Chi-Raq was a bit of a left-field choice for me, as my normal film festival fare is documentaries and obscure foreign language films. (As will probably become obvious from the rest of these reviews.) But it had an interesting premise, it’s set in Chicago – a city I for which I have a soft spot – and its directed by Spike Lee, so it seemed worth a try. The blurb in the festival programme did not do it justice.
It was billed as a modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata – which, for the uninitiated, is the story of one woman’s mission to end the Peloponnesian War by getting all the women of Greece together to organise a sex strike – but it is so much more than that. I was expecting a take the storyline and themes adaptation, but they went the full nine yards – on screen narrator, Greek chorus, everyone talking in rhyme – and made it live and breathe of the streets of Chicago. It’s vibrant and passionate, funny and tragic (in the proper sense of the word) and it does not shy away from what it is or what it has to say. From the moment that Samuel L Jackson turns around to face the camera, freezes time and breaks the fourth wall to talk about a fourth century BC Greek play, its obvious that this is going to be something different. By the time John Cusack shows up as an evangelical preacher – in what I would say is his best performance in at least a decade – soliloquising on systemic racism, it is clear that neither he or the film are in the slightest bit interested in messing around.
Teyonah Parris is excellent as the titular Lysistrata – but its Angela Basset that steals the show for me. Such a controlled performance, this smart political woman, with so much rage and grief banked down under her skin. She’s the one who plants the seeds and holds the fort; the one who speaks softly while Lysistrata figuratively carries the big stick.
The soliloquies are just brilliant. They’re powerful and moving, and really bring out the poetry of the vernacular that they’re written in. The poetry that exists in all really good hip-hop. (I’m sure someone has done a proper hip-hop Shakespeare adaptation, if not, why on earth not, that would be amazing.) What I mean is that a play from 2000 years ago, ought not to feel so vividly relevant and timely. It feels, almost, necessary? As though it was just lurking somewhere in our collective consciousness waiting to be told. If it was, then I’m glad it chose Spike Lee’s brain to filter through because he absolutely nailed it.
There’s something decidedly bittersweet – a little heart-breaking even – about watching this film just a couple of days after the US Election. This film is very much a product of its time, of the administration that is coming to an end. It’s a film that acknowledges that the system is very broken, that the odds are stacked against anyone trying to build a better world, but it is also convinced that its worth fixing and its worth trying even if you don’t entirely succeed. A film both heart-breaking and hopeful. And honestly, in the current political climate on both sides of the Atlantic, I think we could all do with a little more hope right now.
The film had its Scottish Premiere tonight at the Inverness Film Festival, I don’t know if its getting a wider distribution in the UK but if you can see it, I highly recommend that you do.