Stop the murder madness or there will be no more po

Stop the murder madness or there will be no more po

When streets run red with the blood of its own
And thoughts and prayers cannot atone
For the sins of the fallen who don’t give a fuck;
Ask the innocent who happened to run out of luck.
What can one city do to stem the tide?
To bring down the curtain, to get off the ride?
Can they look to the lawmen they don’t rightly trust –
Hope that things don’t get worse with a violent bust?
For while they sometimes bring pause to the chaos and clatter,
They have a hard time understanding that black lives do matter.
Nay, it’s one local woman who reports in for duty,
and summons her sisters to withhold the booty.
For if their men don’t understand just what they are doing
They’ll soon learn, as their sex drives begin stewing.
Perhaps only then, they will see that peace is the point
Or so it might be in Spike Lee’s new joint

CHI-RAQ opens in no uncertain terms by declaring in big, bold, red letters “This Is An Emergency”. Before we get to the matter at-hand, the fact of the matter is laid out before us. Specifically, that since the turn of the century, more Americans have been killed in Chicago than have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

Gang warfare in “Chi-Raq” is rampant, and the way of the gun rules in a manner not seen since the days of Prohibition.

As our story finally unfolds, we meet our narrator, Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson). He will come and go to fill in some blanks and provide context, but largely he stays above the fray. Down below, in the land of us mere mortals, we find Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), a rapper and gang banger who heads up the purple-wearing Spartans. As the film begins, a club show by Chi-raq is broken up by a shooting when an audience member opens fire at one of the performers on-stage. The fan was a Trojan, the orange-sporting enemies of the Spartans who are headed-up by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes).

Why did these two rival gang members draw pistols in a crowded club? Why do dumb men do anything they do? Doesn’t matter much though – neither one managed to shoot anyone of consequence, just each-other. They do scare the shit out of a few hundred innocent bystanders though. Just another day in Chi-Raq, or so says the rapper’s girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris).

However, when Teyonah and Chi-Raq’s apartment is almost burnt down with them inside, she begins to think about her life choices. When she happens upon an innocent little girl slain in the street the next day and witnesses her mother (Jennifer Hudson) weeping over her bloodied body, she begins to think even harder.

At the suggestion of her neighbour, Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), Lysistrata looks up the story of Leymah Gbowee. Gbowee was a Liberian peace activist who rallied the women of her community to great social change by withholding sex from their men. Lysistrata takes the hint, and not only gathers the Trojan women to the cause, by the Spartan women too. “No peace, no pussy” is their warning, and if the men think they are joking, they soon learn just how dedicated the women in Chi-raq are to the cause.

But will it be enough? Can a city-wide case of blue balls stop the bloodshed once and for all, or while it just lead to highly armed and highly frustrated combatants?

 

Samuel L. Jackson in CHI-RAQ

 

The great thing about a fable like CHI-RAQ is the way Lysistrata takes dead aim at the patriarchy that stokes the Chicago fire. To hear Dolmedes tell it, she is the sort of woman that other women bow down to and men trip over themselves to get with. That she knows the former quality about herself (and believe me, she knows it!), allows her to fill out the ranks of her mission. That she knows the latter quality (if she ever forgot, the leers of most men she passes would remind her) gives her the only weapon she needs.

While it’s tricky to glean any singular lesson from CHI-RAQ, the closest thing might be this; the time to ask “what can I do?” has passed. It is no longer enough to play deaf and dumb, or worse to shrug our shoulders and mutter that it’s all going to hell anyway. The truth is that any one of us has it within us to affect great change, and that even the mightiest empires can fall. The trick is to think of a line of attack that’s unexpected. When Lysistrata realizes the power that Chicago’s women hold over their men, an entire channel of negotiation is opened up. What could happen if we took a similar stance to the injustices of our world? If we realized the strength in numbers we actually have and gave our aggressors no quarter?

Might we be living healthier lives? Happier lives? Longer lives?

What about the youth who fuel the fire that burns through the centre of this film? Kids who idolize their older siblings or wayward parents in a lifestyle that sets a terrible example. Sure there are TV shows that make “The Game” look so damned glamorous and rappers that make it all look even better. But what is the reality? Days spent hustling around squalor, preying on the gutters of that very squalor, just to lounge in a high life that isn’t all that high. What might happen if the ranks of the gangs were suddenly thinned because the generation coming up behind them realized that there was nothing heroic about their heroes. That “the life” wasn’t much of a life at all, nevermind a short life.

There are some who may suggest that Spike Lee – a New Yorker – has no business telling Chicago’s story. There are some that may suggest that he doesn’t understand the nuance, the complicated history, and what’s happened on the ground that has fuelled the fire. There are others who may suggest that a story like this should be given its due and not become fuel for dirty limericks and musical numbers.

To them, I wager Spike would respond with just two words: wake up.

The fact of the matter is that the state of the union in Chicago is just far too bleak to portray with any degree of realism. To even attempt to hold up a mirror and ask audiences to confront a very real problem in a world-class city would mean empty theatres. With a satire though, a master like Spike Lee is able to have his cake and eat it too. He can draw big red circles around the economic realities of the gun trade, big banks, and poor infrastructure, while knowing that he has an eye-patch’d Wesley Snipes and a rhyming Sam Jackson to add surreal colour to the grim picture he paints. They become the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

…and if that doesn’t do it, Spike will turn-up The Chi-Lites.

 

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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