Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is not a film with a message. It’s not an allegorical tale of tragedy with unstated yet entrenched sociopolitical implications made so Hollywood could pat itself on the back for its good conscience. Chi-Raq is a wake-up call in a world that seems increasingly determined to repeat the mistakes of history while learning none of its lessons. Beginning boldly with a rap about the state of affairs in the artist’s home city (“I don’t live in f—in’ Chicago/I live in Chi-Raq”) that culminates in flashing on-screen text (THIS IS AN EMERGENCY), all before a single character is introduced or a single line of fictional dialogue is delivered. Chi-Raq’s world may be stylized, but it does not stand apart from society as a work of art. Lee’s film was made to be seen, understood and implemented, while warning us of the consequences of falling into the traps of complacency and ignorance.
Narrator Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) introduces the world of Lee’s Chi-Raq, explaining the stylistic trappings Lee uses in this reimagining of Aristophanes’ satire Lysistrata to communicate a very real point to the audience. Don’t be distracted by the fact that the dialogue is in verse—listen to what they’re saying. Look beyond the flight of fancy and grasp the meaning of the image. Chi-Raq, in the state of Drillinois, is an only partially fictionalized version of Chicago divided between two gangs, the Spartans and Trojans. Yet the outside world is as real to the universe of Chi-Raq as the fictional one, with references to real-life victims of American systemic violence and current events as recent as this past summer.
The war between gangs, led by Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) and Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), has reached a fever pitch, and killings have been shockingly routine. Many are resigned and fatalistic to the violence, yet some see hope in even the bleakest of circumstances and good in the most lost of souls. Following a child’s death by a stray bullet, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) and her frustrated yet unafraid neighbor Miss Harris (Angela Bassett) decide to take action, organizing a sex strike by women on both sides of the conflict to force a peaceful resolution.
Lee deftly steers away from what could have been the easy route of a politically tinged sex comedy, with as much emphasis placed on humankind’s ability to unite for justice, if only we would overcome our timidity and finally confront the difficult questions of race, poverty, history, systematized oppression and for-profit justice. This is summarized in a stunning speech at the child’s funeral by Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) that illustrates the connections between policy, war and domestic violence with passion and clarity never before seen on screen.
Lee’s determination to change the world helps Chi-Raq overcome some of its obstacles, which are worth pointing out yet don’t detract from the need to see the film. The silliness of the sex strike allows Lee to set up implausible yet inspired set pieces, such as a general whose lust for our heroine leads him to strip his uniform down to Confederate boxers while riding an antique cannon. But it also leads to Lee doing something he’s always done, even in his best films: confuse leering with healthy depictions of sex. Lee’s version of women’s empowerment is based on the thing he likes most about them: their bodies and their willingness to have sex with men.
Yet as the film so rightly declares, this is an emergency. Mistakes will be made in the pursuit of justice, and helpful ideas should not be dismissed for the personal flaws of the messenger. Chi-Raq is born as much from Lee’s mind as from the world at large, and while it does not contain the answer to our problems, it does compel us to understand that complacency is no longer an option.
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Downtown Mall, 529-3000
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