Spike Lee’s Chi-raq oozes with the kind of mad urgency most American films lack these days. Its wild panic is understandable considering the epidemic of gun violence to have hit the South Side of Chicago from 2001 to 2015, leaving a higher body count than the most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than seven thousand killed and counting. The situation has become so dire community members have resorted to referencing their city by a morbid nickname to reflect the carnage.
Most of Lee’s recent output has been messy, brash and determined. Chi-raq takes this trend to the extreme, meshing tones, colors and arguments in a fantastical alternate reality where stereotype has permanently overwhelmed subtext. In brazenly satirical ways, the film takes aim at a host of complicated issues such as racism, militarized police tactics, gun regulation, low-income housing and economic inequality. Contradiction resides in every spoken verse.
Some of Lee’s half-constructed ideas drift into the realm of sanctimony, while others are brilliantly confrontational in just the right ways. Ultimately, Chi-raq becomes a mosaic of divisive personalities and perspectives eager to be heard, the best of them seeking to promote levelheaded reason and institutional resolve within a community that’s slowly being sabotaged both from outside and within.
Over black we hear an approaching train, then the deep beats of an incoming gangsta rap song. The opening credits play out like a karaoke video, with lyrics appearing on the screen highlighting the interwoven connection between gang violence and communal insecurity. Then another series of words flash in bright red: “This is an emergency.” Lee has no other choice but to make this movie, logic and convention be damned.
Chi-raq loosely adapts the Athenian play Lysistrata by Aristophanes that tells of a woman who attempts to end the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex. Lee’s equally determined heroine (played with fury by Teyonah Parris) leads a similar strike of her own in response to the ongoing gang war between Chi-raq’s (Nick Cannon) Spartans and Cyclops’ (Wesley Snipes) Trojans. A rhyme happy narrator named Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) comments willingly from the sidelines.
This all comes after another young child is gunned down in broad daylight, leaving her mother (Jennifer Hudson) sobbing quietly in the streets trying to scrub the blood from the asphalt. Realizing these efforts are futile, she dumps the bloody water back on the stain, spreading it with her hands. While most of the film is bombastic, this heartbreaking moment unfolds in near quiet.
Chi-raq is not about grieving or pity, but the act of demanding justice in a world where there is very little to offer. The sex strike mushrooms into a global phenomenon after Lysistrata and her followers occupy a National Guard barracks, culminating in a gorgeous split screen musical number scored to The Chi-Lites’ “Oh Girl.” Despite compromising offers and threats, the women (mostly) stay strong in their resolve.
Aside from a few plastic digital news cutaways to other protests afar, Lee stays localized to examine how the various male-centric institutions react. Somewhat surprisingly the only “pillar” of the community that doesn’t display a harsh or vindictive response is the church, whose virtue and fortitude are personified by John Cusack’s Father Mike Corridan. His memorial for the fallen child carries inside it multiple converging truth bombs that mostly ring true.
As the police, the mayor, military, news media and community organizations all try to dismantle Lysistrata’s strike through various means, Corridan and the church remain dedicated to the community’s best interest. How radical this seems nowadays.
Chi-raq, which opens Friday Dec. 4, ends not in a shootout but a “sex-off.” Still, the community’s desire to be better interrupts even that. There will be no getting off until the guilty have been revealed and the innocent can rest easily. Lee’s latest may be the epitome of a hot mess, but it’s one we need now more than ever.