When I was in Chicago for Thanksgiving, the subject of Chi-Raq came up at dinner, and my uncle’s girlfriend dropped her voice to a whisper, noting that the city fathers of Chicago had condemned the film, starting with its title, a damning nickname for a city long infamous for violence and crime, which Spike Lee was asked (and refused) to change. It increased my excitement for a film which, on paper, sounded like a must-see.
I’m not inclined to say that it is, but I’m less inclined to say that it isn’t. In some respects, it’s vintage Lee–righteously angry, incendiary, exuberantly stylized–and uneven in tone and quality. But it lacks the emotional or thematic unity to wholly overcome that unevenness, and it cannot be counted as one of his masterpieces.
Spoilers; TW discussions of violence and sexual assault.
After an overture consisting of Nick Cannon’s “Pray 4 My City”, the printed lyrics being juxtaposed with an image of America composed of firearms, we meet our narrator, Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson), who tells us that what we are about to see is a modern take on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, with rhyming dialogue to match. The setting is the South Side of Chicago, and our protagonists are Chi-Raq (Cannon), a rapper and leader of the Spartan gang, and Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), his lover. After Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), the leader of the rival Trojan gang, sets Chi-Raq’s house on fire, Lysistrata seeks sanctuary with Chi-Raq’s neighbor, Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), who is disgusted by the pervasive violence of the neighborhood and urges Lysistrata to combat it, telling her to research Leymah Gbowee, who initiated a sex strike to combat the civil war in Liberia.
Inspired by this, Lysistrata recruits not only her friends on the Spartan side, but also the girlfriends of the various Trojans, to go on a sex strike so as to force their men to put an end to the violence–the need for which is reinforced when a young girl named Patti is killed by crossfire, and her mother (Jennifer Hudson) is unable to convince any witnesses to come forward, even when the local priest, Fr. Mike (John Cusack), offers a $5,000 reward for information. The strike quickly spreads, to the growing frustration of the men, who soon find themselves with no avenue of release. Lysistrata and her followers take over a National Guard armory, gaining more publicity which enables the strike to spread, first across the country, then across the world.
Chicago’s Mayor McCloud (D.B. Sweeney) and Commissioner Blades (Harry Lennix) try to figure out a way to break the strike, while Chi-Raq, despite pressure on all sides, refuses to renounce violence. Finally, there is a showdown between him and Lysistrata, but two revelations remain before Dolmedes leaves us with the hope of peace and the exhortation to “Wake up!”
I’m not at all sure how best to begin discussing Chi-Raq. Do I take it mainly as a message film, or as a piece of entertainment? Since it places the message front and center, let’s begin there.
As a message film, it peaks midway through, when Fr. Mike eulogizes Patti with a lengthy, impassioned rant about the state of modern America, where violence is glorified, responsibility is denied, and blood is on many a hand. Perhaps the most interesting facet of the script, by Lee and Kevin Willmott (who teaches film at my alma mater!), is its refusal to place the blame on one group alone. Fr. Mike points his finger at the government, who builds up prisons while leaving schools to crumble. He points his finger at business, which provides few opportunities for the poor to advance themselves. He points to guns. He points to modern culture. He points to bad parenting.
But he also points to the perpetrators of the violence, and those who protect them with their silence. He makes it clear that no one is blameless. It’s a powerful scene, acted with conviction by Cusack (an odd casting choice, but one that pays off), and it has a gravity and clarity which the rest of the film too often lacks.
Much of the time, it’s hard to see exactly what the message is beyond a basic plea against violence. At a time when mass shootings are epidemic, it’s not an unwelcome message, but if the idea was for the film to illustrate it, it falls somewhat short.
The characters are a major part of the problem. Lysistrata is basically a cipher, and Parris’ ample charisma alone keeps her interesting; it’s not a performance on the level of her wonderful work in Dear White People, but she has the star presence to compensate for the lack of depth in the script. Chi-Raq, with his cold defiance, is a modicum more developed, and Cannon brings some gravitas to the table, especially in the film’s final scenes.
But none of the personalities here are truly dynamic, and when the characters compel us, it’s more because Lee assembled so good a cast. Snipes has his moments (after setting Chi-Raq’s house on fire, he giggles “Disco inferno” to himself, which made me laugh), Jackson is having fun, and Bassett gets Miss Helen’s weary righteousness across. There’s also a welcome cameo from Dave Chappelle as a frustrated strip club owner (strippers and prostitutes alike have joined Lysistrata), and Cusack, as noted, is quite good. (Hudson’s performance doesn’t really come off, but her role is fairly small.)
The one-dimensionality of the characters would be less problematic if the narrative and themes were more compelling, but here it falls short as well. Though the sex strike is at the heart of the film (and indeed, was all I really knew about Lysistrata itself), it carries little weight: it begins, it spreads, it sort of comes to a stop at the end, but beyond the fact of it and the rhyming pledge Lysistrata leads her followers in chanting (“I will deny all rights of access or entrance/To any lover, husband, or male acquaintance/Who comes to my direction/In erection”), Lee devotes little time to its logistics or ideology beyond the tenet “No Peace, No Pussy.”
In fact, far more time is devoted to the effect the strike has on the men (which does in the end have something like the desired effect) than to what it means for the women. At one point, Commissioner Blades enacts “Operation Hot and Bothered” which blasts slow jams into the armory with the intended effect of so arousing the women that they end the strike, but after some rhythmic writhing, someone runs in with a bunch of earplugs and that’s about it.
