Few films in recent years have been as polarizing as Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq.” Before it premiered, numerous well-meaning people throughout the United States, especially in Chicago, had already chosen to oppose the film, even though they had not seen it. It is too bad these people did not wait to pass judgment because “Chi-Raq” is a timely piece of satire that comes from a place of love for those most impacted by violence in Chicago.
Lee’s film opens with the words of a rap song, “Pray for My City,” flashing on the screen. A map of the United States colored in red, white, and blue appears, and each state is an amalgamation of pistols, rifles, shotguns, etc. This is a powerful representation of the fanatical grip guns have over Americans.
One of the arguments of the film is that people are murdered at rates higher than the rate of soldier deaths in war zones and so Chicago should be seen as being in a state of war. Slides appear on screen showing the number of deaths of U.S. soldiers in the early 2000s in Iraq and Afghanistan juxtaposed with the number of murders in Chicago between 2001 and 2005. The flaw is that Lee should be comparing the deaths in war to the rate of death among civilians since civilians are the ones dying in Chicago, but the point about people being killed so frequently is still valid.
A smooth-talking Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) steps out in his flashy suit amidst a club scene to start the story. Dolmedes informs the audience the following story is based on a Greek play by Aristophanes called Lysistrata, and the characters will speak in verse. He also tells the audience this is a land of pain, misery, and strife. With that, the story begins as rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), a leader of the purple Spartans, has to take cover after a member of the rival orange Trojans opens fire inside the club while he is performing on stage.
Chi-Raq is in love with Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris). Escalating gang violence targets Chi-Raq’s home, but this violence does not threaten their relationship until a little girl, Patti, is killed by a stray bullet. Lysistrata meets with Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), who expresses her indignation toward what is happening in her community.
Lysistrata also sees the girl’s mother, Irene (Jennifer Hudson), trying to clean the blood stain off the pavement. She is moved to learn more about Liberian Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee, who led a sex strike to end Liberia’s civil war. The women of rival gangs gather for a meeting, and Lysistrata convinces them to take a pledge and abstain from sex for as long as it takes to achieve peace.
The film alternates between the wildly absurd, including scenes with a plethora of puns for sex, pussy, and dick, and scenes like the electrifying sermon at Patti’s funeral by Father Michael Corridan (John Cusack). The character is based on Father Michael Pfleger, who for the past three decades has been a pastor for the mostly black parish of St. Sabina in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood.
Cusack is brilliant as he delivers a sermon during Patti’s funeral about guns flowing into the community and how it is part of an “underground economy” that exists because banks refuse to loan money to poor people. The sermon starkly outlines how joblessness and mass incarceration fuel the violence and how structural racism is perpetuated.
Additionally, Hudson is heart-rending as a mother forever shaken by the killing of her daughter. It is absolutely agonizing to watch her character scrub, and scrub, and scrub at the stain left by her daughter’s blood. Her character demands whoever is responsible step forward and take responsibility because there is a code of silence in the community.
There are moments where the satire feels overblown, but it often is biting satire that is in many ways similar to a previous satirical film from Lee called “Bamboozled” (2000), which centered on a black writer who decides to revive the minstrel show when his idea for a sitcom is rejected by television network executives. To the writer’s chagrin, his offensive revival becomes a smash hit.
As Lee has shared, the satire of “Chi-Raq” was heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick and includes several homages to the classic film, “Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” For example, the character of General King Kong, who appears at the armory, is directly inspired by Maj. ‘King’ Kong, who was played by Slim Pickens in “Dr. Strangelove.”
The idea of a sex strike may seem totally ridiculous yet consider how ridiculous it is that violence persists in Chicago, killing hundreds of people each year, and those in positions of leadership in the community have not figured out how to stop it. The strike is not the ultimate solution but rather a catalyst for spurring truth and reconciliation.
It never feels like the writers, Lee or Kevin Willmott, are objectifying women by suggesting the only political power they have is to withhold their bodies and starve men of sex until they cannot take it anymore. Both genders are depicted as having insatiable urges for sex. The women on strike in the film enjoy pleasure just as much as men, however, the key is women are more willing to take the lead and rebel in their community so something is finally done about the problem of violence.
Multiple characters make strong political statements, which contain nods to the Black Lives Matter movement and the issue of police violence. Cops are even treated as being as harmful to the community as gang members, especially because they often respond to situations with military force.
Overall, the concept of modernizing a Greek play is executed well. The satire is both hilarious and heartbreaking at times. With messages that come from a place of love and desire to provoke change, it compels all those responsible for fueling the problem of violence to reflect on what they can do to end violence.