John Cusack in Chi-Raq.
The latest “Joint” by cinema provocateur Spike Lee—who previously directed 1989’s Do the Right Thing and 1992’s Malcolm X—takes aim at gun violence, particularly in the Windy City. Chi-Raq takes its title from a term coined by rappers (not Lee) who merged the names “Chicago” and “Iraq” because the gun deaths in the U.S. city outnumber those in Iraq as well as U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan since the U.S. invaded those countries. Chi-Raq opens with a rap song about this truly sobering fact: That an urban American location is a bloodier battlefield than these overseas fronts have proven to be.
Chi-Raq’s ripped-from-the-headlines sensibility specifically references the Confederate flag controversy, gang warfare, the National Rifle Association, police and vigilante killings of black youth, and Black Lives Matter. But as topical as Chi-Raq strives to be, the rate of gun violence in America moves at such a rapid pace that the movie, released Dec. 4th, can’t keep up with breaking news about mass shootings.
A key moment in the plot in Chi-Raq is the gang-related shooting of little Patti, daughter of Irene (Jennifer Hudson), who is remembered in a stirring eulogy delivered at church by Father Mike Corridan, powerfully portrayed by John Cusack (based on South Side Chicago Caucasian priest Michael Pfleger). Patti’s killing by a stray bullet triggers an uprising from the women in the community, led by Lysistrata (played by Teyonah Parris of 2014’s Dear White People and the AMC Mad Men TV series).
Indeed, as the name of its female lead suggests, Chi-Raq is an adaptation by Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott of the Greek playwright Aristophanes’ 411 B.C. comedy Lysistrata, wherein the title character led a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War. Chi-Raq is the best film updating of a classic to modern times since the strife between Verona’s Capulets and Montagues in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was reset to the battle between Manhattan’s Sharks and Jets in 1961’s West Side Story.
Lysistrata’s simple but brilliant idea is that by universally agreeing to withhold sexual favors from their husbands, lovers, or any “male acquaintance” coming in their “direction with an erection,” the women will force the warring males to negotiate a gang truce. Lee and Willmott cleverly transpose the Grecian story to contemporary Chicago where two Bloods and Crips-type gangs—the Spartans and Trojans—are engaged in bloody gang warfare. Lysistrata is the lover of a rapper and head of the Spartans also dubbed Chi-Raq (played by Mariah Carey’s ex, Nick Cannon).
With the slogan “No Peace, No Pussy” the Lysistrata-inspired sex strike spreads across Chicago and goes global (although the film does not follow up on this sexual walkout’s worldwide implications). In a specific reference to abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry to ignite a slave revolt in the South, Lysistrata and her South Side female followers seize a National Guard armory (in Aristophanes’ version of the play, women of Athens take over the Acropolis).
Chi-Raq also adapts some of the conventions of ancient Grecian theater. For instance, much of the dialogue is in rhyme and a dapper-looking Samuel L. Jackson as Dolmedes plays the role of a Greek chorus, commenting on the action. Revealing Spike’s film student background (today, he’s a film professor at NYU where he earned an MFA), Chi-Raq is cinematically stylized. One scene in the occupied armory scene recalls those Busby Berkeley dance numbers from 1930s musicals like 42nd Street. Such formalistic techniques may make it hard for some viewers to feel swept up in the action of Chi-Raq, but anyone willing to suspend disbelief will be rewarded by Spike’s imaginative vision.
Chi-Raq’s cast is superb, reuniting numerous Spike veterans. In addition to Jackson—who was the DJ Mister Senor Love Daddy in Do the Right Thing, and last appeared in Lee’s 1990 Mo’ Better Blues—Wesley Snipes, who acted in Blues and 1991’s Jungle Fever, is back as Cyclops, leader of the Trojans gang. So is Roger Guenveur Smith,whose first Lee outing was in 1988’s School Daze, followed by the symbolically disabled character Smiley in Do the Right Thing, plus a part in 1992’s Malcolm X and the title role in Lee’s 2001 A Huey P. Newton Story (Smith also co-stars in the upcoming Nate Parker-directed The Birth of a Nation, about the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion). Harry Lennix, who was in Spike’s 1995 crime drama Clockers and Lee’s 1996 Million Man March movie Get on the Bus, plays Commissioner Blades in Chi-Raq. While Angela Bassett, who depicted wife Betty Shabazz in Malcolm X, is Chi-Raq’s bookish Miss Helen. Dave Chapelle, who hasn’t been in a movie since 2002’s Blaxploitation spoof Undercover Brother, returns to the big screen here, and D. B. Sweeney plays a scheming Rahm Emanuel-like mayor who does the politically expedient thing.
Like Lee’s other movies Chi-Raq has a strong message. The film is a heartfelt plea for compassion and reason, as well as a rebuff to reactionaries who claim that while Black Lives Matter and other activists assail police brutality, they fail to address “Black-on-Black violence.” (Talk about “false equivalencies” - as if the behavior of officers trained and paid by taxpayers to “protect and serve” equates with how gang bangers act!)
In addition to ending gang warfare, Chi-Raq calls for a sweeping jobs program and increased social services as ways to end epidemic violence in African American communities and to secure a lasting peace. As in the university-set School Daze, which ends with a stirring wakeup call and an alarm clock going off, Chi-Raq urges viewers to “WAKE UP!” One hopes that Spike—who helmed $2.6 million U.S. military recruitment ads around 1999 aimed at luring Blacks to join the world’s most highly armed and one of its deadliest forces—will take his own advice and reserve his talents for projects for the people from now on.
L.A.-based reviewer/film historian Ed Rampell appears in an episode of the Asylum Entertainment series “Demons in the City of Angels,” about blacklisted screenwriter Bobby Lees, expected to air on the Reelz Network in January 2016. Rampell is The Progressive Magazine’s “Man In Hollywood.” and author of “Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States.” His Progressive interview with America’s former Poet Laureate is in the new book “Conversations With W.S. Merwin.” Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).