Anjum Yasmin Nahar reviews Spike Lee’s latest film Chi-Raq
Teyonah Parris is a goddess in Spike Lee’s most recent work Chi-Raq, a highly topical film concerning the horrors of gang violence in Chicago. The portmanteau of the film’s name evokes ideas of Chicago as a war zone comparable to Iraq, in which black communities are destroying themselves from the inside.
Parris plays the role of the sexy, independent and good-hearted girlfriend of rapper and gang leader, Demetrius “Chi-Raq” Dupree. The film is loosely based on a Greek comedy in which the women of classical Greece withhold having sex with their husbands in order to end the Peloponnesian War. Lee has sprinkled the film with classical allusions which are worth keeping an eye out for. Parris’s character and the other women in Chi-Raq employ the same approach in order to form a truce between the two dominant rival gangs of Chicago, the Spartans and the Trojans. TWSS readers are likely to enjoy the ‘No peace, No pussy’ message that is at the heart of the film, empowering the women of Chi-Raq and giving them the agency to reshape their communities into safer and more prosperous neighbourhoods.
On the surface, this may seem like an idealized and unrealistic narrative. However, it is clear that Lee wanted to turn the streets of Chicago into a stage for theatrical spectacle. For instance, whilst some viewers may dislike the dramatic loosely rhyming verse in which the characters deliver their lines, once the ear adapts to the odd sounding speech, the poetic nature of the film can feel refreshing and new. Samuel L. Jackson plays the omniscient character of Dolmedes who regularly interferes with the story, disrupting it’s linearity and adding another layer of surrealism to the film. Nevertheless, Lee remembers to pull his audience back to reality by reminding us of the real life tragedies of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and the Charleston Church shooting which are all referred to in Chi-Raq.
There are many different aspects of this film worth celebrating. For those of us interested in costumes and set design, Chi-Raq is full of vibrant inspiration. The striking purple and orange costumes are used to display the loyalties of the characters to the two rival gangs but also add to the surreal, dream-like quality of the film. In my opinion, Samuel L. Jackson’s jaunty suits are in themselves highly commendable. The soundtrack of the film includes music from the likes of Jennifer Hudson and R. Kelly, but the most memorable piece of music is by far Nick Cannon’s ‘Pray 4 my City’ which plays during the opening and sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Although Chi-Raq handles the heavy and controversial issues of homicide, race relations, gun laws and government corruption, it is also a seriously funny comedy. The success of this film lies in its ability to make its audience laugh one moment and cry the next. It’s almost all black cast (John Cusack gets a pretty prominent role as the character Corridan, a white priest and supporter of the black community) is exciting and it feels especially unique to have gang violence focalised through a female lens. I am certain that Hollywood will see more of the impressive Teyonah Parris and I hope that the success of this film prompts film makers to increase the number of big roles given to women of colour, whilst also kindling the film industry to produce more thought-provoking films that give voice to the otherwise marginalised groups in society.
Illustrations by Rivka Cocker