Amazon Studios 118 Minutes R
There was a lot of criticism of this film before anybody even saw it, based on the name alone. And Director/Writer, Spike Lee, didn’t didn’t promote it real well himself in interviews. But we think it’s the perfect movie for this time and place, and it’s more entertaining than we expected! It’s cool, sexy, thought provoking, and some good music and production numbers.
The film deals with gangs, poverty, education, relationships and violence. The story line superimposes the Greek comedy written by Aristophanes in 411 BCE (Before the Common Era). Simply put, women who were not happy about their men and their children getting slaughtered in a war decided to use the most powerful weapon in their arsenal…their bodies. “No peace. No piece.” No sex as long as they were at war.
This film applies to a lot of urban areas, besides the South Side of Chicago where the film was shot because of the number who have been shot in that city. Lee said he made the film because “this killing is not just happening in Chicago, you know, a LOT of urban areas in this county.” Nick Cannon, who plays gang leader Chi-Raq says “I mean bein' familiar with Lysistrata, the story and everything from verse and just the ideas and ideology of Greek Theater and love and war, being able to put that in modern day South side of Chicago is pretty cool.”
He put together quite a cast. Samuel L. Jackson introduces us to the characters and the story in the persona of a streetwise pimp. He comes off much like a potty mouthed version of the character he plays on the Citicard TV commercials. He’s loud, vulgar and funny and there’s more of that in the movie. But there are also moments of high drama and emotion that deal with the issues of the day. Plus a lot of the script is in verse. It rhymes!
Many thought Cannon would be too nice to pull off being a villain in this film. He’s fairly convincing as gang leader Chi-raq in a performance that’s a little uneven, but more than gets the job done. He’s paired with Teyonah Parris (Mad Men, Dear White People) as Lysistrata, his hot girlfriend. She’s a stunner. Enormously talented, she has the swagger and singing voice not only necessary for the role, but becomes the pivotal character of the film. She’s so staggeringly sexy and beautiful that men would do anything for her, including lay down their arms.
John Cusack plays Father Mike based on Father Michael Pfleger, who has been fighting violence with everything he’s got in his South Side Chicago Parrish, Saint Sabina. Cusack spent a lot of time with Pfleger who says the actor in a dramatic scene in the church “spoke as a minister oughta speak and then to be prophetic about the issues as well as the problems and what the solutions should be.” Cusack’s performance is strong and inspiring. His character gets lost in the back half of the film, but he makes his mark.
The actor says Lee immersed the cast in the community in the “real environment with the mothers, people who lost their children, grieving, trying to make a difference.” He also says people in the community thanked them for putting the spotlight on this life and death issue.
Cannon says the first thing the director told him was “I want to save lives on the south side of Chicago and I said I’m in!”
Angela Bassett gives her all in her performance as an angry woman who knows the score and is trying to school Lysistrata in reality. We find out what her reality is as well. Bassett as Miss Helen is strong and even more striking when she’s mad.
Jennifer Hudson is also strong as the grieving mother of a 7-year-old girl killed by a gang member’s stray bullet. Hudson had her own personal tragedy on the South Side of Chicago. Her Mother and nephew were shot by her sister’s boyfriend a few years ago. She knows how it feels. Her voice is unmistakable, and the emotion comes through.
Wesley Snipes as Cyclops with one eye is the brunt of several jokes as Chi-raq’s rival gang leader. Snipes is well cast for the role with as much humor as well as hubris. He’s all ego. And watch for Dave Chappelle with a rhyme line about a pole that drew laughs.
Is this worth your bucks? The gritty locations, sexy costumes and hair and makeup, especially for the women, add another layer to the story. They are eye candy and appropriate for present day. The music strikes all the emotional chords from humor to grief, especially the church scene where the choir and dancers punctuate Cusack’s emotional eulogy. There are several songs with memorable melodies and lyrics. You may not go out of the theater humming them, but they’re striking and help tell the story.
Spike Lee could have done a better job explaining why this film is not just about Chicago. It’s his call to stop the madness in every American city. But the surprising thing is that this is a film we think you’ll enjoy as well as make you think. Every movie is a Spike Lee Joint. This joint is worth the visit. “Ya dig?’”