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Spike Lee Declares An Emergency In 'Chi-Raq'

Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata, a Chicago gang leader's girlfriend who rallies women to swear off sex with their men until they end their violence.
Parrish Lewis
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata, a Chicago gang leader's girlfriend who rallies women to swear off sex with their men until they end their violence.

Answering one kind of madness with another, Spike Lee's Chi-Raq approaches the plague of gun violence in Chicago with a staggering disregard for propriety. Just the title alone — a reference to a fatality rate that's exceeded that of American soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan over the same period — was enough to raise the ire of the city's image-conscious elite, but that's merely a throat-clearing for the operatic fantasia to come. With Aristophanes' Lysistrata serving as an audacious starting point, Lee's musical/satire/feature-length editorial lurches from genre to genre and tone to tone with as much freewheeling spontaneity as possible for a film where the dialogue is almost entirely in verse. It's a teeming repository of idea—by turns somber and profane, whimsical and hectoring, inspired and inexplicable.

This is how Spike Lee starts a conversation. Twenty-six years later, he's still Mookie, tossing the garbage can through the Sal's Famous window in Do The Right Thing, fearlessly provoking a response. The click-clack of reaction pieces can be heard over virtually every scene in Chi-Raq—and from all over the political spectrum, too—and Lee hasn't considered his arguments rigorously enough for the film to survive them all. But he wants the audience to think about the cycle of violence on Chicago's South Side and the array of contributing factors that perpetuate it. At the same time, he's made a thoroughly unruly work of art that sets the realities of the streets against the artifice of Greek theater and a cartoon gangland that recalls The Warriors.

Reaching back to Lee's three earliest films, Chi-Raq could be described as a fusion of the dodgy sexual politics of She's Gotta Have It, the music and intra-racial disputes of School Daze, and all-points sermonizing of Do The Right Thing. Co-scripting with Kevin Willmott — whose brilliant mockumentary C.S.A: The Confederate States of America imagines what might have happened if the South won the Civil War — Lee structures the film around Aristophanes' outrageous premise of sex as a leverage for peace. The electric Teyonah Parris, previously seen in Dear White People, stars as Lysistrata, a beautiful woman who takes decisive action after witnessing a pair of shootings.

Lysistrata's boyfriend, Demetrius Dupree (Nick Cannon), who raps under the name "Chi-Raq," heads up a purple-clad gang called the Spartans, and he looks for revenge after Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) and the rival Trojans, wearing orange, open fire during one of his club shows. When a stray Spartan bullet fells an 11-year-old girl and Lysistrata sees the anguish of the child's mother (Jennifer Hudson, whose own personal tragedies are brought to the surface), she persuades the wives and girlfriends of gang members, as well as other women in the community, to withhold sex until the men come to their senses.

Samuel L. Jackson turns up as Dolmedes, the one-man Greek chorus who introduces the verse and ties the disparate story threads together, and John Cusack and Angela Bassett both do vital work as an activist priest and an intellectual, respectively, who lend their voices to the cause. Among the root causes batted around are the macho intransigence of gang leaders, faulty and corrupt institutions, mass incarceration, high unemployment and poverty, and Lee tosses in up-to-the-minute talk about Sandra Bland and the church shooting in Charleston, S.C. "THIS IS AN EMERGENCY" scream the opening titles in big bold letters, and Chi-Raq seeks to stay right in the moment.

Lee's compulsion to jam every idea he has into the frame gives Chi-Raq an instability that often sacrifices coherence for vitality. Though Lysistrata is a satire, Lee's film uses it mainly as a conceptual hook, so elements that are completely absurd and outrageous, like Lysistrata's bizarre encounter with a neo-Confederate officer, are juxtaposed with scenes where Cusack and Bassett sound off earnestly about the issues of the day. They may share the same subject, but they don't share the movie that comfortably.

Then again, a little misbehavior is the point. The fantasy and realism of Chi-Raq may go together like plaids and stripes, but Lee isn't one to let perfect be the enemy of good. If nothing else, the film asserts the value of trying something and failing rather than retreating to safe spaces. It turns candor into the highest possible virtue.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of The Onion, where he's worked as a staff writer for over a decade. His reviews have also appeared in Time Out New York, City Pages, The Village Voice, The Nashville Scene, and The Hollywood Reporter. Along with other members of the A.V. Club staff, he co-authored the 2002 interview anthology The Tenacity Of the Cockroach and the new book Inventory, a collection of pop-culture lists.