Concerned Chicagoans needn’t worry that Spike Lee’s searing new joint about urban violence in America is a reductive takedown of their hometown, even if Chi-Raq takes for its title the ultraviolent endonym that makes many locals bristle. (Well, Rahm Emanuel might not love how it depicts his mayoral counterpart as a horny stooge more concerned with appearances than the city’s crime rate.) Lee plants his flag in the first four words that flash onscreen, just in case the urgency somehow escapes you: “This is an emergency.”
The real Chicago knows the feeling all too well. The city is reeling this week from the release of graphic footage that captured the violent October 2014 killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, shot from behind as he was holding a knife and walking away from the white uniformed police officer who pumped 16 bullets into his body. Stories like McDonald’s make outrage over Chi-Raq’s title and the part of town in which Lee held his premiere rather moot, even as they reinforce his greater directive: to get America angry enough to care, and invested enough to take action.
In typically ambitious Lee fashion, Chi-Raq is a scorchingly pointed satire, and one whose beating heart bleeds onscreen through an occasionally overstuffed but boldly stylized mash-up of heightened comedy, rambunctious rhyme and rap, sexual vulgarities, and sweeping polemics. It’s a wildly vibrant social pronouncement that co-opts its narrative inspiration improbably, but fittingly, from the 4th century comedy Lysistrata. Here the crux of Aristophanes’s Peloponnesian War comedy is updated into a succinct yet provocative antiviolence mantra for its 21st-century heroine—a local rapper’s girlfriend who rallies the women of her city to withhold sex until their frustrated men stop the violence. Their fierce refrain is simple and to the point: “No Peace, No Pussy.”
Chi-Raq unfolds after gunfire at a rap show sends a crowd scattering one night, escalating the heated turf war between young thug emcee Chi-raq (Nick Cannon), the leader of the purple-flying Spartans, and his bitter enemy Cyclops (Wesley Snipes, sporting a bedazzled eye patch and delivering what might be described as a curiously flamboyant Gucci Mane impersonation), who flies the orange colors of rival gang the Trojans. When Cyclops sets fire to Chi-raq’s house while Chi-raq and his lady Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) are knocking boots, war is officially on.
Lysistrata stands by her man, until two other very different women from her neighborhood open her cynical eyes and awaken her consciousness: Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), an old school Dr. King disciple who schools her younger counterpart in social awareness and personal responsibility, and Irene (Jennifer Hudson, who lost her mother, brother, and nephew to gun violence in Chicago), the mother of a young girl killed in broad daylight in the crossfire of gangbangers that no witnesses will dare snitch on. No longer content to be complicit in the destructively macho posturing of Chi-raq’s gangster rap culture, Lysistrata allies with Cyclops’s lady to start a grassroots movement to save their men from certain violent death, incarceration, or worse. Their crusade catches on in the suburbs and reaches a critical mass when it attracts the attention of the international media, getting women across the globe so onboard in the name of the ultimate goal—world peace—that even Michelle Obama’s got Barack hard up to end all wars.
Lysistrata’s no-pussy movement is a surprisingly clever device to hang Chi-Raq’s contemporary concerns on and provides some hilariously lascivious laughs (“I will deny all rights of access or entrance… from every husband, lover, or male acquaintance… who comes to my direction… in erection,” her chastity belt-wearing followers pledge). In her, Lee and co-scribe Kevin Willmott write a ballsy, self-possessed, and sensual heroine whose tumultuous relationship with the resistant Chi-raq works as gendered text and metaphor. Their early foreplay foreshadows the deep philosophical divide ahead as they invoke Biggie and Tupac, two titans of the East Coast-West Coast rivalry, who both fell victim to a culture of violence beyond their control.
Chi-Raq is mostly set in and around the hip-hop clubs, the African-American churches, and the bullet-ridden streets of Chicago, the per capita murder capital of America—one that’s claimed more lives, Lee reminds us in the first few minutes, than the wars waged overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as Chi-Raq’s world expands, Lee’s true target comes into focus: Chi-Raq is Chicago is America, and we are all, in our own way, responsible.
The film is at once searing and celebratory, and that goes doubly for the hard-charging original songs that propel the story forward, alongside dialogue spoken entirely in rhyme—a gimmick that works beautifully to highlight the similarities between traditional verse and contemporary rap. Cannon’s “Pray 4 My City” hits the emotional side of the trap spectrum, and his turn as the damaged, lean-sipping Chi-raq gives the film its final stab toward hopefulness. Meanwhile, Chi-raq paints kaleidoscopic colors with its vibrant soundtrack, interspersing the grimier rap tracks with a pastoral Terence Blanchard score and plaintive gospel-tinged R&B numbers. As Lysistrata’s forces take over a fortified U.S. armory building, a battle of the sexes cover of the Chi-Lites 1972 soul classic “Oh Girl,” sung by her army of cooped up ladies and soldiers wielding slow jams as weapons beyond the gates, unfolds with comical perfection.
Lee provides familiar faces to guide the way through his dense cinematic call to action. Playing a loose version of real-life Chicago activist Father Michael Pfleger (whose voice can be heard in the opening salvo), John Cusack fires up his African-American parish as he delivers a fiery sermon over the body of Hudson’s dead child: “Patti’s gone because our politicians are in the pocket of the National Rifle Association,” he roars. In stylized asides, Samuel L. Jackson’s cane-toting narrator Dolmedes helps the audience fill in gaps in the action on-screen, and Dave Chappelle turns in a brief cameo as a strip club owner desperate when his girls go on strike. Lee also folds in footage of Liberian women’s activist Leyhma Gbowee, whose Lysistrata-esque sex strike is credited with helping end her country’s second civil war a dozen years ago.
Chicago is a city so devastated by gang warfare that ABC News crusader Diane Sawyer tried to save it back in 2012, when she gathered local leaders, youngsters, and gang members to work out their problems on national television. Earlier that year, unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford, Florida. Eventually Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland lent their names to the cause that’s since become a lightning rod for social activism in America. Those #BlackLivesMatter martyrs and more get a shout-out in Chi-Raq, a pop cinema audit of injustice and inequality in America so comprehensive, it name drops everything from the raid on Harper’s Ferry to the one-sided war of words between Meek Mill and Drake. There’s a lot of movie packed into Chi-Raq, as if Lee was trying to give every demographic and every generation something vital and relevant to cling to in one fell cinematic swoop. As the stakes grow higher with each passing tragedy, maybe the lure of a Spike Lee joint can light fires in the hearts and minds that headlines fail to reach.