LIFF30 Review: Chi-raq – a feast for the eyes

Chi-raq (2015) is a triumph of no-holds-barred filmmaking. It is a feast for the eyes and the cinematic imagination, saturated with director Spike Lee’s biting political satire.

The film is a hip-hop adaptation and incisive twist on Aristophanes’ comic play Lysistrata (411 BC). Warfare between Trojans and Spartans is mirrored in black gang-warfare between ‘Troy Town’ and ‘Sparta South’ in modern-day Southside Chicago. Lysistrata, girlfriend of head Spartan Chi-raq (an ever-shirtless Nick Cannon) and the women of the opposing gang initiate a ‘sex strike’, forcing their men to achieve peace or never have sex again: ‘No peace, no pussy’.  

Cannon scream-raps that more Americans have been killed in Chicago than American soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. The film’s title, Chi-raq, is a conflation of Chicago and Iraq, recently coined by mass media to parallel the levels of violence in those two cities. Many have criticised the film for trivialising the issue of gang violence, viewing abstinence as an oversimplified solution. Though Lee humorously implies the only way to a man’s heart is through his erection, this denies the situation its political sincerity and belittles the issue. These are desperate men. It is not sex they crave. It is jobs and affordable housing. Nonetheless, it is undoubtedly refreshing to see women saving the day and forming an army against male idiocy and phallogocentrism.

‘These are desperate men. It is not sex they crave. It is jobs and affordable housing’

No matter your stance on the politics, it is a film which makes you feel. Those claiming to be unaffected by Chi-raq confessing to the murder of a little girl in front of her weeping mother are lying to themselves. It is hurt which motivates this film, led by an army of mothers wearing photographs of their dead children as their armour. Chi-raq is a masterclass in literary adaptation that makes you want to stand up and do something. Anything. The two lyrics that bookend the film? THIS IS AN EMERGENCY. WAKE UP.

Emily McDermott

(Image courtesy of 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks and Amazon Studios)

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