Loud, boisterous and vibrant, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is the director’s irreverent yet political return to racially charged filmmaking. A hectic and assertive Shakespearian musical comedy, the film feels so cocksure that it rises above questions pertaining to its true identity and simply is. Damning in its takedown of class and gender politics, America’s race war, the Second Amendment, gang violence and police brutality, Chi-Raq‘s stunning display of steadfast mockery and hardened derision are the pitch-perfect mirror to society’s own brand of idiotic lunacy.
Based loosely around Aristophanes’ Greek comedy Lysistrata, Chi-Raq infuses modern tragedy with the ancient play, grounding the work and strengthening the overall message. Set in the titular city (on the Eastern side of Drillinois), Lee’s film opens in the midst of an ongoing gang war with no end in sight. The Spartans, headed by the aptly named gangster/rapper Chi-Raq (a superb Nick Cannon), and the Trojans, spurred on by the Mike Tyson-sounding Cyclops (Wesley Snipes in a late career-defining role), are embroiled in an escalating volley of belligerent violence. After a drive-by shooting takes the life of eleven-year-old Patti, the sensuous-as-she-is-smart Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) pledges an oath of sexual solidarity with her neighborhood: No Peace, No Pussy. Enlisting her Spartan sisters, rival Trojans, book-club women, hoes, wives, baby mammas and even “undercover brothers,” Lysistrata takes aim at violence and refuses to back (dat ass) down.
Our humble narrator, Dolmedes (the impeccably-dressed Sam Jackson) stops the action (literally) almost immediately to warn us about the unique dialogue structure — in keeping with the original Greek, it will, more or less, rhyme. A bit forced on paper, maybe, but the actors’ sublime bravado, matched by Lee’s aggressive direction, transform the unwieldy lines into an elegant form of rap/verse. Drifting into musical numbers and slam-poetry battles as effortlessly as top-shelf Jacques Demy, the potency of these briefly exhilarating interludes cause the lows of gang life and poverty to hit twice as hard.
Spike Lee is a meticulous world-creator, and Chi-Raq finds him in peak form. The “artificial” Chicago is kaleidoscopic when it needs to be and subtle when it better fits the tone. Gang lairs doused in color-coordinated graffiti hint at the mindset of its many members, while a neon “Jesus” sign in the local church, coupled with a painting of a beckoning black Savior, tell us all we need to know about the congregation. Locations have been researched, and any real-world advertisements have been swapped for hyper-parodic stand-ins. (The film takes place under the watchful eye of billboards for mayoral candidate “Hambone.”) More than just dubbing over neighborhoods, Lee takes cues from Chicago (and the characters which inhabit it) to piece together the foundation for Chi-Raq. In his best role in years, John Cusack takes the place of South Chicago Priest, Father Michael Pfleger — a non-violence and anti-gun advocate working to rid his parish of the evils that are left when a people are forgotten by their government. Lee uses the names of victims of police brutality, politicians and rappers, and he bolsters his bold statements with accurate statistics and the findings of sociological/class studies. Chi-Raq doesn’t do anything halfway.
Profoundly funny, shocking, sad and ultimately inspiring, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is the rude awakening that America needs to get its shit together. While no piece of art — no matter how rebellious — can single-handedly bring about a full on cultural, economic and sociological revolution, seeing tough issues so openly discussed is one of the first steps to prompt change.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.