Here are some things that, by all logic, should not belong in the same movie: policemen blaring a classic Chi-Lites slow jam in an attempt arouse a group of female activists on a sex strike, a tearful mother scrubbing the blood of her murdered child off the street, Samuel L. Jackson serving as a fourth wall-breaking Greek chorus as a colorfully attired and Rudy Ray Moore-inspired named Dolmedes, Wesley Snipes as a one-eyed gang leader named Cyclops, a lengthy sermon about the twisted economics that allow the rich to stay rich and help create the ghettoes and all the crime that goes with them.
Yet, here they are all in Chi-Raq, a Spike Lee film that transplants Aristophanes’ Greek comedy Lysistrata to the streets of present-day Chicago. And not only do those disparate elements make sense in the context of the film, Lee makes it hard to imagine another approach to the subject working half, as well. As a pre-credits burst of statistics tells us, the Chicago murder rate in recent years has outpaced the number of soldiers lost by America in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s an insane film responding to an insane situation. Not all of it works, but much of it does, and the urgency driving it makes it tough to forget.
It’s a story of desperate times and desperate measures. Never especially tolerant of the gun-toting ways of her rapper/gangsta boyfriend Chi-raq (Nick Cannon), Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, best known as Dawn from Mad Men) finds herself at her limit when she sees a woman (Jennifer Hudson) learning about the death of her child thanks to a stray bullet from a drive-by. She decides to take action with some guidance from Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), a neighborhood activist and bookseller. The solution: She’ll withhold sex and encourage all the women around her, on both sides of the conflict, to do the same.
Co-written by Lee and Kevin Willmott (C.S.A: The Confederate States of America), Chi-Raq not only keeps Lysistrata‘s basic premise, it’s performed (mostly) in verse. Yet the cast makes the rhyming dialogue work, to the point where it starts to feel like a natural part of the world of the film and that contrast between real Chicago streets, the heightened dialogue, and the mix of the violent and absurd allows Chi-Raq to get away with a lot that would be harder to pull off in a more naturalistic film.
How else to deal with Chicago today? It’s telling that the film — shot earlier in this summer — only mentions in passing the issue of police violence that’s recently exploded into the headlines via the release of the Laquan McDonald video and still has no shortage of material. It’s a city where gang-related deaths have become staples of the nightly news, yet where whole swathes of the city lack trauma centers, one where beefs that spill over from social media and diss tracks posted to YouTube lead to murder. Lee treats it as the stage for the blackest of black comedies. It’s a satire dressed in mourning clothes, yet one driven by the notion that change is still possible.
As the sex strike widens, the film’s mix of broad comedy and real-world issues becomes even more extreme. The men of Chicago and, eventually, the world find themselves starved for sex and driven crazy by abstinence. Lysistrata and her supporters become militant, taking over an armory led by an unrepentant racist general (David Patrick Kelly). As the activist priest Father Mike, inspired by Chicago’s Father Michael Pfleger, John Cusack presides over a funeral service that doubles as an excoriation of inequality and a call to end the violence that helps perpetuate it. It’s the sort of moment that would stop another movie cold. Instead, it serves as its heart.
Some scenes, like Lysistrata’s raid on the armory, don’t work at all, shooting for Dr. Strangelove, but playing more like Mad TV. But there’s an energy to the film that forgives a lot, especially when it all comes together, as in a Lysistrata’s first war council of women from opposing sides or Chi-Raq’s tense one-on-one with Father Mike in which the priest attempts to push him toward a confession he can’t bring himself to make.
Lysistrata was first staged in Athens shortly after the Athenians suffered a major setback in the Peloponnesian War. It’s stood the test of time, but it began as a timely response to a city-state that had seen more than its share of violence and loss. “This,” the opening of Chi-Raq, “is an emergency.” This messy, vital film is what the response to an emergency looks like.