Review: Chi-Raq is Spike Lee's larger-than-life love letter to Chicago

And ancient Greek theater

When Spike Lee came to Chicago in April 2015 to discuss plans for his film Chi-Raq, Mayor Rahm Emanuel requested a meeting where he and other Chicago politicians expressed their strong disapproval of the film’s title. According to Lee, Emanuel and city aldermen bullied him, denying city permits to the production and threatening to withhold $3 million in tax breaks unless Lee abandoned that title. Their concern was that he would drive away tourists by portraying the city as a dangerous war zone where innocent people get gunned down on a daily basis.

Which it is, and which Lee does. But in all their protestations, Mayor Emanuel and company came across as more reactionary and image-conscious than concerned about the actual violence in the city. Chi-Raq goes in the opposite direction. It isn't just affectionate about Chicago; it's a passionate, rhythmic love letter to the city and its South Side residents. And Lee and screenwriter Kevin Willmott aren't just calling for gang violence to end. They're trying to evoke prayer, passion, and anger in and on behalf of Chicagoans who routinely see more than 40 people a week shot in the city, leading to a higher death toll for Americans in Chicago over the past 15 years than in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. Chi-Raq is a rowdy, remarkably funny film that isn't particularly concerned with how tourists see the city, or where they spend their money. Lee wants results, and he's willing to go broad and over the top if that gets people talking, thinking, or best of all, taking action.

Lee appeals to Chicago pride in Chi-Raq's opening moments, with a stark lyric video featuring Nick Cannon as rapper / gang leader Demetrius Dupree, spitting equal parts faith and hope in Chicago, and despair at the desperation, betrayal, and violence that follows him in his Englewood neighborhood. The language is raw and hostile, but his allegiance and pride in his home are everything Emanuel could ask for.

Demetrius — whose stage name is also Chi-Raq — isn't the only character in the film expressing himself through verse. Willmott, the sharp satirist behind the alternate-universe film C.S.A.: The Confederate States Of America, based his script on Aristophanes' ancient Greek play Lysistrata, a bawdy comedy about one woman's attempt to end the Peloponnesian War by persuading the wives of Athenian and Spartan soldiers to withhold sex until their husbands stop fighting. A one-man Greek-chorus named Dolmedes (played by Samuel L. Jackson, resplendent in a series of blaxploitation-worthy colorful pimp suits) turns to the audience early in the film, explaining that to honor Aristophanes, the story will be delivered in rhyme. And so the characters speak largely in loose, janky poetry, with rhythms that vary between Shakespearian couplets, freestyle-rap battle verse, and slam-poetry riffing.

Lee is willing to go over the top if that gets people talking

The verse is just one of the many ways in which Lee heightens Chi-Raq's tone, making it clear that this is a Technicolor fantasy and not a serious suggestion that the "No peace, no pussy" movement could end violence. The film does briefly cite Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, who used a similar sex strike as an attention-garnering tool for her women's peace movement in Liberia. But mostly, it treats the idea as Aristophanes did: as a stage for an off-color battle-of-the-sexes comedy.

Dear White People's breakout star Teyonah Parris stars as Lysistrata, Demetrius' lusty girlfriend, and a devoted hanger-on of his purple-clad gang, the Spartans. When tensions escalate with another local crew, the orange-wearing Trojans (led by Wesley Snipes as a giggly, eyepatch-wearing gang lifer called Cyclops), Lysistrata is driven out of her home, and she seeks perspective from quiet local bookstore owner Miss Helen (Angela Bassett). History gives Lysistrata the idea for the sex strike, and a young girl's death from stray gunfire gives her the backbone to enact it. She enlists her friends, then spreads the word to Cyclops' lover and other Trojan ladies. Before long, all the women on the South Side have vowed to deny the men even voyeuristic relief. "Even the hos is no-shows," one man complains to a strip-club owner played by Dave Chappelle, who responds, "The situation is out of control! I'm in front of an empty stripper pole!" The movement even spreads around the world, with protests in a variety of countries adopting different, often more decorous versions of that "No peace, no pussy" tagline.

Chi-Raq

There's a great deal of goofery at work in Chi-Raq. Spike Lee's frustration with black-on-black violence and the limits of the Black Lives Matter movement is controversial and well documented, but here, he blends all the thorny issues into a joyous group catharsis full of gospel performance, public marches, and gags about horniness. This is the vital, confident Spike Lee of School Daze and Bamboozled, a hyperactive stylist going in a thousand directions at once, operating around one guiding ideology, but with no consistent presentation plan.

