“Chi-Raq”: An Amusing Look at a Serious Topic

Amazon’s first feature film reflects on the grim world of gang violence, straddling the line between lighthearted comedy and biting satire.

Eric Anderson, Staff Writer

For a film that begins by presenting a damning social statistic – more Americans have been killed in Chicago in the last decade than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined – Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” is curiously, but not pointlessly, lighthearted.

The film, taking its name from a portmanteau of “Chicago” and “Iraq” used by South Side Chicago residents, is the first feature film distributed by e-commerce giant Amazon’s media division, Amazon Studios. The movie saw a small theatrical release on Dec. 4 before arriving on digital purchase platforms by month’s end, and is now available to stream from Amazon’s Prime subscription service. It follows in the footsteps of Netflix’s “Beasts of No Nation,” which paved the way for streaming services to begin releasing films of their own.

Like “Beasts,” Amazon’s first feature is a socially conscious picture with a known talent behind the camera, centering on the damages of violence in the community. But the similarities between the two films seem to end around there. While “Beasts” is a bleak, harsh drama focusing on the plight of child soldiers in a non-specific country, “Chi-Raq” is a satirical farce about the consequences of gun violence in a very specific area: Chicago’s South Side.

Adapted from the Greek play “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes – a point which the film’s fourth-wall-breaking narrator (Samuel L. Jackson) comments on – “Chi-Raq” retains the source material’s usage of rhyming verse, but otherwise updates the setting and characters. When an innocent child is caught in a drive-by shooting, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) organizes a sex strike among the community’s women, vowing that the men will not get any “piece” until there is “peace.”

The movement proves extraordinarily inspirational, sparking similar movements around the world, leading many women in positions of power to join them. A one-off joke insinuates that even the (unnamed) First Lady has joined the cause, putting powerful pressure on community leadership as well as the gangs. The men, however, refuse to cave, plotting numerous schemes to subvert the cause. But for all the zaniness of the film’s story, it’s still a film with something to say – and it gets the message across.

The film is very solid in the acting department. In addition to Teyonah Parris’ striking turn in the lead role, Nick Cannon, playing the male lead, also proves his own talent, joining the ranks of Ice Cube and Common in the pantheon of rappers-turned-actors. Lee regulars Samuel L. Jackson and Wesley Snipes make noteworthy appearances, along with Angela Bassett and Jennifer Hudson. John Cusack, playing the local minister, is a major scene-stealer, providing much of the film’s moralizing, urging on the women and guiding Cannon’s character to confess his sins.

The film is also well-made on a technical level. Good cinematography and tight editing help focus the viewer’s attention, and the movie keeps its surprises close to the chest until they’re ready to be revealed. The music fits smoothly, and Cannon’s “Pray 4 My City,” which opens the film, is a more potent and memorable piece than Common’s Oscar-winning “Glory,” despite its absence from this year’s awards race. The only notable technical annoyance is the appearance of onscreen text messages, which can be very distracting.

More than anything else, though, “Chi-Raq” is a movie about damages. The street violence that sets off the movie’s main conflict is not constantly on display, but it forms the undercurrent behind every character’s actions. There is no singular source that “Chi-Raq” attempts to blame for it, but the consequences are as far-reaching and shocking as the film’s resultant sex strike. The notion of gang violence as a cycle is addressed, and Lee suggests that with each generation, the effects are growing worse and worse. Though it possesses a light and humorous touch, “Chi-Raq” is a sharp and swift indictment of urban violence and a call to disarm that should not be taken lightly.