Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq: This Is An Emergency
Director: Spike Lee
In Theaters: 12.04
Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s latest satire-meets-agitprop, is incendiary, uneven and heavy-handed with the polemics, musical cuts and rhythm-centric dialogue. It’s also the most electrifying film that we’ve seen from Lee in the past decade.
A modern, Chicago South Side retelling of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata—in which the titular character leads several women in a sex strike to persuade their husbands and lovers to end the Peloponnesian War and negotiate peace—Chi-Raq has already caught wind of plenty of controversy. The name itself—“Chi-Raq, Drillinois”—is an immediate reference to the fact that homicides in Chicago far outnumber U.S. troop killings in Iraq, but Chicagoans needn’t necessarily worry about the bad publicity. “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY,” in bright, flashing red text, kicks off Lee’s film, and what with the brutal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, and then last month’s gang-related shooting of the nine-year-old Tyshawn Lee, it is absolutely an emergency.
Narrated by the ever-dapper Samuel L. Jackson as Dolmedes, the film introduces us to Teyonah Parris (Dear White People) as Lysistrata, the self-possessed, sensational femme dating the ornery rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), leader of the Spartans. When the purple-clad Spartans come to a head with their orange-touting rivals, the Trojans (whose curiously bombastic, bejeweled eye patch–wearing leader, Cyclops, is played by Wesley Snipes), a stray bullet kills the seven-year-old Patti. As usual, no witnesses come forward.
Moved by the mourning of Patti’s mother (Jennifer Hudson) and spurred to action by the directives of the old-school Miss Helen (fantastically played by the underutilized Angela Bassett), Lysistrata rounds up the rest of the Spartan and Trojan ladies and starts the “No Peace, No Pussy” movement. It’s easy to catch where the theatrical choruses come into play: Lysistrata directs her troops, stylishly clad head-to-toe in camouflage, to follow her lead: “I will deny all rights of access or entrance / from every husband, lover or male acquaintance / who comes to my direction / in erection.” Along the way, we encounter the increasingly dejected and existential gangbangers; the mind-boggling Major King Kong (David Patrick Kelly), an out-of-place Confederate aficionado; Commissioner Blades (Harry Lennix), who tries to end the women’s sex strike by blasting The Chi-Lites; and the laughable Chicago mayor (D. B. Sweeney) who gets yelled at by the president, because apparently, even First Lady Michelle Obama is in on what becomes a worldwide sex strike.
Some might call this film reductive, but it’s satire and intentional hyperbole—it’s Lee, as much artist as he is crusader. (At points, it also feels like Lee responding to his haters, emphasizing lines like, “Y’all mad cause I don’t call it Chicago / I don’t live in no fuckin’ Chicago / Boy I live in Chi-Raq.”) There are laugh-out-loud, shake-your-head moments of truth, like the phallic nature of guns—think a tank gun branded with the words, “Penis Envy”—and the equivalent of a Men’s Rights group, who misguidedly protest the sex strike, alluding not to “peace” but to their women as “pieces.” There are gripping moments of truth, too. One long scene shows Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack, no doubt modeled after the real-life Chicago activist, Michael Pfleger) giving a roaring sermon at Patti’s memorial, damning the senseless gang violence, the oppression of the poor, and the politicians, who “are in the pocket of the National Rifle Association.”
The real problematic and potentially dangerous aspect of this film isn’t in the women’s use of their sex and sensuality—Chi-Raq portrays women with agency in a sex-positive and feminist light—but in recent comments made by Lee about the feasibility of a real-life sex strike. Lee mentions the sex strike as a method of preventing rape and sexual assault on college campuses, as though it’s something in women’s behavior that encourages perpetrators (it’s not), or that perpetrators are concerned about their victims in the first place (they aren’t).
In purely the context of the film, though—and especially given that it’s a modern retelling of Lysistrata—the whole sex-strike narrative works. Chi-Raq is meant to be over-the-top: It’s visually dripping in dramatic flair, the dialogue is thespian and operatic and the characters are preposterous yet perfectly believable—a surefire sign of solidly executed satire. Chi-Raq is Lee’s urgent and exuberant call-to-arms, a salute to the Black Lives Matter movement and to the countless victims of senseless violence and brutality. In case you didn’t catch it at the very beginning—“THIS IS AN EMERGENCY”—Chi-Raq is meant to fire up and agitate audiences into action, no question. And in that sense, Lee’s film is less timely than it is absolutely necessary.