Chi-Raq (2015): Written by Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott, directed by Spike Lee. Starring: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson. Running Time: 127 minutes. Based on the Greek play Lysistrata, by Aristophanes.
Chi-Raq is the sort of work of art that succeeds in being both wildly fun and entertaining to experience while simultaneously using its very existence as a blunt weapon to force any viewer paying attention to confront a world of uncomfortable hurts and truths they would rather ignore. In its best moments, it walks right up to the line of being shallow exploitation merely dressing itself up as a message piece as an excuse, but always parlays its outlandish visual style and over-the-top tone into real thematic depth, making a slew of loud and challenging proclamations that those who wish to see a better world must WAKE UP, and take the initiative themselves to make it happen. It lets no one off the hook, and spares none in its criticism. It is controversial, it pushes every boundary it can, and many will be offended and/or turned off by the deliberately provocative title and how it treats its subject matter. But because this is precisely what art is supposed to do, and because it does so with such amazingly self-assured style, I believe it is one of the best and most important movies of 2015.
The core story (though the film shoots off on quite a few tangents before the end), is based on the 2,400-year-old Greek comedy Lysistrata (which, fun aside, translates to “Army Disbander” in Ancient Greek), about a woman of the same name who convinces the women of Athens and Sparta to go on a sex strike until their husbands agree to end the Peloponnesian War. Here, Spike Lee has transplanted the same tale onto the streets of Chicago, where, instead of city-states, we bear witness to the fighting and cost of a 21st-century gang war.
Here, our Lysistrata (an award-worthy Teyonah Parris) is the lanky, sharply-dressed girlfriend of Demetrius (Nick Cannon), aspiring rapper and leader of the Spartans. The first sequences of the film are some of the best I’ve seen in years. We are first shown a map of the US, made up entirely of guns colored red, white, and blue, and then switch to a black screen that shows us only the words of the opening musical number, a plea for humanity in the midst of terrible suffering. After some statistics are shown comparing the number of victims of gun violence in Chicago to the number of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (hence the reference to the city as “Chi-Raq”), we transition to a dark, atmospheric, and rocking opening scene in an underground club, where Demetrius raps about all the ways he will crush Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), leader of the Trojans, while his adoring fans bang their heads in time to the beat and wave purple glowsticks (just about every piece of the costumes and sets possible are color-coded; purple means Spartan, orange means Trojan).
Lysistrata is right up there in the front, loving all of it- her man will be on top of the world soon, this is her life, this is her scene- until several events in quick succession shake her to her core. The opening rap number is interrupted by a Trojan observer opening fire in an attempt to kill Demetrius, but instead hits one of his friends, who in turn fires back and strikes down the attacker.
Later that night, the Trojans strike again by lighting fire to Demetrius’ house, causing both him and Lysistrata to flee naked into the streets, with Demetrius firing back at his nemesis. The next day, a young girl named Patti is found dead on the sidewalk, and the visible agony of her mother (Jennifer Hudson, who gets some of the movie’s most powerful scenes) drives Lysistrata to seek the advice of Miss Helen, who convinces her to lead the women of Chicago (and later, as we are shown in news clips, the entire world) in a massive sex strike, with one, overriding goal- world peace.
Guiding us through the affair is Dolmedes, played by a Samuel L. Jackson having an enviably palpable sense of fun strutting around the city in the brightest, eye-popping suits you can imagine. His dialogue- in fact, nearly the entire film- is written in verse, but not your old-school, classic-sounding Shakespearean. It’s packed with so many slang terms, all piled on top of each other and delivered with such quick, clean, and confident precision by a cast brimming with raw charisma and talent that I would honestly recommend watching it with subtitles, just to make sure you don’t miss something. This is the sort of movie that completely renews my awe (and rekindles my needling insecurities) as a writer at the incredible craft needed to make a truly great screenplay.
Now, many are already aware of the intense controversy the trailer for the film sparked, particularly regarding the movie title. My guess, however, is that much of this stemmed from the way the trailer presented the film and the fact that many of its harshest critics admitted having never heard of the original play before seeing the trailer. And that fact is key, because without knowledge of the play and what it’s actual message is, it’s hard to pierce through the bawdy surface of this film and see what it’s really playing at.
