Extras waiting around on Damen Avenue during shooting for Chi-Raq in the Wicker Park neighborhood
Pam Bosley, whose son was murdered, speaks to a press conference at St. Sabina Catholic Church, with Spike Lee on the left, Father Pfleger and John Cusack on the right
Tawakkul Karman (from Yemen), Leymah Gbowee, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf display their awards during the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize, December 10, 2011
USA (118 mi) 2015 ‘Scope d: Spike Lee Official site
While the controversial title Chi-Raq is designed to highlight the fact that Chicago is a divided city where most of the city’s residents live safely tucked away from the black segregated neighborhoods on the south and west sides known as Chi-Raq, viewed as a war zone where the majority of the city’s murders take place, as the Englewood neighborhood on the south side and Garfield on the west side have homicide rates more than ten times higher than anywhere else in the city, where the rest of Chicago seems oblivious to the bloodshed and violence taking place every day in Chi-Raq, where all they know about it is reported on the 6 and 10 o’clock news reports announcing the daily killings taking place. Other than that, the majority of Chicago remains totally clueless about those forced to live under such atrociously primitive, third world conditions. Lee introduces the problem with statistics in the opening credits, revealing more than three times as many people in Chicago have been killed (7,356) since 2001 than those serving in Iraq (2,379), and more than the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars combined (6,867), yet so little of the American political focus offers any solution for this inner city crisis. Opening with the bold-printed exclamation, “This is an emergency!” with both beginning and ending warnings to “Wake up,” music has always played a prominent role in Spike Lee films, from Public Enemy in Do the Right Thing (1989), Stevie Wonder in JUNGLE FEVER (1991), Prince in Girl 6 (1996), where now, perhaps more than anything else, Lee’s film offers a soulful prayer for the city, Nick Cannon - Pray 4 My City (Explicit Version) - YouTube (3:27), where the lyrics literally bathe the screen, “I don’t live in Chicago, I live in Chi-Raq.” Using Chicago natives R. Kelly and Jennifer Hudson, who lost her mother, brother, and 7-year old nephew to gun violence in Chicago in 2008, as well as some of Chicago’s local talent, where rap, gospel, drill music, and R & B rhythms, along with an eloquent symphonic score written by Lee regular Terence Blanchard, merge together to immerse the viewers in a pulsating, anthem-like, urban soundtrack that literally encases the film with musical poetry that serves as a backdrop and somber reminder of the harsh realities facing black youth in Chicago today, where in an early message, Chicago rapper Tink joins R. Kelly in a rousing call to disarm, OST Chi Raq R Kelly, Tink Put The Guns Down - YouTube (6:07):
Somewhere in the world a boy or girl is being buried by their mother
Somewhere in the world there is violence, brother against brother
Do your dance, get in your zone, they can’t take you out that
Do your dance, get in your zone, they can’t take you out that
Every hood, every block, somebody’s dying over nothing
All this hating gotta stop, we gotta know life is worth something
From Chicago to L.A
All the way to St. Tropez
There’s gotta be a better way
You got to, you got to, you got to
You got to, you got to
Put the guns down, put the guns down
In much the same way that 80’s rappers N.W.A were spawned by a culture of police brutality in Straight Outta Compton (2015), this film echoes a similar reality of young black men in Chicago, where the ferociousness of gang violence has no bounds, continually escalating into ever more senseless and mind-numbing brutality, where the music adds a subjective voice that literally transforms this film into a rousingly entertaining Broadway style production. Working from an ancient Greek play from the 5th century BC, Lysistrata by Aristophanes, which takes place during the seemingly endless carnage of the Peloponnesian War, Lee’s bawdy satire co-written by Kevin Willmott is a modern era, comical revisit to equally brutal times, where rival gangs known as the Spartans (wearing purple) and the Trojans (wearing orange) are involved in fierce combat on the streets of Chi-Raq, which also happens to be the name of the rapper (Nick Cannon) running the Spartan gang, seen performing at a packed Hip-Hop club in a devastating opening sequence that erupts into gun violence, leaving dead bodies and chaos in its wake. Shown unscathed and relatively unconcerned afterwards, Chi-Raq is chilling with his exquisitely fine girlfriend Lysistrata, played by Teyonah Parris, who is the real star of the show. Her sex appeal is beyond description, bold and self-assured, turning men’s eyes wherever she goes, exhibiting a fierce individualism in her walk. When Chi-Raq’s lovemaking in Lysistrata’s home is interrupted by an eruption of flames accompanied by a drive-by shooting through the window, he runs out into the street firing a semi-automatic weapon at the culprit who gets away, none other than Wesley Snipes as Cyclops, the leader of the Trojans, a one-eyed pimp who seems to prefer dressing as a pirate. Living across the street is Miss Helen, Angela Bassett, a fierce intellectual whose living room is lined with bookcases, righteously offended by what transpires in front of her home, seen afterwards with her hands on her hips and a look that could kill on her face. While the audience is immediately aware of the escalating conflict, there is never any attention paid to what they are fighting over, a mystery that seems invisible from every headline-grabbing story as well, becoming one of the underlying blind spots in an American culture that refuses to look any further into the root causes of ceaseless black urban violence.
