Rating: R, Time: 2hr 7min, Director: Spike Lee, Cast on IMDb
How does this film connect the notorious Chi-raq name to its title?
It's a blend of Iraq and Chicago, which has gone from Chi-town to Chi-raq. In essence there has been more killing in a year in Chicago per inhabitant vs. Iraq, which just got over the US invasion. There is a massive gun violence issue related to the drug trade. The Chicago mayor passed legislation to take guns off the street, but has actually resulted in more gun violence related to the gun trade and gang warfare. In August 2016, there wer over 400 shootings with a lot of stray bullets hitting children or non-gang civilians.
How did you connect to the film?
Well, actually I grew up in the suburbs in the late 80s of Chicago. The police would crack down on any type of youth driving around. I personally was arrested several times for simple driving infractions. The gangs reach all the way out to the suburbs I grew up in. I had several acquaintances in the Gangsters and Disciples gang. At one point I got to go to a party inside the projects like Cabrini Green that were notorious for sniper type shootings. These were extremely bad government ideas to house all the poor in one house that had poor job prospects. No surprise after they opened the gangs trading drugs and guns became the main inhabitants. Fortunately, the government decided to end these types of mass project dwellings and tore down Cabrini Green in 2011.
Another spooky element to this particular project was that they made "Candyman" the movie here based on a mythical black serial killer that comes after you if you say "Candyman, Candyman, Candyman" to a mirror three times. I would say this slasher film was a subtle allusion to the fact that many people just disappeared that lived in the projects.
So is the film a take after Candyman or another reference?
Chi-raq is an adoption of the classic play by Aristophanes from 400BC set in Athens. The women of Athens gather round to go on strike to get the men to stop the Peloponnesian War, which took place between Athens and its allies and Sparta and its allies. In Spike Lee's film he names the two opposing gangs Trojans and Spartans, so only one name change that is a play on the Trojan brand of condoms as well. I think that name is more understandable since the Greeks teemed up to completely burn Troy to the ground with the infamous Trojan horse.
Were there any quirks to the movie?
The strangest part is that they have this sing-song rhyming to the dialogue, which is an allusion to the classic Lystrada play. However, I think it gets to be a bit contrived as noone talks like this nowadays. I respect the director for retaining this classic device, but get the feel its too much. You have to reinterpret in a modern way if its a modern film in my view.
How did Chicago react to this film?
This local Jamaican guy, who had been a gang banger in his youth that became a chef opened his own restaurant named Chi-raq Cuisines playing off the film. He says all the youth now call the town "Chi-raq". Originally, he was going to call it Chi-town, but went with the film name. Many of the local residents are very unhappy with the name since it glorifies the violence and reinforces the danger they constantly live with. I would say it may have been a very stupid name choice, but sometimes you need to get clever in the name.
What did you think of the opening scene?
Right out of the gate they jump into the gang violence of a local rapper/gang leader is boasting of his killing and fearlessness, which captures the reality they live in. One really annoying part was showing all the statistics on gang violence at the beginning. I know for posterity sake when you look at the film 100 years from now maybe you need this explanation, but really distracts from the film flow. Show don't tell in a visual art like cinema. You never see them talking about the endless killing in an Al Capone film, right? They just show you the killing and vendettas that play out. This is a slight flaw to the start.
Were there other annoying parts to the film?
Samuel L. Jackson plays the part of simply being the orator Domedes in the play. Probably, this was used in the classic greek plays, but again it feels out of place in a modern play. I think his character could likely have been stripped out and this is loving this actor in all his roles. It goes back to the showing the action vs. telling the acts to unfold. The audience isn't stupid if you have the right scenes, they can draw their own conclusions.
Was there a favorite character?
One of my favorites was Wesley Snipe's character Cyclops. He is the rival gang leader that is starting to get jaded about the gang life of endless shooting and has just come out of jail. It's ironic as Snipes himself went to jail 2 years for tax evasion.
The women actresses did quite well in depicting how they would all scheme together to stop the gang violence.
How funny was the comedy?
You wouldn't think you would laugh about such a tragic topic as massive gang related gun violence, but Spike Lee really has some twists of fate about the gangs not getting laid and how they cannot cope without the sexual action with their girlfriends. Although Domedes character seemed surperfluous, he did have some funny one liners that would kick off changes in scenes.
What do you think of the stand off between Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino?
Apparently, when Tarantino made the movie "Django Unchained" Spike Lee felt he didn't need to see it. He felt it was an insult to his ancestors to make slavery into a spaghetti western. I can understand the recency of the act is very relevant and he as a director is kind of the sole representative of black film with authenticity. However, to say that a person cannot depict a film well based on skin color is prejudiced sadly to say. I think Spike is reacting to the decades of racist stereotypes allowed in Hollywood that he has had to fight and enforce a positive role model for the black community. The true irony of his position is that he doesn't really have a realistic solution to ending gun violence in Chicago.
Another interesting point is that Samuel L. Jackson is in both films so had to deal with Spike and Quentin.
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