Tim Tan Huynh

Chi-Raq

20 Sep 2016 — This modern re-imagining of a classical play is disappointing, but its subject matter is topical and thought-provoking.
Chi-Raq
The tagline is prominent in the afro of Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris). Her mantra in the movie isn’t as subtle.

I wanted to watch Chi-Raq in theaters, but its theatrical run was short when it was already narrow. I rented the movie about six months ago, and I expected it to be a grim drama. It’s topical, now more than ever, but it’s also a corny satire. I’m writing about Chi-Raq now because director Spike Lee and the cast have connections to NBA 2K16, and the newest iteration, NBA 2K17, has become widely available today.

Chi-Raq is based on an ancient Greek play called Lysistrata. In both works, the protagonist is a woman named Lysistrata who leads other women in a movement of chastity to force men to end a war. The tagline on the poster is “No peace. No piece.” However, the mantra in the movie is “No peace. No pussy.” The former is much more clever, and it can still be understandable if it’s delivered like, “No peace? No piece.”

This discrepancy is an example of my issue with the movie: it’s not as clever as it thinks. Some of the dialogue is written in verse, but it doesn’t seem to have any rhythm. The occasional inclusion of rhymes doesn’t impress me; it should’ve been like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which (to be fair) had been written 400 years prior. I kept thinking about A Tribe Called Quest and their rhyming couplets, partly because Malik Taylor had died days beforehand.

The scene that stands out in my mind is Lysistrata standing on a stage with her lieutenants as they overlook their followers who stand in formation. The leaders recite their manifesto, complete with an interpretive dance, and then the followers repeat the entire routine. The scene is dull because it shows the entire routine twice, and Lysistrata has already done it once for her lieutenants, and they’ve done it once for themselves.

I understand that satire is usually not subtle, but some scenes, like the one that I’ve mentioned, are overly repetitive or emotional. I feel the same way about Lee’s Livin’ Da Dream, his movie in NBA 2K16. The consensus has been negative, but I like its world and have continued the story myself. I also like its spiritual predecessor, He Got Game. On the other hand, I stopped watching Chi-Raq three different times because I was bored.

The cast has plenty of stars, and they’re not the reason that the movie is disappointing. I know Teyonah Parris from her role as Dawn Chambers on Mad Men. Nick Cannon plays Lysistrata’s lover Demetrius, who is the hero and the villain. Samuel L Jackson is the narrator who’s a part of the world and yet removed from it. Besides six actors who appear in Livin’ Da Dream, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, and Wesley Snipes also have roles.

Chi-Raq is not been particularly entertaining, but it has been enlightening. I hadn’t realized that gang-related homicides are so endemic in Chicago or that they’ve been rampant enough for “Chiraq” to be part of the lexicon there. I’m interested in research that can attribute causes for record numbers of homicides in the city. In this sense, Spike Lee’s modern re-imagining a classical play, written over 2,400 years ago, has accomplished something.

It has a cool theme song, too.