Really, given that the strike is the core of the story, Lee and Willmott do frustratingly little to explore its dramatic possibilities. As far as I can recall, none of the women, once initiated (though some are reluctant to join), have any major crises of devotion. And the film never so much as hints at the idea that the men might try to break the strike by assault. Yes, it might well have gone against the film’s satirical/farcical tone to mention it, but this is a film which bluntly deals with the question of violence in our society, and overlooking the fact of sexual violence in a film about using sexuality to combat violence seems either naive or dishonest.
And how the strike spreads–how women across the country and across the world hear about it and implement it–is something of a mystery. Some of that might have been because of budgetary limitations, even though we see footage of women around the world participating in sex-strike protests (although I’m not sure if this was shot for the film or re-edited from existing footage).
One could also argue that, aside from the title, there’s not much about the film which is endemically Chicagoan. Lee doesn’t seem to have the same feeling for Chicago that he does for Brooklyn; part of the success of Do the Right Thing lay in how carefully the atmosphere and dynamics of one particular neighborhood were crafted. Chi-Raq, by and large, could have taken place anywhere. I confess my own grasp of Chicago’s history and culture remains weak–I’ve been there many times, but never for more than a few days at a time–but the film’s setting is all too often anonymous.
The script falls short in other respects as well. Structurally, it’s something of a mess, with a distinct lack of narrative momentum. When Lysistrata and Chi-Raq have their showdown–pacing around a bed, challenging the other to give in–it’s broadcast live, and one character proclaims “This is better than the Super Bowl!” But it’s hard for the viewer to share in the excitement. There’s no real sense of anything at stake, and the scene is disappointingly perfunctory; Lysistrata gives in to Chi-Raq rather quickly, and after they make love, Cyclops arrives and announces his intention to make peace and end the strike.
If anything, the real climax of the film comes in the following scene, when a peace treaty and an accord guaranteeing hospitals and jobs for the South Side are signed, except by Chi-Raq, who is then confronted by Miss Helen and Patti’s mother. Miss Helen reveals that her daughter was killed by crossfire years earlier, and the shooter, knowing the gravity of his offense, turned himself into the police before the gangs killed him. The shooter was Chi-Raq’s father. Chi-Raq, shaken by this revelation, breaks down and reveals that he was the one who shot Patti, and is taken into custody, urging others to come forward and testify or confess.
Like Patti’s eulogy, it’s a powerful scene, and Cannon’s restrained performance helps make it work. Indeed, the film is arguably more successful as a drama than a comedy, given the unevenness of the humor.
Oh, there are funny moments, no doubt. Chappelle’s monologue (which I’ll wager was at least partially improvised) is great, Jackson’s boisterous presence is amusing in its own way, and there are scattered laughs throughout.
But too much of the humor evokes the crass anti-establishment satires of the late 60s and early 70s, which might have been refreshing at the time but now seem awfully facile. When Lysistrata is able to trick a racist general (David Patrick Kelly) by getting him to strip down to his Confederate-flag underwear and mount a cannon named “Whistling Dick” (before blindfolding and handcuffing him), it might be amusing as a bit of absurd farce, but it’s a failure as satire. The characters of McCloud and Blades are cut from the same buffoonish cloth.
And I must mention the rhyming dialogue, which works against the film far more than it works in favor of it. The rhyming itself is often rather haphazard, which tends to obscure the points being made (Dolmedes’ monologues come off best in this regard), but the stylization of the dialogue heightens our remove from the characters, which combined with their one-dimensionality makes it damned hard to connect with them.
The script is bold in intention, but in execution, it’s one of the most uneven I’ve seen in a long time.
Lee’s direction is somewhat more successful, though inconsistent itself. The film proper opens at one of Chi-Raq’s performances, and Lee, along with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, beautifully captures the kinetic excitement of the moment. It kicks the film off with an energy it cannot quite sustain, though it has its high points here and there.
Many reviews have cited the scene where Patti’s mother tries to scrub her daughter’s blood off the pavement. It’s worth noting that, as she scrubs, she only makes the spot larger–her grief alone cannot put an end to the violence. When the film is talked about henceforth, this will likely be considered the film’s defining image.
Lee pulls off the smaller moments quite well, in fact; a tense face-to-face between Chi-Raq and Fr. Mike, or Chi-Raq listening to the wheelchair-bound Spinna (Eric Wilkins) lament how gang violence robbed him of his legs. The film really does work best when it sticks to the dramatic.
I didn’t really notice Terrence Blanchard’s score, but “Pray 4 My City” and the end-credits ballad “I Want to Fly” are both quite good. In a very bad year for original songs, some awards recognition here would be welcome.
If there’s one aspect of the film I can unreservedly praise, it’s Ruth E. Carter’s costumes. From Dolmedes’ sharp suits to Lysistrata’s wardrobe, which ranges from the seductive to the militaristic, the costuming is consistently excellent.
This has been a difficult review to write–one of the most difficult, in fact, since I began the blog. Maybe a second viewing of Chi-Raq would clarify my feelings about it. But maybe the issue is that the film itself needed to be clarified. As it is, it’s something of a mess, but one with too many strengths to be easily dismissed.
It’s as immediate a film as I’ve ever seen–there’s even a scene referencing the Charleston church shooting, though it appears to have been added at the last minute. It’s a film which doesn’t pull punches and doesn’t pretend the issues it tackles are simple. But in showing a hypothetical response to these issues, it fails to cohere its ideas, its story, or the characters who populate it, putting its good intentions right alongside its problematic realities.
And yet. And yet.