VOD film review: Chi-Raq
Ivan Radford | On 01, Dec 2016
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson
Watch Chi-Raq online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Curzon Home Cinema / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Virgin Movies / eir Vision Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Wake Up. That’s the message behind Spike Lee’s latest joint. Amazon’s first original film, Chi-Raq sees the veteran director take on modern America’s gang culture, gun crime, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement with a searing passion. As a choice of first project for Amazon Studios, it’s a bold statement of intent. As a movie, it’s a rousing call to disarm that demands to be seen.
Taking a leaf from Aristophanes’ ancient Greek play Lysistrata, the movie is set in Chi-Raq, the part of Chicago that’s seen more gunshot deaths in recent years than US soldiers in Iraq. But when rapper Demetrius (Nick Cannon) and his purple-bandana-wearing Spartans gang step up their violent feud with the orange-bandana-sporting Trojans, led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes in an eyepatch – as good as that sounds), his girlfriend, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), decides enough is enough. Her plan? Get all the women in the neighbourhood to refuse their men sex until they stop the shooting. No peace? No pussy.
The result is a satire that feels like it’s been written by stitching together news headlines from the last two years, but if it sounds heavy-going, you’re forgetting who you’re dealing with. Spike Lee is on ferocious form, weaving calls for sanity with laugh-out-loud jokes. The male population’s descent into testosterone-fuelled stupidity is played as wonderfully broad comedy, all narrated by Samuel L. Jackson’s vividly dressed narrator, who delivers, like the rest of the cast, all of his dialogue in rhyming couplets.
The powerful result is as much musical as polemic, and DoP Matthew Libatique shoots events with a stunning sense of scale that matches the poetic patter of conversation. Scenes are peppered with angry, emotional tracks – including, in a way, a standout speech from a local priest at a tragic funeral. (Dispatched with fury by an astounding John Cusack, his heartfelt plea for compassion will have you in tears.)
Oh, make no mistake. Subtlety is not the aim here – “This Is An Emergency” is literally spelled out on the screen in gigantic letters – but sincerity is, and that earnest streak sees Lee serve up dazzling cinema with the kind of ambition and importance that makes you wonder why all directors aren’t currently making films about these issues. Witty, funny and unwilling to give a fudge about cinematic convention, Chi-Raq’s on-the-nose rallying cry is a punch to your gut. Wake up, it orders. You’ll be awake for days afterwards.
Chi-Raq is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.