Chi-Raq is a modern retelling of “Lysistrata”, a satire by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes. The title (of the movie, not the play) refers to the south side of Chicago, which has reputedly seen as many Americans killed as the Iraq War. Put it all together and you’ve got a story about women who organize a city-wide sex strike in an effort to stop Chicago’s rampant gang-related violence. But the movie doesn’t stop there — by way of social media and global news coverage, women all over the world join the sex strike and campaign for world peace.
Yes, the sex strike extends to those who have nothing to do with wars or violent crimes. Men from all walks of life are being held accountable for a world in which innocent people and children die every day and it’s treated as the new normal.
See, director Spike Lee isn’t interested in just going after the young men killing each other for wearing different colors. No, Lee is going after the racially motivated killings and mass shootings that have been going on nationwide for the past several years. He’s going after the arms dealers, politicians, journalists, and prisons — and even the fucking life insurance companies — that profit from and actively encourage a culture of bloody conflict and gun violence. More than that, he’s going after the rich, the middle class, and even the lower class citizens who see innocent blood getting shed and decide not to intervene because it’s supposedly not their problem. He’s going after the cops we can’t trust, the gangs we can’t deal with, and the corrupt, self-serving institutions that allow both to flourish. Lee even goes after misogynistic MRA assholes, by virtue of the premise that celebrates female sexuality and empowerment.
Basically put, this is a movie that goes after EVERYONE. The filmmakers put forth the notion that each and every one of us is somehow responsible for the bloody mess that our world has become. Granted, the movie doesn’t get into more complicated issues regarding Middle East religious feuds, cultural differences between countries, and other matters that fuel wars and debates all over the world. And it does kind of invite those discussions, with how the movie widens its scope so dramatically. Then again, if we can’t come together and agree that children dying of stray bullets on a regular basis is totally wrong, then what the fuck have we come to?
This is unmistakably a very angry movie. But it remains entertaining in spite of that because it’s also a very funny movie. Remember, this is a movie about achieving world peace by denying sex to men worldwide. The very premise opens itself up to unlimited sex jokes, and it’s so ridiculous that the film would have to be incredibly heightened to sell it. What’s more, this is a movie based on a Greek play. Thus we have narrators breaking the fourth wall, characters talking in verse, and other such devices handed down from antiquity.
The result is a film that provides us with enough emotional distance, yet with a strong enough emotional core, that we can dive headfirst into a serious issue without discomfort. The film uses absurdity in such a way that it shows us how dreadfully absurd our world has become. In short, this is the stuff that great satire is made of.
Now let’s talk about the characters themselves. In keeping with the story’s ancient Greek roots, our two warring Chicago gangs are the Spartans (colored in purple) and the Trojans (colored in orange). The Spartans are led by Demetrius (Nick Cannon), who named himself Chi-Raq after the city because it’s not like that’s not the least bit pretentious or confusing. As for the Trojans, they’re led by Cyclops, a one-eyed gangster played by a scenery-chewing Wesley Snipes. Our protagonist is Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), the girlfriend of Demetrius. We’ve also got our narrator, Dolemedes, played as only the smooth-talking badass Samuel L. Jackson could deliver. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention John Cusack, the token white actor playing a charismatic preacher.
Angela Bassett and Jennifer Hudson play supporting roles, in addition to Harry Lennix and Steve Harris. Dave Chappelle gets a neat cameo, and anyone who’s seen “The Wire” will get a serious kick out of Isaiah Whitlock Jr’s. appearance.
There’s really no point in talking about these characters. Due to the heightened, satirical, comical nature of the movie, none of these characters have very much in the way of dimension or development. The one possible exception is Demetrius, when he has to make the tremendously difficult choice of accepting responsibility for the pain and bloodshed he’s been part of, or continuing to live the thug life in sweet denial. Aside from that one scene at the very end, the characters are all stuck in one note each, only as good as the comedic timing and charisma of the actors playing them.
Speaking of imperfections, it should go without saying that the plot is far from bulletproof. Granted, the film is so incredibly heightened that suspension of disbelief goes a long way. Yet the plot depends heavily on the notion that all men everywhere have been denied sex for several months. That would be ridiculous enough to believe, and we plainly see a woman crossing picket lines to have sex with a crucial gang leader. How does this affect the strike? How does this affect her? What do the other women do about it? Never explained! The film just keeps on going like it never happened. Bad move.
Another crucial point of the movie is to show the power of non-violent protest. Which gets a bit fuzzy when Lysistrata leads a takeover of a goddamn National Guard armory, so she and her closest advisors can use it as their own personal fortress. Even if no one gets hurt or killed, I’m not sure that taking hostages, tying men up, stripping them naked, forcing them outside, and stealing property would qualify as peaceful protest. Just saying.
In terms of visuals, I really shouldn’t have to say anything more than “Cinematography by Matthew Libatique.” Though I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out all the onscreen graphics, title cards, and other touches that help reinforce the point that this is a heightened work of absurdist comedy. On a final miscellaneous note, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that the film opens with a song. Not a musical number (though the film has a few of those), just a song. With the lyrics printed onscreen against a black background. It does a lot to establish the point early on that we’re not looking at an ordinary film.
Chi-Raq is a very powerful work of modern satire. It’s funny, it’s bold, and it’s overflowing with righteous anger. I doubt it’ll win any Oscars, and any filmgoers with strong conservative views need not apply. But if you’re fed up with living in a nation where people go hungry and get shot and nothing ever gets done about it, this movie will give a very strong voice to your frustrations.