With gun violence grabbing headlines every day in the U.S., Americans are crying out for answers to two questions: Why are we killing each other? How do we stop? With Spike Lee’s latest, he gives answers both sincere and satirical.
Chi-Raq owes its title to the controversial nickname bestowed on the blood-covered streets of Chicago, where guns claims too many lives. The opening credits solemnly inform its audience that nearly twice as many American lives have been lost through homicides in Chicago in the past 14 years, than were lost during the 8-year-long Iraq War. While this sinks in, Nick Cannon’s rap track “Pray 4 My City” declares “This is an Emergency.” Its plaintive lyrics sinks us into this beat, this world, this unique take on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a classic Greek comedy where women aimed to stop war by employing a sex strike.
Teyonah Parris (Dear White People, Mad Men) shines as Lysistrata, a whip-smart, compassionate and brave young woman who’s dating Spartans gang leader Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon, stripped of his smiles and suits, tatted up, ripped and wrathful). Gang war with the Trojans (led by an eye patch-sporting Wesley Snipes with a high-pitched giggle) causes bloodshed on both sides, as well as the death of a young girl, slain by a stray bullet. While the child’s mother (Jennifer Hudson, raw and heartbreaking) begs for justice, Lysistrata appeals to her black sisters to stop the war with a radical concept: No Peace, No Pussy.
This makes for a series of salacious and hilarious setups, from sexually explicit protest chants to a military counter-attack that involves blasting slow jams to urge these abstaining women to succumb to their primal yearnings. Samuel L. Jackson pops in—draped in sleek suits of lemon, mango and mustard—to play the Greek chorus, literally stopping the action to explain, scorn or celebrate Chi-Raq’s characters. Another delighfully dizzying theatrical element, the heroes often speak in rhyme. For instance, when Chi-Raq wants to praise Lysistrata, he coos, “Better not press my luck, you just like my credit: bad as fuck!” Later, she employs the same device to reprimand a horny old man declaring, “Dude, this is about life or death, about a community that is a wreck. And you want to sit here and talk about how women behave? Fool, we trying to free these slaves!”
Like rap or beat poetry, the rhymes give their words a rhythm powerful and compelling. But for all Chi-Raq’s whimsy—which includes full-blown musical numbers and mirthful musings—the satire is a charming Trojan Horse intended to carry a serious message: We need to do something. Something radical. Something unexpected. Something to stop the killing.
During Chi-Raq’s press rounds, Lee has said—and been criticized for saying—that a sex strike could actually work to affect change. But I don’t believe he means it. I suspect that like real-life Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee—who is name checked in the movie—Lee knows that the sex strike is a provocative attention getter, a headline to draw us in so he can expose us to some bitter truths too many would prefer to comfortably ignore.
Lee laces our grim reality into his fantastical morality play with mentions of Sandy Hook, Black Lives Matter and the men, boys and women who have died at the hands of the police, their names a litany too long and too tragic. Radio host Don Imus’s infamous “nappy headed hoes” descriptor dribbles out of the drooling mouth of a wrinkly and perverse racist, who proudly wears the Confederate flag on his underwear as he humps a Civil War cannon. (Subtlety has never been Lee’s preference.) A passionate pastor played by an earnest John Cusack cites Michelle Alexander’s challenging thesis , preaching to his hurting flock, “Mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow!” Basically, Chi-Raq is a crash course in modern race relations between blacks and whites in America. And so, it’s riveting and important, even if its filmmaking is flawed.
Chi-Raq’s major misstep is spending too much time away from Parris. The leading lady is not only a radiant screen presence, but also the heart and soul of the film. So when Lee loses track of her to focus on men squabbling over blue balls again and again, things turn tepid.
Tonally, Chi-Raq is all over the place. One minute it’s offering cartoonish comedy in the form of Snipes’ Cyclops, who runs a fearsome gang yet can’t go anywhere without someone making fun of his disability. The next minute, Hudson is trembling, weeping, and scrubbing the blood of her dead daughter off the cold empty Chicago concrete. It’s jarring, and yet there’s a charm to Lee’s eclectic and messy approach. He brings in seemingly disparate elements (slapstick and melodrama, Greek comedy and rap music) along with an outstanding cast that also boasts Angela Bassett, Harry Lennix, Steve Harris, Dave Chappelle, Michelle Mitchenor, La La Anthony, and Felicia Pearson. And he delivers a movie that’s funky, fascinating and dedicatedly demanding we take its message of sacrifice and its plea for change home in our hearts.
Chi-Raq is strange, mesmerizing, uneven and emotional. Its satire is silly, smart and thought provoking, its humor as vibrant as its music. It’s the best movie Lee has made in ages, and has succeeded in making him not just a relevant filmmaker once more, but an inclusive activist. With Chi-Raq he targets gun violence through comedy. Then through drama, he entreats us—black and white, men and women—to join forces to stop the killings, by whatever means we can imagine.
Chi-Raq opens in theaters December 4th.