The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Critics' Early Impressions Of The Chicago Of Spike Lee's Chi-Raq

By Emma G. Gallegos in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 23, 2015 5:08PM

Teyonah Parris stars as Lysistrata (Amazon Studios)

Chicago critics finally got to see Chi-Raq, Spike Lee's long-awaited and controversial film tackling South Side Chicago violence, over the weekend.

The film stars Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata, which is also the name of the Greek source material, and Samuel L. Jackson serves as the Greek chorus. Jennifer Hudson plays a role that literally hits close to home—the Englewood native lost her mother, brother and nephew to gun violence. It's a bawdy and vulgar sex comedy, and there's quite a bit of music and even rhyming couplets. The film largely takes place in Englewood.

We'll have our own review for the film that will be in theaters Dec. 4, but here are some first impressions from critics on how Chicago is portrayed by a New York filmmaker.

The Film Feels Like It Takes Place In Chicago

Chicagoist film critic Joel Wicklund writes, "Overall the city is highly recognizable in the movie, but Spike Lee's highly stylized interior shots for some of the more elaborate numbers are pure movie imaginings—so those stand apart a bit. It's definitely a 'Chicago movie,' location-wise but feels more akin to Lee's New York sagas because the filmmaker's personality dominates so fully."

Wicklund adds, "The South Side and Englewood get most of the screen time…rightfully considering the storyline's connection to where so many of the horrific recent shootings have taken place. But there are also scenes outside the Double Door in Wicker Park, the Cultural Center downtown, and glimpses of other landmarks."

The Movie's Tone Swings Back And Forth Wildly

The Tribune's Michael Phillips says that the film "swings between the horrors of street violence and phallocentric sight gags." Chi-Raq definitely treats Chicago's violence as a source of satire both dark and light, which Phillips notes is a highlight of Lee's best work. Phillips writes, "If Chi-Raq disarms even a small percentage of those who see it, and provokes any reflection about a gun culture, the uses of satire and the plight of a sadly emblematic city, it was worth the effort. However mixed-up the results." The Wrap quotes Chicago critic Jonathan Rosenbaum who once said that Lee’s filmmaking "risks absurdity to achieve the sublime."

The Hollywood Reporter says, "Even if the now-veteran director lays everything on a bit thick, repeatedly makes many of the same points and lets things go on too long, he's still found a lively and legitimate way to tackle urgent subject matter that other filmmakers have found excuses to avoid."

The Mayor Looks Really Bad

The Chicago Sun-Times says that Mayor Emanuel, who has wrung his hands over the film's title should worry more about the film's portrayal of the mayor: "Mayor McCloud is a farce, a goofball, a man who cares mostly about how bad things in the city affect him and his votes. In one scene, shot in his fictional mayor’s office, he even squeals. That office set looks a lot like Emanuel’s actual office in downtown Chicago - far away from the bloodshed."

Chicago's Young Victims Are Highlighted

The film features the faces of real children who were killed in gunfire in Chicago, including Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old girl killed a week after she performed at President Obama’s second inauguration. Jennifer Hudson, plays an Englewood mother whose young daughter is killed in a drive-by. At one point in the film she yells at onlookers. "You didn’t see nothing? The children in Englewood. Do they mean anything to you?" The Sun-Times points out that in the movie as well as real-life, South Siders are urged to "break the silence"; charges still haven't been brought in the cases of two young people gunned down three weeks ago, a 20-year-old model in Englewood and a 9-year-old in Auburn.

America's Culture (And The NRA) Are In The Film's Crosshairs

The film tackles gun violence, broadly, The Wrap points out. Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), the owner of an Englewood bookstore owner who comes up with idea for a sex strike, points out that even wealthy children are victims of our national gun policy: "Ask the parents of Sandy Hook / when their kids get killed and things don’t change / saving black children is way out of range." John Cusack, a longtime Evanston resident who plays a character based on the real-life Father Michael Pfleger, calls out "politicians who are in the pocket of the NRA."

The centerpiece of the film is the funeral of 11-year-old Patti, Variety writes, and Cusack's character unleashes "a fiery harangue against the tyranny of the NRA, the glorification of thug culture, the mass incarceration of African-Americans, the lack of government investment in impoverished neighborhoods, and an overriding culture of fear and apathy that stands in the way of meaningful change."

Police Brutality Isn't The Film's Focus

Variety writes, "But for all its relevance to the Black Lives Matter movement, the movie focuses less on issues of white privilege and police brutality than on the dispiriting everyday reality of blacks killing blacks, a system of “self-inflicted genocide” that is the target of Lysistrata’s blue-balls diplomacy."

Spike Lee And Jennifer Hudson Defended The Film At The Premiere

"I just hope (the movie) educates Chicago, and I hope it's a trigger for change because we have issues. We need to deal with our issues, and if this is how we get started, let's get started," Hudson said at the premiere. She said she doesn't really understand criticism of the movie, "I still don't understand that. It's like, OK so what are we gonna do, just sit here and let people continue to die? I can tell you no one else is doing something, and we're gonna complain when (Lee) tries to do something? It makes absolutely no sense to me."

Lee asked reporters, "Why would Jennifer Hudson be part of a film to make fun of her mother, brother and nephew being murdered?"

Besides Hudson, Chicagoans who have lost family members, including a relative of Tyshawn, were invited to the premiere.