Film review – Chi-Raq (Spike Lee, 2016)

Spike Lee’s latest satirical drama is based on Aristophanes’ Classical Greek comedy Lysistrata, in which women withhold sex from their husbands as a punishment for fighting in the Peloponnesian War. Anyone hoping for a faithful adaptation is probably unaware of Lee’s output, which consistently challenge the audience to think about black lives, making its release as timely as ever given the BFI’s Black Star season is currently in full swing.

To label the film as a satirical drama only tells the half of it, which strong elements of comedy and crime. However, it is the hip-hop musical storytelling method that could hamper this film’s accessibility to the wider audience. When the words aren’t being sung or rapped, they are spoken in rhyme or at the very least rhythmical.

If anyone chooses not to see Chi-raq because they don’t like hip-hop is going to miss out on an extremely powerful work of art. There is a heap of controversies surrounding the film, from the statistics that are listed through the opening to the name of the film itself, but the relevance to the current population of Chicago is clear. The phrase Chi-raq is a name given by members of the drill-rap community to a city that, due to the prevalence of gun and gang crime, has led to the death of more people than both the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan.

The most outspoken criticism of the film is from this very community, who are displeased with the use of the phrase in the name against a film that highly stylises what is happening in Chicago. Lee has responded to the backlash, stating “We need to focus on what’s important. The whole shit about the film’s title was a needless distraction… People didn’t have the understanding that satire does not belittle serious subject matter.”

It’s a fair point. The most important thing is that the film itself is brilliantly written and acted, with a standout turn from lead actress Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata, the woman leading the revolt against their horny and battle-ready partners.

If you like your musicals challenging, wrapped in the genre of hip-hop, and with a strong ensemble cast, then Chi-raq is a must.

Chi-raq is in cinemas now and is also available on VOD.

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