The storytelling style changes constantly: the participants in a club shootout tell the camera directly of how their moment of rep-boosting glory turned into humiliating long-term physical disability. John Cusack gives a lengthy, badly mic'd, rhetoric-packed sermon as the white Catholic priest presiding over a packed black church. (He seems like an anomaly in the movie, but he's based closely on Chicago's outspoken, politically savvy Father Michael Pfleger, who consulted on the film.) Lysistrata takes over a Chicago armory and sexually humiliates a racist fetishist general, in an outlandish scene that recalls the notorious flop Myra Breckinridge. Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson, as the mother of the murdered young girl, weeps as she scrubs her daughter's blood from the pavement. This chaotic grab-bag of concepts has a hard time building a coherent flow, or developing characters past their broadest symbolic value.

But the wide-ranging styles give Lee a chance to highlight all his strengths. His history with staging intimate, lascivious foreplay goes back to Do The Right Thing, and he hasn't lost any of his knack for physicality, or capturing the heat coming off bared skin in sexual settings. The confrontational scenes aimed at the camera, another longtime signature, spark with anger and anxiety. There's a powerful drive to the musical sequences, from an uplifting church dance number to the more melancholy, sexual group writhing as the military attempts to draw Lysistrata's followers out of the armory by bombarding them with irresistible '70s sex jams.

And Lee's ability to energize his actors shouldn't be underrated. Parris is handed some tough material — her character is half ride-or-die, half Rosa Parks. She's Mother Teresa in an exposed Wonderbra and an improvised chastity belt. She's meant to be naïve and wise, forceful and hesitant, fierce and demure, all at the same time. The role isn't always human enough to hit home, but Parris gives it a conviction that makes the rhyming dialogue sound natural. Her gravitas and solemnity help ground even the silliest scenes. (And that sequence with the general, whom she persuades to strip to his Confederate-flag briefs, then hump a Civil War cannon, is pretty damn silly. Only Parris' forceful dignity keeps it from derailing the film.)

Chi-Raq

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Cannon's gang leader is even more contradictory. By portraying him as simultaneously a tortured artist, a bratty boy, and a noble figure of manhood, Lee seems to be trying to encompass all the contradictions of black men raised in violence and forced to act out set roles that may not fit their personalities. The smaller figures, in simpler and tighter roles, aren't drawn so messily, but they're similarly hard to see as real people. Jackson's swaggering narrator is meant as an oversized caricature, but Hudson is defined solely by grief, and Bassett solely by weary, wise defiance. But all these roles still make an impact onscreen because the actors are icons, playing the iconic roles that have defined them. Hudson has nothing but sadness to sell, but she brings it across beautifully. Jackson has become strutting personified. No one sells raging melancholy like Bassett.

There's a driving, desperate anger underneath the playfulness

And above all, there's that driving, desperate anger underneath the playfulness. Lee and Willmott stay as up-to-the-minute as film production timelines allow, dropping references to George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson, to Dylan Roof and Sandra Bland. They evoke the Black Lives Matter movement and offer real statistics and analysis of gang violence and American obsession with war and weaponry. In a quiet moment, Cusack's character points out that sustainable jobs and meaningful education are necessary to fix the problems in the black community, and that the sex ban is just a stunt. Lee ends once again with a familiar onscreen call: "Wake up!" But the gravity of the issues doesn't prevent Chi-Raq from enjoying its winking, hip-wriggling sexual theater, or offering up a gloriously ridiculous ending, as artificial as a grade school "say no to drugs" pageant. The film embraces the fantasy of everlasting peace, while repeatedly acknowledging the reality of inner-city blight.

That may be a message Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel doesn't want anyone to hear. But Lee has his revenge, by portraying Chi-Raq's fictional Chicago mayor (played by D.B. Sweeney) as a selfish, unreasonable clown who bullies his underlings with rhetoric, and has no real answers himself. Lee doesn't make Chicago look like a tourist's nightmare, so much as he makes it look like an idealistic battleground. But he does make its mayor look like a spastic failure. That's the power of satire — to veil real frustration under a palatable disguise, and make anger entertaining without losing any of its force.


The best of Verge Video