibly even more of the credit goes to Kevin Willmott. It was Willmott who wrote and directed CSA: The Confederate States of America (2004), a brilliant satire which was based on the likely subsequent history had the South won the American Civil war. Here he shares the writing credit with Lee but by all accounts it was Willmott who came up with the idea of a film reflecting contemporary violence in Chicago that would surprisingly involve an updating of the classic Greek play Lysistrata. Given a modern raunchy feel, the tale told by Aristophanes of women withholding sex from their men to bring about peace is retold as the new Lysistrata (Teyoneh Parris) adopts this same strategy, one which is taken up by women around the world who declare that sexual rights will only be restored if their men give up violence ("No Peace. No Pussy").


Chi-Raq is the chosen name of one of two gang leaders (Nick Cannon) challenged when his girl, Lysistrata, takes her stand, but the film's title also refers to Chicago itself being a slang term making a one-word comparison between fatalities in Chicago and in Iraq. In a predominantly black cast, we have a leading role for John Cusack as a white Catholic priest devoted to the black community of Chicago's South Side. He is based on a real-life figure, Father Michael Pfleger, who was an advisor on the film, but Chi-Raq's concerns are wider than its specific setting. As for the film's tone, that is hugely original with dialogue in verse, much address direct to the audience by a poet-storyteller (Samuel L. Jackson) and a key role for music. The score is by Terence Blanchard and in its highly stylised way the film makes music central: there are actual musical numbers staged, relevant songs heard on the soundtrack (sometimes with the words written up) and vital underlying accompaniment, most notably in Cusack's extraordinary sermon at the funeral of a young black girl killed in the violence.


The exceptional editing is by Ryan Denmark and Hye Mee Na and Lee fuels the film with energy while using the novel concept to bring freshness to the film's attack on racism, corruption in high places and America's love of guns from which arms manufacturers profit. It is great stuff, but unfortunately the film goes on for much too long (127 minutes) and that serves to underline the fact that much of the second half lacks sufficient plot development to maintain the impact of the earlier scenes. Indeed, genuine though its concern is, Chi-Raq does sink into sentimentality towards the close, underlining the fact that the anger felt so strongly in the first half is far more affecting. But, if the film is a mixed bag, anyone who misses it is going to lose out on some of the best moments in cinema this year.




Cast: Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix, D.B. Sweeney, David Patrick Kelly.


Dir Spike Lee, Pro Spike Lee, Screenplay Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee, Ph Matthew Libatique, Pro Des Alex DiGerlando, Ed Ryan Denmark and Hye Mee Na, Music Terence Blanchard, Costumes Ruth E. Carter, Choreography Maija Garcia.


Amazon Studios/49 Acres and a Mule Filmworks/A Spike Lee Joint-Vertigo Films.
127 mins. USA. 2015. Rel: 2 December 2016. Cert. 15.