Nick Cannon, star in ‘Chi-Raq’, addresses film’s controversy

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The familiar sound of a pistol cocking changes into the warzone cry, “This Is An Emergency. This Is An Emergency,” which is also spelled out in red, block text. So begins the trailer for Spike Lee’s latest film, “Chi-Raq,” named for the fact that Chicago’s gang violence has turned the city into a warzone, as it has even exceeded the death toll of American special forces in Iraq.

Samuel Jackson narrates the premise of the film, a modern adaptation of the Greek play Lysistrata set in Chicago. Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) — the girlfriend of a gang leader played by Nick Cannon – leads a group of women in a sex strike after the tragic death of a young girl. The women hope to curb the black-on-black gang violence that is occurring between their significant others.

Amazon Studios’ first original film has been diversely perceived by audiences. Some audiences have supported the underlying message of the film. Yet the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, has complained because he feels that Chicago is portrayed too severely. Other critics such as Chance the Rapper view the film as comedic and blaxploitative.

In a video released in early November, Lee addresses the latter critique, explaining how the film is not a comedy but rather a satire. In the video, Lee shows a few clips depicting the serious nature of the challenge taken on by the women of Chicago. Despite the female cast’s embodiment of fierce, admirable women, the film still has blaxploitative and sexist undertones — which are especially evident in Samuel L. Jackson’s character and the sexual nature of the protest.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Cannon addressed the idea of “Chi-Raq” being blaxploitative. “There’s nothing exploitative that’s going on in that film (‘Do The Right Thing.’ The same thing is true with “Chi-raq”, if not even more. It’s dealing with so many issues and you can’t judge anything off of a two-minute trailer,” he said. For Cannon, the film is Lee’s artistic interpretation of an important issue. “You’ll never understand; this was this man’s artistic choice. He chose an elevated sense of satire, and used a classic tale to help portray this story.”

Chicago-native rapper Thelonious Martin has critiqued Lee’s decision to depict the matter this way, and the film is still perceived as an exaggerated portrayal of Chicago that could damage the perception of a community rather than help it.

For Cannon, the film is entirely reflective of real events, emotions, and tensions. To prepare for his role, he interacted with the community where the movie was filmed. “I had the opportunity, through Spike Lee and one of the activists and priests in the community, Father Michael Flager, hooked me up with these gentlemen who were ex gang members turned peacekeepers, who are certified in every hood in Chicago,” he said. Cannon channeled whatever he learned about the community into his character. “To me that inspired me in such a way and really understood that it’s all a cry out for help. It’s a pain in the community, and that’s all we’re acting out, and it’s our generation that’s choosing to say ‘hurt people hurt people.’ In a way to where they’re hurt. They’re troubled. And we gotta recondition that mindset,” he said.

Inspired, Lee and Cannon have tried emulating the experiences of Chicago’s citizens in an effort to raise awareness and create conversation. Lee’s adaptation of “Lysistrata” sparks controversy and varied responses. While trailers are mere two-minute glimpses into feature films, “Chi-Raq” already has enough fuel to draw audiences who hope to find out which perception outweighs the others.


Contact Gautami Sharma at [email protected].