Chi-Raq  is a Spike Lee joint. A hot, sizzling, rip-roaring Spike Lee joint. This is his adaptation of Aristophanes’ classical Greek play Lysistrata with gold chains in lieu of white togas. Set in south side Chicago, Chi-Raq is set in motion after a child is found victim to a stray bullet in a gang shooting. Infuriated, the women of Englewood decide to take one from Leymah Gbowee and organize a sex strike. The demand? An end to gun violence once and for all. Teyonah Parris (Dear White People) is our formidable Lysistrata who calls all womenfolk to the reins: No peace, no pussy.
All Hail Aristophanes…Chi-Raq marries the very old with the ultra modern demonstrating that people are people and some things, in this case, sadly, never change. Aristophanes penned Lysistrata satirizing his time in 411BC. Lee and Willmott are using the same premise to satirize our society thousands of years later. The two pay ample homage to Aristophanes: openly crediting him at the top of the film; costume designing Lysistrata’s wardrobe with Grecian influences; and perhaps, most memorably, composing the script in rhyming verse. This imbues Chi-Raq with a lyrical edge that’s further sharpened by the film’s soundtrack which manages to deftly hit emotional notes and foment energy. The insertion of informal diction into structured verse, when paired with a collage of lively images, makes Chi-Raq a truly unique audiovisual experience. After all, where else will you enter a strip club only to find a man delivering a rhyming monologue on the downright travesty that is… an empty stripper pole.
Spike Lee’s Spike-lee-ness… This film reunites Lee with previous collaborators like Angela Basset and Samuel L. Jackson; and just as he reunites with previous collaborators, it seems that Chi-Raq is a bit of a return to form for this director. Chi-Raq is smart, topical and hilarious if a bit uneven in execution. Some sequences work better than others, but all of them go for broke. Spike Lee has a lot of things to say and he isn’t afraid to exclaim them from the top of his lungs. This film is saturated with meaningful imagery and iconography, which features things like a Deux Ex Machina cafe. This is, after all, a movie where the Freudian significance of cannons is not elided whatsoever. In a garish scene of seduction, a crusty old man is shown wearing Confederate flag briefs (should they be called tightie-confederities? Let’s not make this a thing, okay?) as he rides a massive black cannon as if it were his own herculean phallus. In yet another scene, a cream coloured cannon from a war tank has “penis envy” written right on it. The shot is framed such that it looks like Samuel L Jackson’s Dolomedes is stabbing a white soldier in the head with this massive penis envy cannon. I can’t say I didn’t chuckle, but if subtleties are your thing, then parts of Chi-Raq might give you indigestion. On the other hand, Jennifer Hudson not only contributes a powerful piece of music to the film, but she also delivers one of Chi-Raq’s most emotional scenes very early on in the film; and just like that, I was in. Yet, as the film progressed, my fear is that Chi-Raq, in its urgency—which is absolutely just—becomes too preachy and reliant on platitudes. Because, of course, black lives matter. Of course, gun violence is out of control. Of course, love is important. But perhaps this is what happens when it has been 27 years since Do the Right Thing and seemingly fuck all has changed. How does one refrain from broadcasting the message with a megaphone at this point? The answer is you don’t.
A Laugh & A Think…Chi-Raq is sharp satire. And it is exactly its farfetched premise that allows Lee to approach hot-button issues—such as gun and gang violence, gender roles, class struggles and racial tension—without making a stuffy and overly earnest film. This is first and foremost an intriguing piece of cinema. And an audacious and hilarious one at that. Though it might seem callous to make a humorous film about gun violence, the film is never inviting us to laugh at violence so much as it is inviting us to laugh at our own human folly. This is not to say that the film doesn’t have its share of problems. It’s questionable as to whether this film oversimplifies the complex socioeconomic factors behind gun violence. Is likening Chicago to Iraq a fair comparison? And furthermore, is Chi-Raq too heteronormative? These discussions are a think pieces unto themselves, but the noteworthy thing is Chi-Raq will likely encourage discussion and promote thought. If it does this and amuses, what more can you ask for out of 2 hours of your life?
2 hours of passionate and playful social criticism that will rouse the eyes and the ears.