“Land of pain, misery and strife”
I can comfortably forget Da Sweet Blood of Jesus happened—Spike Lee‘s ambitious yet disappointing Kickstarted vampire flick—now that it appears the director’s back on track with Chi-Raq‘s musical satire. I don’t get around to every Lee “joint” but it’s probably not far-fetched to say this is his best since 25th Hour. Unsurprisingly the two share a common political bent, speaking on a shift in perception as chaos reigns in America. That 2002 film was a post-9/11 comment while this 2015 release puts the “Black Lives Matter” movement onscreen through the lens of Ancient Greek poet and comic dramatist Aristophanes‘ play “Lysistrata”. His original tale was of a sex strike to find peace during the Peloponnesian War, Lee’s the present-day battle waging atop urban American streets.
Rather than simply give us biting words about distrust in the police or white American gentrification—they’re both included—Lee focuses his attention on black on black violence instead. And why shouldn’t he? It’s too easy to just blame the system or outsiders when there’s as big a problem within the community itself. So he leaves New York City behind and travels to Chicago, a city with more murders since 2001 than the number of American troops perished from our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. The portmanteau isn’t some humorous anecdote: it’s a legit label to describe just how bad Chi-town’s streets have become. To let your child leave your home is to risk them getting a stray bullet as easily as a scrapped knee.
Lee and cowriter Kevin Willmott adhere to Aristophanes’ format of rhyme whether by narrator Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) laying down facts or Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) recruiting her city’s women and eventually the world to force men’s hands towards finding peace. She’s hardly innocent as far as the bloodshed goes considering she’s shacking up with the Spartan gang’s leader aptly going by rap stage name Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon). She wears the organization’s purple and spars with those in Trojan orange while basking in the hate speech spewed via text message and concert targeting rival general Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). The carnage is easy to ignore when it harms people out of sight. But when a grieving mother (Jennifer Hudson‘s Irene) calls her out, she finally understands the part she plays.
To say the film starts out serious is misleading since the whole endeavor is pretty far-fetched wearing its satire on its sleeve, but the beginning is definitely more somber than what comes later. The humor arrives from Jackson’s poetic delivery and Cannon and Parris’ over-the-top pillow talk using whatever slang words for their genitals they can to keep things rhyming. Add Snipes’ bad-ass played with a high-pitched, wheezy giggle that had his face contorting into Bill Cosby shenanigans and you get the tone straight-away despite heart-wrenching moments like Hudson breaking down over the body of her slain eleven-year old daughter. But we need this drama to understand the stakes. It’s not about a Spartan and Trojan in the hospital; it’s about children in the grave.
This is why Lysistrata seeks out guidance from the sage-like Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), calls a truce with the Trojan ladies, and begins her movement to change the world. This is also when things spill over into outlandish situational comedy wherein an entire armory is disarmed by feminine wiles and a tough-as-nails, Confederate-loving General (David Patrick Kelly‘s King Kong) mounts a Civil War cannon in the hopes he’ll be mounted in turn. Add Mayor McCloud’s (D.B. Sweeney) own sexual proclivities being blocked by the strike and Commissioner Blades (Harry Lennix) doing everything he can to calmly follow orders and hatch a scheme to break through the women’s ranks with R&B music and you will be rolling your eyes as often as you nod your head in understanding.
The whole city rises as men who aren’t in gangs like middle-aged Old Duke (Steve Harris) have found their sex well dried up too. The president is calling in need of his own relief, countries everywhere are joining the “blue balls” revolution, and peace may actually become a viable option if only Chi-Raq will move past his ego and get on-board. And parallel to this fight is that of Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack delivering an impassioned performance) and his church seeking information on Irene’s girl’s murder. The church and the women all work towards a solution to clean up their streets and return to a way of life that seems to have only existed centuries ago—when children could play outside and not fear for their lives.
I loved the use of music whether Nick Cannon’s “Pray 4 My City” blaring above a black screen as lyrics flash in red during the opening; the synchronized dancing by men and women to The Chi-Lites‘ “Oh Girl”; and Sam Dew‘s fantastic “Desperately” atop the climactic bronze bed “fight” between Chi-Raq and Lysistrata. There’s emotionality to the juxtaposition between music and action that cuts through the lies and deceit in play and the comedy helping us acknowledge the tragedy of what mankind has become. Each works as well as two other moments fail. Isiah Whitlock Jr.‘s inclusion to do his iconic “Shiiiiiiiit” from “The Wire” is a cheap laugh and Roger Guenveur Smith‘s insurance salesman pitching Miss Helen is too randomly out-of-place for its important message to resonate.
Two missteps in two-plus hours is a bona fide success in my book, though. The satirical tone might not be for everyone—like Snipes and Harris’ hammy, head-shaking turns—but that’s kind of the point. We laugh because the whole ordeal’s absurd. Lysistrata’s solution, however, is no crazier than the reality of what she’s fighting. At a certain point we must wake up and stop the senseless violence by remembering the difference between right and wrong. We must remember that no beef is worth taking away our youth’s tomorrow. In that context, Cannon’s becomes the face of everything that’s wrong, his end a beautifully bittersweet glimpse of hope. Parris embodies the strength we all must embrace to prevail, the actress delivering a star-making performance in doing exactly that.
 Teyonah Parris in Spike Lee’s CHI-RAQ. Photo credit: Parrish Lewis, Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios
 Nick Cannon in Spike Lee’s CHI-RAQ. Photo credit: Parrish Lewis, Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios
 Samuel L. Jackson in Spike Lee’s CHI-RAQ. Photo credit: Parrish Lewis, Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios