Spike Lee returns to form with a stylish musical that has something to say.
Chi-Raq is modern retelling of the Aristophanes play Lysistrata, in which the titular character organizes women on a sex strike to force peace talks. It’s also a musical that utilizes many genres and almost all the characters speak in rhyming couplets. It’s ridiculous and audacious, but how else could you respond to the fucked up reality the movie is trying to wrestle with.
The starting point for the movie is a simple, purposefully inflammatory, fact: The number of U.S. soldiers who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq is comparable to (And slightly greater than) the number of homicides in Chicago over that same period. Obviously, there have been far more civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq than that number over the same period, but that’s sort of missing the point. A number is just a number, the point is to give it a context people can understand. And the context of war is a good one for a movie to grab onto. That’s just the movie’s in though, we still need to go deeper.
The best thing I can say about Chi-Raq is that it’s not really like any other movie I’ve ever seen. It’s use of musical sequences, drama, political commentary, Samuel L. Jackson as a Greek Chorus, and modern language spoken mostly in couplets leaves me at a loss for comparisons. Lee is throwing out everything and the kitchen sink, because the story deserves it.
Earlier in the year I wrote about the movie Peace Officer, a documentary that dealt with the militarization of the American police force, and how the fact that the events of the movie involved exclusively white people meant it was distilled from the more complicated racial issues that make the situation in black communities, like Ferguson, so much more complicated. Spike Lee is trying to tackle that, and he’s trying to tackle all of it at once, because to really address them you can’t separate them. The world isn’t a vacuum; gang violence isn’t unrelated to unemployment and poverty. Chi-Raq is about a community being strangled from all sides. The words “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY” flash in all read and all caps at the start of the film. The Lysistrata was about ending the Peloponnesian War but the only way to end Chi-Raq is with world peace.
It’s all too much and that’s why the movie is the way it is. I mean, this is a comedy right? Dave Chappelle shows up! I laughed. The police try to end the sex strike by playing slow jams to make the women in the armory horny and a dance number occurs. A woman cleans up her child’s blood off the street. John Cusack delivers a very angry, very left, sermon. There’s a climatic scene where two characters fuck on a bed in the middle of a basketball court to see who cums first as the whole world watches in interest. Funny stuff!
This is art with purpose and ambition, a project that brings out the best of Spike Lee’s talents. All the actors do a great job delivering really tough dialogue, making lines that could have felt incredibly forced, surprisingly natural. Nick Cannon’s “Pray 4 My City” does a phenomenal job setting the tone for the movie upfront. Teyonah Parris owns the screen as Lysistrata.
It’s also worth noting that while this movie is very modern, and very relevant it’s still also true to the spirit of Aristophanes’ original play. Aristophanes was never one for subtlety.