In a touch of farce, Samuel L. Jackson is Dolmedes, a wildly humorous, sharply-dressed, one might even say pimp-inspired narrator with a walking stick who often interrupts the story, stepping outside the action to interject his own snide and sarcastic comments that he always seems to relish, offering moral insight in the role of a Greek chorus, explaining how communities under siege aren’t really anything new. In a throwback to the earlier era, much of the film’s language has an iambic pentameter rhyming scheme, which rather than feeling old-fashioned, offers a playfulness in the way the characters relate to each other, where the artifice on display is way over the top, thoroughly exaggerated (filled with dick jokes), overly melodramatic, and satiric as hell, with nothing subtle about it, filled with exuberant singing and dancing, where it feels like the director has taken a page out of John Waters, as this could easily be presented on stage, which might be the preferred medium. With her house burned down, Lysistrata moves in with Miss Helen, who graciously allows her into her home, calling her boyfriend “Machine Gun Kelly,” suggesting she needs to do something about him, encouraging her to take a radical stand. Mindful of the original Greek play, where Lysistrata organizes a group of wives to withhold sexual privileges as a form of punishment for the militaristic exploits of their husbands who are the commanders responsible for the continued bloodbath in ancient Greece, Miss Helen draws a parallel to Leymah Gbowee (LeymahGbowee.com), a Liberian peace activist who in 2002 initiated a sex strike with the men fighting a particularly bloody 14-year civil war begun in 1989, which helped bring about an end to the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003, ushering in new elections, ultimately won by one of her co-conspirators, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who in 2005 became the first female head of state in Liberia, a position she still holds, having recently been reelected, with the two of them sharing the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Dolmedes finds this particularly amusing, reminding the audience of the old adage that the best way to hide something from black people is to put it in a book, but declares Lysistrata’s intentions, as ridiculous as they sound, to be deadly serious, as desperate times call for desperate measures, actively seeking the support of women from rival gangs and the city at large, initiating public demonstrations, flooding the airwaves in protest, and generating slogans of “No peace, no pussy.”
A major turning point in the film is the senseless death of an 11-year old girl struck by a stray bullet, the daughter of Irene, Jennifer Hudson, mirroring her real-life personal tragedy which is at the heart of this film. While we’re used to seeing the repetitive pattern of grief-stricken mothers, the local news reporters pointing microphones in the faces of the victim’s family, neighborhood marches led by local pastors asking for an end to gun violence, including speeches urging the communities themselves to stand up to the murderers in their midst by turning them in to the authorities, with churches offering monetary rewards as an incentive, where nothing ever comes of it, as no one ever comes forward to identify the killers as they’re almost certain to be killed themselves in retribution. Placing plenty of blame all around, from the cops to the legal system to the tone-deaf politicians and even the residents themselves, what we’re not used to seeing is what Lee envisions in this film, which is a community that has literally had enough and decides to creatively take action into their own hands. It’s important to consider the role of Father Michael Pfleger (played in the film as Father Corridan by John Cusack), the white pastor of the mostly black St. Sabina’s Catholic Church on the south side since 1981, a pacifist and social activist in a similar role as Daniel Berrigan and Philip Berrigan, outspoken Catholic priests against the Vietnam war in the 1960’s (who happened to be close friends of Cusack’s parents), and one of the familiar faces seen in the funerals and public protests. Cusack’s fiery sermon offers the moral center of the picture, himself a tragic figure as he’s present at nearly every funeral, literally pleading for his neighborhood to summon their outrage and speak for the fallen victims, to rise up from the ashes of the dead and take responsibility for what happens in their own community, where the grim murder statistics speak for themselves. The question is how will they respond now that all this international attention is focused on Chicago at the moment, with the mayor recently firing the police commissioner, where the FBI will be conducting an extensive years-long search into the entire police operations, as recent cop-cam video evidence suggests police have been fabricating reports to justify the use of deadly force for years, where “the whole world is watching,” to coin a phrase from Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), one of the legendary films shot in Chicago.
Despite the rampant local criticism (Spike Lee Says Chicago Mayor Objected to 'Chi-Raq' Film ...), including many local writers, politicians, and citizens who are upset the film will depict Chicago in a negative light, they should be more upset about the murders themselves than any fictional movie depiction, as there’s nothing about this picture that is anti-Chicago, and is really a love letter to Chicago in hopes that they get their act together, where the creative efforts of the women in the film really dominate most of the action, though one of the best sequences is a fast forward el ride downtown from the south side where directly in the center of the picture is Trump Tower. While it’s a bit outrageous, so is the subject matter it’s dealing with, so to sit people inside a theater for 2 hours forced to deal with the excessive police reaction to minorities, including a murder rate that is through the roof, is probably a good thing. As of December 20, 2015, according to the Chicago Tribune in a graph that is updated regularly, there have been 2,887 shooting victims in Chicago just this year, topping the number of 2,587 for all of last year. Despite increased police presence, the ages of those killed seems to be getting younger and younger, as innocent kids are shot in broad daylight right in front of their houses, walking home from school, or riding the school bus, where it used to violate even the gang’s code of ethics to shoot young children, as if that was itself a cowardly act, but that doesn’t seem to bother this new age group of killers that continuously spray bullets in public places, where they could care less about the collateral damage. Perhaps it might surprise people to learn how many civilian victims also account for the large majority of those killed in war zones, where according to the June 2014 issue of the American Journal of Public Health seen here, extrapolated by antiwar author David Swanson:
The proportion of civilian deaths and the methods for classifying deaths as civilian are debated, but civilian war deaths constitute 85% to 90% of casualties caused by war, with about 10 civilians dying for every combatant killed in battle. The death toll (mostly civilian) resulting from the recent war in Iraq is contested, with estimates of 124,000 to 655,000 to more than a million, and finally most recently settling on roughly a half million. Civilians have been targeted for death and for sexual violence in some contemporary conflicts. Seventy percent to 90% of the victims of the 110 million landmines planted since 1960 in 70 countries were civilians.