Chi-Raq, the latest Spike Lee Joint, marks the controversial director’s second most important film after 1989’s Do the Right Thing. While that film was a serious indictment on race relations, Chi-Raq is a timely satire about gun violence set in the Southside of Chicago, adapted from one of the unlikeliest of places: “Lysistrata”, the ancient Greek tale by Aristophanes where women withheld sex to end the Peloponnesian War.
In a surreal world of exaggeration and sexual metaphors, this plays like an eclectic mix of satire and tragedy in a way that feels all too real, and surprisingly luminous on the issue of gun violence in this country.
Chi-Raq, a melding of Chicago and Iraq, is also the nickname of Demetrius Dupree (Nick Cannon), leader of Chicago street gang Spartans. The film opens with him performing at a club, his violet colors showing his affiliation proudly. The crowd is mesmerized, joyously nodding their heads and bodies swaying to violent music. The night ends, however, when a member of rival gang Trojans fires his weapon and an inevitable shootout ensues, with people scattering and fleeing the scene.
Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), Chi-Raq’s girlfriend and irresistible groupie, simply accepts violence as part of the Chicago way of life and considers the shooting a minor incident, quickly becoming an afterthought in their memory. This passivity is the same attitude of indifference Lee questions in much of the film.
Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), the wise neighbor whose seen her share of violence in the streets, educates Lysistrata about violence and the power of women over men. She urges Lysistrata to look up Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist responsible for the movement ending her country’s Second Liberian Civil War. In a similar manner as Aristophanes’ play, Gbowee led a sex strike against the warlords and corrupt politicians of her country, and in the movie inspires Lysistrata to do the same.
Lysistrata recruits her friends and takes her protest a step further by extending an olive branch to the women of the Trojans – led by the one-eyed Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) – which sparks a powerful female led alliance of celibacy to stop the violence in Chicago. Lysistrata’s campaign stretches across the globe as women take to the streets chanting, in different languages and variations: “No Peace, No Pussy.”
As the loud and brash Dolmedes Samuel L. Jackson emcees Lee’s satirical look at gun violence in America, navigating a dangerous river that continues to redden with deeper crimson hues on a weekly basis. With continual breaking news updates the film reminds its audience in alarming bold-lettered fashion: this is an emergency.
However, Lee goes further by mocking the nature of the cultural obsession with guns and the passivity towards action in stopping gun violence in a film that is both explosively in-your-face and politically charged. He directs with urgency and in a language of the streets that perhaps audience members can understand. Using both metaphor and hyperbole, Lee makes his point clear with a voracious visual assault to the conscience: how can we live in a world like this?
Moreover, Chi-Raq sees all of Freud’s theories extrapolated onto the big screen. Behind the rat-a-tat of machine gun fire and gun toting chauvinist hooligans lay a fetishitic obsession with guns. Lee takes time to illustrate the male obsession with phallic symbolism, in sex and weaponry, in an obvious hyperbolic mockery that alludes to a male fear of castration, i.e. losing one’s guns and hence manhood. An early scene has Lysistrata and Chi-Raq, following the bloodshed at the club, sexually stimulated by the metaphor of the phallus as a firearm, perform the deed.
Lee also illustrates an ingrained violence tied to American history, part of an unshakable legacy that continues well into the 20th century with the military-industrial complex that Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about in his farewell speech. This idolization of violence is made clear in the scene where Lysistrata, in similar vein to John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry, leads a takeover of a local armory until the women’s demands are met. Here we see General King Kong (David Patrick Kelly), a fool obsessed with his Civil War-era “Whistling Dick” cannon and sporting Confederate underwear and ideology, blinded by Lysistrata’s sexualized ruse she employs to take over the armory.
Chi-Raq is explosively directed with lucid and unrelenting boldness by Spike Lee. Beyond all of the caricatures, hyperbole, and incisive look at gun violence, Lee’s timely film feels appropriate and ballsy, making mention of current events to remind us how relevant these events are – and still continue to be. The wounds of recent violence still fresh in the public’s mind, Lee pesters at a nationwide epidemic of rampant gun violence he has no problem exposing.
By adapting the ancient Greek play Spike Lee looks to past to help build a road to the future, offering a glimmer of hope that, unlike Do the Right Thing, offers a glimmer of hope that goes above simply blind optimism. It has an audacity to believe in something much better – gun violence is not natural and requires action. This isn’t a film about a sex strike to stop violence, but a call for action, to stop the unending violence by any means necessary.