Spike Lee has an enduring fire in his belly, a fire that's allowed him to create films with a scorched-earth efficacy; his art—poetic, pointed and pious as it can be—is a vessel for his burning anger.
If Lee’s last satirical movie, Bamboozled, was a blistering bonfire, then his latest attempt, Chi-Raq, is a searing wildfire. This time around, the Academy Award-winning auteur has America’s culture of gun worship and violent patriarchy in his satirical crosshairs. Chi-Raq is urgent, cinematically gorgeous, infuriating and scattershot, but it rarely misses its intended target.
Updating Aristophanes’ 411 B.C. Greek sex-comedy “Lysistrata” for modern metropolis warfare, Chi-Raq finds a heroine in Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), who’s had enough of her gangbanging boyfriend Chiraq’s (Nick Cannon) turf war with rival gang leader Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). The specter of death looms everywhere, all the time: Mid-coitus shootouts, threats and posturing at concerts, drive-bys drum-rolling through the neighborhoods. Death is a revolving door in these characters' lives, and Lysistrata thinks it's time to slam that door shut.
“No Peace, No Pussy!” becomes the battle cry of Lysistrata and her fellow female mercenaries—grieving mothers, girlfriends, daughters and sisters bonded through blood spilled by a broken system. They organize a celibacy rebellion against the swinging dicks responsible for the infinite death loop plaguing their city. Blue balls will make the purple Spartans and the orange Trojans (Chiraq and Cyclops’ flag colors, respectively) surrender their arms, the strategy goes. And under the guidance of the sage Ms. Helen (Angela Bassett), the unit of women storm a US armory, nonviolently overtake the macho men in uniform, and establish their headquarters for their peaceful protest.
From the opening scene—which is more of an overture consisting of lyrics to Nick Cannon's "Pray 4 My City" in blood red font interlaced with statistics of gun deaths in Chicago, reifying what we're about to watch—Chi-Raq is a spectacle to behold, even if the narrative gets a bit clunky. Spike Lee's color palette is as vivid and glossy as ever. The bright, popping purples and oranges and greens of Alex DiGerlando’s production design contrast beautifully against the grubby city backdrop. The eye candy is boundless.
Adding even more vibrant color in style and personality is Samuel L. Jackson's Dolemedes, the one-man-band of a Greek Chorus who is our omniscient narrator addressing the camera at all times to keep us afloat. With a wordy screenplay that's entirely in rhyming couplets, sometimes we need things recapped and retold. The fusion of hip-hop cadence and theater camp delivery makes for an uneven yet electric experience. Even when Chi-Raq's elemental components don't work, they still feel fresh.
The women are in control with Lysistrata leading the way, and Spike Lee never misses a beat to remind us who the true culprit of institutionalized violence has always been: men. Chi-Raq channels the "Who Killed The World?" motif from Mad Max: Fury Road at every corner. From the crooked politicians underfunding and over-policing black communities, to the Wall Street goons who go to great lengths to ensure wealth and opportunity is never democratized, down to the NRA and 2nd Amendment loyalists who put their phallic steel above the preservation of life, men have created this dystopia. Poverty, lack of educational resources, and too many guns are capsizing the inner city.
John Cusack (a real life Chicagoan) plays Father Mike Corridan, a fiery preacher who unleashes a memorable tirade while presiding over a funeral of a young girl killed by a stray bullet. "We go from third-rate schools to first-class, high-tech prisons," he hoarsely shouts. School-to-prison pipeline; Mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow; The failed War on Drugs; A racially biased, predatory justice system. Cusack hits all the right notes, and while it's beyond problematic to have a thinly-veiled white savior deliver this important PSA, it's still ultimately satisfying, mostly because it doesn't ever devolve into a lecture about the mythical "black on black crime" canard that everyone assumed it would when the Chi-Raq sountracking song, "WGDB (We Gotta Do Better)" by Kevon Carter, was released in early November.
But it's not Cusack at the moral and intellectual nucleus of Chi-Raq. This is Lysistrata's universe, and Teyonah Parris gives a commanding, star-making performance that I hope lands her some Oscar attention. There's an old school movie star elegance to Parris—bold, brainy and classically beautiful—and she monopolizes your attention in every scene she's in.
Other women gravitate towards Lysistrata's warrior presence and gladly abide by her oath of abstinence: "I will deny all rights of access or entrance / from every husband, lover or male acquaintance who comes to my direction / in erection.” You'll cheer for Lysistrata as she and her troops stand in solidarity against toxic patriarchy, like the He-Man Woman Haters Club lead by Old Duke (a hilarious turn from Steve Harris) who respond with a counter-protest to put women "back in their place." These men feel entitled to women's bodies and demand to fuck. Lysistrata and company show these pigs where they got these ladies fucked up.
The sex strike is a slow burn but surely begins to effect change. And while criticisms of Lee reducing women characters to purely sexual vessels is certainly valid, there is an empowering love and dignity at work here. Spike doesn't neglect the black women who have died unjustly in this war induced by men in his social message. Sandra Bland and Rekia Boyd? He says their names. And in one of the most evocative scenes of the movie, Lysistrata rips a Confederate flag down from the office wall of a racist Dr. Strangelove military general, a worthy homage to Bree Newsome. While these heroines are rebelling against their gun-toting lovers, they never forget who the real enemy is.
After massive push and pull, the sex strike—spoiler alert—works. Men begin relinquishing their firearms, their egos, their fragile masculinity, all around the world. Lysistrata and Chiraq reunite, courtesy of a classic Spike Lee double dolly shot, to knock boots on a golden chariot of a bed. But there is still work to be done, still repentance to be had. Contrition means nothing without change, both in the system and within ourselves. And Chi-Raq ends with a hope that enough people want an immediacy with that change.
Look, Chi-Raq isn't perfect by any stretch, neither in execution or ideology. When it drops the ball, it deflates completely. But when it gets it right, it soars. Overall, there's enough energy behind the camera from Spike as well as magnetic performances from Parris, Bassett, Cusack and Snipes to make Chi-Raq a memorable viewing experience.
When I was watching Chi-Raq I couldn't help but remember an early '90s quote from Spike. His Mars Blackmon-centered Nike commercials were everywhere. and after frequent clashes of violence over stolen Jordans nationwide, the media called on Spike to denounce such senseless acts. Spike righteously responded not by blaming the kids involved, but by calling on America to "deal with the conditions that make a kid put so much importance on a pair of sneakers".
Spike was punching up at the oppressive infrastructure that created such drastic environments for people of color. I wish Spike would've remembered that punching up is the key ingredient to effective satire when writing Chi-Raq. While the effort is there, more criticism of the systems responsible for creating such conditions that make a kid put so much importance on the gun could've made Chi-Raq one of the most important war movies of our generation.