The Savage Optimism of Chi-Raq
Spike Lee is angry again. It’s exciting when a filmmaker of Lee’s caliber finds his rage (questionably absent for over a decade), although it’s usually over dire social circumstances. In Chi-Raq, it’s the gun culture and violence in America that has Lee incensed. Lee opens the film with sirens blaring while a monotone female voice is heard saying ‘this is an emergency’ as the message flashes on screen followed by the sounds of gunfire. If Lee doesn’t have your attention yet, he follows the warning with stats of deaths in war zones followed by the kicker that Chicago, U.S.A, has them all beat with bloodshed. The Windy City is renamed to ‘Chi-Raq’—a mash of Chicago and Iraq that’s slang used by real locals—to reflect its status as a war zone. Cut to the sharply dressed Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson at his most self-aware Jackson-est), our guide through the streets, who says, “Welcome to Chi-Raq, a land of pain, misery and strife.” With this opener, Lee doesn’t just announce that he’s back, he’s riding a flaming wrecking ball, and it never lets up with its optimistic savagery for racism, poverty, gender politics, lethargy and communal denial.
You may have done a double-take on ‘Dolmedes’, that’s because Chi-Raq is loosely based on the Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, a comedy about a group of women who try to end the Peloponnesian War by persuading the women of Greece to deny men sex until peace is negotiated. In Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott’s take on the material (complete with rhyming dialogue that borders on a musical), Lysistrata (witness Teyonah Parris become a superstar) begins her crusade for armistice after witnessing the fallout from a shooting involving a gang where a child is killed (her grieving mother played by Jennifer Hudson). As Lysistrata recruits more women to the cause and it goes global, the trickle-down impacts of the sex strike affects everyone, and not just in the bedroom, in one humourous moment a strip-club owner (Dave Chappelle) laments to his patrons that he has no dancers, and in a moment of desperation a muscular young man in a tank top swings hopelessly around a pole. In a scene mid-film, Lysistrata and her battalion of women manage to capture a military armory without one drop of blood spilt—to the bafflement of every law enforcement agency. Even the sections of the community who claim the protest doesn’t affect them (politicians, old men past their sexual prime) begin to be driven to take action and it’s Lee’s way of emphasising that the issues of Chi-Raq are the responsibility of all factions of a community. Lee also uses these moments to take Chi-Raq to farcical levels of brilliance when dealing with the fallout of Lysistrata’s actions, and in doing so, reveals harsh truths about the cycles that enable violence and claim lives.
At times it feels like Lee is preaching to the congregation—there’s even a scene where a priest (John Cusack) gives an angry sermon at a funeral—and it’s a film that inhabits an exact moment in time with precision. References to real events, names and places still fresh in the news cycle will have any viewer reaching for Google if it’s screened anytime beyond 2015/16. Chi-Raq doesn’t live in the moment: it is the moment. And it’s this energy that makes it feel like Lee’s film will break the banks of a nodding, agreeable audience and find its way to the people who need to see this film for the sake of being enlightened about this emergency. Lee throws a big, colourful, attention-grabbing tantrum with Chi-Raq.
The Popcorn Junkie