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CHI-RAQ: Will the real message in the movie get missed amidst the sex?

By Naimah Latif -Guest Columnist- | Last updated: Dec 15, 2015 - 10:18:15 AM

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Spike Lee is not a Civil Rights activist. He’s not a politician. He’s a filmmaker.

That is a point that must be remembered when viewing the movie Chiraq, which opened in theaters on Friday, December 4. Critics of the film have accused Spike Lee of not presenting a viable solution to the problem of gun violence. But Mr. Lee said that his purpose for creating this film was to expose Chicago’s extreme situation in order to get people talking, with hopes that a dialogue would lead to solutions.

Crowds of invited guests packed into the Chicago Theater, Sunday night, Nov.  22 for the movie premier. The controversy leading up to the screening had audiences poised to either love or hate Spike Lee’s portrayal of Chicago as the murder capital of the U.S.A. The cast includes Samuel Jackson, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, John Cusak, Teyonah Parris, Angela Bassett, D.B. Sweeney, Harry Lennix and Steve Harris.

The premise of the film centers around lead character, Lysistrata, played by actress Teyonah Parris. She is girlfriend of gang leader and popular rapper Demetrius, known as “Chiraq” played by Nick Cannon. An eye-patch wearing Wesley Snipes plays the leader of a rival gang. After a drive by shooting leaves a little girl dead, Lysistrata is inspired to organize the other girlfriends of gang members and launch a boycott of sex until their men agree to put down the guns and make peace.

Chicago native Jennifer Hudson’s moving portrayal as the mother who lost her daughter to a stray bullet reminds us of the real life tragedy that took the lives of her mother, brother and nephew. The funeral scenes were shot at St. Sabina Church and actor John Cusak was actually quite moving in his portrayal of a character based on the fiery Father Michael Pfleger.

I had an opportunity to be hired as one of the extras in the film, and participated in the funeral scene at the church, which was filmed this past summer. It even included an authentic looking funeral program of the slain child. What was eerie was the feeling of Deja Vu that came over me a few weeks ago when I attended the funeral of 9 year old Tyshawn Lee, which was also held at St. Sabina Church. It was the same scenario: a packed sanctuary, a grieving mother, and a rousing eulogy by the Pastor, calling the community to action. But this time there was a real body inside the casket.

You’ll see some familiar Chicago faces throughout the film, real activists at the church and in the protest scenes, real mothers of children slain by gun violence holding real photos of their lost loved ones, and maybe even some of your own friends and neighbors in various other scenes. To his credit, as pointed out by actor D.B. Sweeney, who played Chicago’s mayor, Spike Lee’s venture created more jobs and employed more Chicagoans than have many of Chicago’s aldermen. The film’s open casting gave opportunities for many aspiring actors to work as extras. Some of the new musical talent discovered during casting was used in the film’s soundtrack. Still, despite the money paid to Chicagoans, including transportation companies, catering companies, and the large cast of extras, Mayor Emanuel has been very critical of Mr. Lee’s film.

“Let me go on record as saying, I was not portraying Mayor Rahm Emanuel,” D.B. Sweeney emphasized. His character was definitely intended to be humorous. One wonders if Mayor Emanuel will find funny this movie version of Chicago’s Mayor, particularly the scene of his failed attempts to seduce his wife. She, along with women across the city, has joined the younger women in the sex strike.

The movie has its varying moments, taking audiences from tears to laughter as scenes of shootings are followed by scenes of lovemaking, followed by scenes of a funeral, followed by scenes of protest, followed by song and dance, as in a musical. In true Spike Lee tradition, the movie contains choreographed group dance numbers, original songs, and above all, sex. A lot of sex. Graphic sex. One audience member described the film as “soft porn.”

At a press conference following the premier, Father Michael Pfleger, who is listed as “spiritual advisor” for the film, explained how he felt about what many have described as extremely graphic sex scenes and excessive profanity.

“You can’t talk about a sex strike and not have sex in it, that would be a little bizarre,” he said. “The language, if we had changed that, people would say it was unreal, that it was sanitized.”

As in all of Spike Lee’s films, there were references to current political issues and a bit of history which could enlighten younger viewers. The character portrayed by Angela Bassett was a source of wisdom for the young women organizing to stop the deadly feud between their men. She helps them connect their personal struggle to a wider political movement. But some of her insights may go over the heads of young men if their concentration is stuck on the seductiveness of the sexy young women in the film. Also, other than John Cusak’s priest character, I didn’t see an insightful male character lending wisdom to the men. The only thing all the males seemed to be concerned about was pressuring women to end the sex strike.

Actor Steve Harris, who plays the character “Old Duke” stated, “This film illustrates that if you get women united as a force to say ‘We’re withholding this from you’, it will cause men to change.”

The film, based on the old Greek play Lysistrata, and even inspired by the recent success of the Liberian women in using a sex strike to end decades of Civil war, was written by Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott. It is intentionally satirical, as was the original Greek play Lysistrata, Spike reminded reporters at the press conference.

“The goal of this film was to put a spotlight on this problem and through dialogue, discussion and maybe some legislation, we can arrive at some answers,” he said.

Gang violence is a serious issue which prompted actor Nick Cannon to do some real live research. He said he appreciated being able to spend time with actual gang members in Chicago in order to understand these young men and the gang life he strived to portray in the film. For those who have only seen Mr. Cannon in comedic roles, it may seem to be a bit of a stretch for him to come off as a hard core thug.

“It was a task and a challenge. I thank Spike Lee and Father Pfleger for introducing me to real people, to experience their pain and see these are young men crying out for guidance,” he said. “Hurt people hurt people.”

The underlying reason for his character Demetrius’ evolution into a womanizing gang leader was alluded to in a telling flashback scene. This scene gives insight into the inner pain many young men harbor that leads them to turn to drugs and violence. Maybe this film will open a dialogue between men about the hurt of being a fatherless child, the hopelessness of living in an economically depressed community, and the trauma of being introduced to sex too soon and in a destructive manner. These are real issues that the movie raises.

I just hope young people see beyond all the sex to get the message.

This article was originally published on beansouptimes.com. Naimah Latif is author of The Female Solution, executive producer of The Media Connection TV Show, Host of The Female Solution Radio Show and managing editor of INSPIRE!