Following each public display of violence, be it police brutality or mass shootings, a bevy of talking points come hurtling from the hard-right angles of social media and the press. “What about black-on-black crime?” “You know, Chicago has strict gun control laws and the highest murder rate.” Of course, these arguments aren’t genuine and serve to act as a deflection towards any call to action. They exist only to be parroted by those who don’t want their belief system to shaken in the least, who find the bloodshed of the status quo more than acceptable. Well, Spike Lee has seemingly heard every single argument in the book of talking points and isn’t going to sit back idly. His latest film, Chi-Raq, is a film that wishes to disrupt the comfort zone of every viewer – liberal and conservative, black and white. Spike Lee has never been a filmmaker to shy from controversy, and he certainly doesn’t with such an audacious and urgent film as Chi-Raq. This is a film that is politically urgent, blending its multiple social messages with a heart-breaking personal drama and numerous moments of bombastic comedy.
Inspired by the Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, Lee transports the story to present day Chicago, but with its mounting death toll from violence on the streets is now referred to as Chi-Raq. After opening with a hip hop song which shares the title of the film, the lyrics represented on screen as an image of the United States is constructed of guns, Lee lets us know loud and clear what’s on his mind. “This is an emergency!” the screen proclaims like an official warning issued by a wartime office. We’re then taken into a club, where a rapper who has taken up the moniker of Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) performs his music to a packed house. Chi-Raq is part of the Spartan gang and dons the purple to let everyone not paying attention to his lyrics know his affiliation. The Spartans are in a constant and deadly feud with the Trojans, led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), and that violence seeps into everything they touch, including Chi-Raq’s performance that evening.
The war raging in the street has real collateral damage, with children slain in broad daylight for the sheer misfortune of playing when the bullets happened to flying. But the cultural motto of “No snitches” leaves the grieving mother Irene (Jennifer Hudson) and local priest Mike Corridan (John Cusack) with little resources to bring a killer to justice. The tears of a mother having lost her young child nor a $5,000 reward is able to coerce anyone to speak up.
With the looming threat of violence permeating through every day in Chicago, Chi-Raq’s girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) takes a bit of inspiration from her neighbor Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) and begins to stage a sex strike that will deprive the gun-wielding men of any intercourse before there is peace. “No peace, no pussy,” the women loudly proclaim. The women’s call to action (or inaction depending on your perspective) takes a turn when Lysistrata and company stage a bloodless coup at a Chicago National Guard armory, using their female assets to disarm the troops under General King Kong (an over-the-top David Patrick Kelly). Before long, though, the strike extends throughout the world and all men are soon feeling the pinch of “No peace, no pussy.”
Spike Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott have given the dialogue of Chi-Raq a sense of poetry, each line delivered with a rhyme and rhythm. It’ll be interesting to see how audiences react to the big tonal shifts of the film. In one scene, you could be cracking up as Samuel L. Jackson provides the lively on screen narration as Dolmedes. In a few seconds later, you could be holding back tears as the pain of violence is unflinchingly presented, its ripple effect unending. Lee and Willmott don’t keep the film focused solely on gun violence, they lay attacks on the growing militarization of local police, income inequality, unemployment, an overwhelmingly patriarchal society, and the lucrative black market created by lax gun laws in the areas surrounding Chicago. Much of this sprawling indictment of multiple levels of society is presented in one impassioned sermon by Cusack’s Father Corridan. The sermon is powerful and haunting. Like much of Chi-Raq, it’s a scene that is thought provoking and highly entertaining.
The women of Chi-Raq aren’t a prop that facilitates a plot. These are varied and individual characters that use their minds more than their sex appeal, but know full well that macho minds driven by sex and violence won’t hear their voices of reason. Teyonah Parris is a firecracker on the screen in a performance that lives up to Dolmedes’ extremely generous descriptions. Both Jennifer Hudson and Angela Bassett are wonderful in grounding the absurd scenario with its emotional weight. In the corridors of power, however, there are just men. It’s a statement about shutting women out of varied aspects of power and governance, and we as a society are poorer for that.
There’s just so much going on Chi-Raq that it demands your attention. It’s colorful in its presentation and characters. Quite often it’s hilariously outrageous. But it’s also an incredibly somber film, one that’s willing to look deeply into societal ills, contemplate solutions, and asks the audience to think beyond what they assume to be the answer. Chi-Raq is a work of incredible urgency with a timeless source. This is a film of such audacity in all manners of its presentation that it could only come from Spike Lee. As we all know, Spike Lee is man with a lot to say and given the opportunity he will speak his mind. He certainly does with Chi-Raq, and we’re all better for it.