Just going off of the trailer and nothing else, I can see why some people would have the impression that the film takes a terrible, complicated, and emotionally wrenching topic and boils it down to just sex, just about gang violence, and ignores larger social constructs of racism, state oppression, and generational inequality. But by doing so, and not looking at the tradition of the play itself, and without seeing the actual FILM (which a number of the trailer’s critics did own up to) means you will miss how Lee takes the trappings of the ancient play and expands UPON it, veering from one commentary to another. Granted, this does lead to the film often being a bit unfocused, and leaving a lot of themes and topics less developed and explored than others, but it does such a good job of sweeping you up with its endless energy that I couldn’t find it in myself to fault it for that.
Here’s the thing- people often like to punctuate debates or controversies about stuff like this with statements of “X, Y, and/or Z shouldn’t be happening now because it’s the 21st century, man!” Declarations like this rest on the assumption that, just because we are now in a later time period compared to earlier eras of human history, there ought to be something fundamentally different about human behavior and society. Something fundamentally better. And if that were the case, then yes, Spike Lee’s decision to base his tale of modern sexism, racism, gun violence, and economic disparity on a millennia-old comedy about women forcing peace by withholding sex from men who can’t control themselves otherwise would indeed be silly, offensive, derivative, and backwards-looking. It would indeed be both culturally and historically irrelevant and inappropriate.
But this is so clearly not the case. Both the original play and this movie are not an accusation leveled against women that THEY are and have always been the ones responsible for bringing about peace, that they MUST be the adults in the room, because we poor men just can’t handle our own sexual urges with maturity. It is in no way suggesting that the only value of a woman, the only contribution she can make, lies in her body and sexual abilities and how she utilizes them. Of COURSE it’s absurd to think that women simply coming together and shutting men down via sex can or should solve all world problems. It is absurd to have a society so restrictively patriarchal that, outside of the bedroom, men reflexively ignore or reject everything women have to say or contribute. And yet, that is clearly the type of society we have had for some time, and it’s patently unhealthy. That is the entire point Spike Lee is making…..and it’s the exact same one Aristophanes was making thousands of years ago. Things really haven’t changed all that much in the interim. And this makes Spike Lee’s storytelling and artistic choices all the more striking.
There are so many moments this film creates that will stay with me for a long time. Jennifer Hudson trying to scrub the blood of her own daughter off the street. Lysistrata, dressed to kill, ripping down a Confederate flag in the office of a rabid old general. The last scene in particular ends with a wonderful subversion of the famous opening monologue from the classic war movie Patton, where, in one of the most indelible images in film history, he stands in front of a massive American flag covering the entire screen and gives a rousing speech about patriotism and the glories of war. Here, Sam Jackson steps out in front of what could be the same damn flag for a different kind of speech, one calling for love above all else as the path to peace, and the flag falls to reveal….well, I guess I won’t spoil everything here.
Now, all this being said, I feel it would irresponsible for me to not confess my own limitations in understanding how some people would be upset by this, or indeed any, movie for using the very tragic and very real issue of inner-city gang violence as the setting for a satire like Chi-Raq. I am a white man who has never lived in any inner city and have thus never been directly exposed to the true effects of systemic racism and gang violence. People who are black (or indeed from any minority, or any subgroup that faces discrimination) and who have lost loved ones this way may very well react to the film completely differently, and wholly disagree with me. I can’t blame someone honestly finding the subject inexcusable for comedic purposes (even if I strongly disagree with such a stance), regardless of the artistic skill on display (and some may even find the film as a film straight-up bad).
So I can’t dismiss the possibility (nay, the probability) that my race has a part in how I view the film. I can also understand some critiques that Spike Lee might have shot himself in the foot by explicitly making Chicago his setting, even though the type of gang war he depicts is more relevant in other parts of the country and doesn't accurately reflect the particular circumstances of history of the city he gladly takes the title from. Fair enough. However, while I can understand people not liking the film because of the subject matter, I do disagree with those (and there have been a few) who claim that it lets whites off the hook, or that by taking the track it does it dismisses the very real and very wonderful work already being done on the ground by communities in Chicago and other cities to combat street violence. I think, if you watch carefully, you will see a message of profound sorrow at the costs of all forms of racism, gun violence, and equality. I think this is a film we need, a film worth seeing and worth debating about, because there is a clear anger and passion that shines through, even in its most flawed moments. As one reviewer noted, with people literally dying on the streets of America, we don’t have the time to worry about politeness and decorum.