Chicago holds a special place in my heart. I called the city home for six years, and grew to love it. I consider it my spiritual hometown, and so was very interested to see Spike Lee’s take on the gun violence that has plagued the city and filled anyone who loves the place with despair. Living on the south side in the early aughts, I am familiar with many of the places and neighborhoods portrayed in the film, although the violence was nowhere near the level then that it is now (and even so, I was living in a fairly protected enclave). Many Chicagoans have been vocal about the name of the film being pejorative, and the film itself reflecting negatively on the city; while some of this is understandable and perhaps justified, in truth it seems to have more to do with Lee’s outsider status, and positions him as a kind of carpetbagger or tourist of tragedy. The fact of the matter is that the level of violence Chicago has experienced in the past decade is staggering, and anyone with Lee’s status who wants to draw attention to the problem should be commended. Yes, his film is a polemic, and yes, its didacticism has no interest in drawing a nuanced, wide-ranging portrait of the city in full. This is not a problem, but a strength. Anyone who is concerned about the numbing level of daily (gun) violence in America should be thankful this film exists; that we might be amazed it exists is a measure of how acclimated we have become to living in a nightmare (and how easily we can deny that nightmare as long as we are able to quarantine it within certain communities).
The film works in a few different modes or registers. We begin with a straightforward sequence laying out the facts of the problem that is quite unlike anything you have seen in the past thirty years in mainstream American cinema – the frightening numbers of dead and wounded are laid out as an anguished, angry rap provides the subjective view of this violence. We then move to a nightclub, where a shooting is about to take place during the performance on stage; right before the shooting, however, the action freezes, and our narrator/chorus Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) explains, in verse, the structure of the film, and that it is based on Lysistrata by Aristophenes. Many times during the course of the narrative, Dolmedes returns to comment on the unfolding action. The narrative itself, pitched, like Lysistrata, as a farce, concerns two warring gangs, one run by rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), the other by the older Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is Chi-Raq’s girlfriend, and starts the movie without much awareness of the terrible conditions of her community, and in denial about her boyfriend’s contributions to the problems. She is radicalized both by the death of a child and by her neighbor Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), who encourages Lysistrata to use the power she has as a woman in a political way – that is, she starts to think about withholding sex as a way to control Chi-Raq and tamp down the violence he thoughtlessly causes in the community. At this point, Lee mixes in “documentary” sequences that highlight the present day reality of this tactic, such as the peace movement in Liberia led by Crystal Roh Gawding that sought to end that country’s civil war in a similar way. Lysistrata’s task is to convince not only her fellow gang wives, but those of Cyclops’s gang, that such a move is in the best interests of the entire community. As the action begins to take root and show some success, the movement grows not only city-wide, but worldwide, as women everywhere begin to use sex as a tool of peace. Eventually, Lysistrata and her “army” nonviolently seize the National Guard barracks in Chicago and a stand-off between the men of the city and the women ensues. On a somewhat separate track, we have the story of Irene (Jennifer Hudson), whose child was collateral damage in a gun battle. This death is partly what influenced Lysistrata, but Lee returns to Irene and her grief, making the child’s funeral a central sequence in the film – it is during this church service, led by Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack), a character modeled closely on the real life Reverend Michael Pfleger, that Lee, through Corridan, gives voice to one of the most scathing indictments of the American way of death, and the economics undergirding it, that we’ve ever seen in a narrative film. Eventually, the “armies” of men and women square off in the persons of Lysistrata and Chi-Raq, with the first to orgasm the loser. Before anyone can win or lose, however, Cyclops and the other male representatives of the community (not just gang members at this point, but men from all walks of life and levels of “respectability”) intervene and force Chi-Raq to concede. Lysistrata carries the day, and in the denouement, everyone dressed in white (suggesting heaven and an ideal conclusion that cannot be realized in this world, sadly), Cyclops and Chi-Raq sign an accord to stop the violence, and Chi-Raq begs the forgiveness of Irene, confessing that it was he who killed her child. He then willingly accepts his punishment, and implores those in attendance (and, by extension, the viewers of the film) to use his case as a negative example.
I fully admit the description does not do the film justice. You might be able to tell it is a fairly radical work as far as mainstream cinema goes, especially these days, but it is pretty radical even by Spike Lee’s standards. His anger is often palpable, but what I don’t convey well is just how funny the film is. Jackson’s Dolmedes is outright hilarious, and even though we are in the realm of the serious, the film is a farce first and foremost. All the same, the ending is quite powerful, and moving, and much of that can be chalked up to Nick Cannon, a huge surprise in his controlled and astute portrayal of Chi-Raq. Really, though, the entire cast is excellent – the purely farcical characters, such as General King Kong (David Patrick Kelly, channeling a union of Generals Buck Turgidson and Jack D. Ripper from Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) come off the worst, as they seem cartoonish and shallow, but those with a serious mode are very affecting. (John Cusack is unexpectedly great in this way, but I must also give a shout out to Wesley Snipes, who returns to the screen with an affected character who could easily be dismissed, but owns it, being by turns ridiculous and serious as needs be). Like many other of Spike Lee’s films, though, Chi-Raq has problems. Lee is just not good at dramaturgy, and his narratives are often lumpy, misshapen, and lack momentum. In his best work, such as Do the Right Thing, he triumphs in the end – but his best work, to my mind, is his earliest and least experimental. As he has gotten older, Lee has been willing to try new forms – Bamboozled, for instance, is audacious, but overlong and tiresome. More conventional fare, such as Summer of Sam, comes off as pointless and downright boring. So while I prefer Lee in his experimental mode, in any mode his films often have long, tedious parts. This is partly due to a lack of structure, but the greater problem is his inability to write characters that are both believable and who convey emotion and motivation through action rather than words (another reason Do the Right Thing works). Often the acting in his films seems bad, as in the embarrassingly hysterical Jungle Fever, but it is not really the fault of the actors – the characters are simply too often types or obvious contrivances, spouting dialogue that communicates Lee’s point of view straight-up. They rarely feel organic, or fully formed, and tend to lack ambiguity. We get a taste of this early in the film, especially with Angela Bassett’s character. Such ham-handedness makes the proceedings feel amateurish, like an overly earnest After School Special. In Chi-Raq, though, it works to his advantage a bit, because the whole film has an improvised air, and often seems like a piece of filmed street theater. Lee makes use of real locations, and foregrounds the artificial, and temporary, nature of the production, for instance by using fabric signs hung on the side of buildings in place of billboards or real signage. This tactic reinforces the universality of the material, suggesting that Chicago is just the most recent stop on the tour of this immortal agit-prop theater troop. Ultimately, for me Lysistrata is just a very odd choice for source material given the topic Lee wants to address. A gang war is not like other wars – as Lee makes apparent, it is the product of structural forces beyond the control of the disempowered actors in the street. And the gender aspect of the play, while providing much of the comedy, is a strange fit as well for the subject matter. Yes, it makes sense in that the mothers of the dead might ultimately be the loudest, and angriest, voices, but the sex comedy side feels odd. I would wish for a film that is angrier, tougher, and wrings tears from the audience throughout, rather than waiting for the post-climactic afterlife. Still, even though the film is uneven, and even though it does not touch a nerve as forcefully as it needs to, it is an essential film for our time, simply because it is so unique and addresses a topic that no one else of Lee’s visibility is touching.