Film Reviews

Spike Lee Resurrects His Voice With Chi-Raq, His Best Film in Years

Oh Zeus, hear my lament that I was not present when Spike Lee imagined updating Lysistrata to present-day Chicago. I bet he burst himself cackling. Aristophanes' 411 B.C. comedy, written during the three-decade Peloponnesian War, concocts a crazy scheme: Women refuse sex until their blue-balled men give in and declare a truce. With Lee's Chi-Raq, Lysistrata's vow never to "extend my Persian slippers toward the ceiling" — or, in Lee's modern slang, "total abstinence from knocking the boots" — melds perfectly with the present. Teyonah Parris's headstrong and radiant Lysistrata struts through the streets in camouflage hot pants, all ripe cleavage and chains.

Lee's updated heroine has "a mind like Einstein and a truly luscious behind," drools narrator Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson), which is a snortingly perfect name for a character who's half Greek chorus, half Rudy Ray Moore. More perilously, she's the girlfriend of Spartan gang leader Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), who's entrenched in an endless shootout with the rival Trojans, headed by one-eyed thug Cyclops (Wesley Snipes in a bedazzled eyepatch, a welcome sight). The wise woman next door (Angela Bassett) schools the girl that young life shouldn't be so intertwined with death. Till then, Lysistrata had simply accepted violence as fact. Now she'll end it with a rebellion. "No peace, no pussy," she and her ladies growl, and the entire city flips out. Yelps strip club owner Morris (Dave Chappelle), whose stages are empty and customers disgruntled, "These 'hos have shut down the penis power grid!"

Chi-Raq is a marvel. It's Lee resurrecting his voice — angry, impassioned, and funny as hell — right when we need to hear it. He opens the film with a rap that reads like an incantation to the gods. "Please pray 4 my city," pleads Cannon, and then the screen fills with statistics: In the last fifteen years, 2,379 Americans have died in Iraq. In that same period, 7,356 — three times more — have died in Chicago alone. (Perhaps instead of "Chi-Raq," a weary diss even to the characters in the film, the fairer insult is to call Iraq "Ira-Go.")

Lee is furious at a system that bolsters senseless violence. More specifically, he's after the swinging dicks who support it, be they passive villains, like bankers who keep the inner cities broke by refusing to loan money to poor would-be entrepreneurs, or the blind-eyed bullies of the NRA. Everyone is guilty, from the stand-your-ground goons on the street and the brutes bloodying the police force's image to foot soldiers like Chi-Raq and Cyclops. "We're doing their work for them," laments one wounded gang member, now wearing diapers in a wheelchair. (The movie is full of crippled men, their bullet scars a kind of living testimony.) Scenes are punctuated by shootings. Even Lysistrata isn't innocent. We first see her on the floor at a Spartans concert, leading the crowd in a practiced, warlike dance as though it's an ROTC drill.

It's astonishing how well this works. Who would have guessed that a 2,500-year-old sex comedy would feel like the freshest film of 2015? Or that Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott could pull off an entire script in rhyme while wedging in Mad Magazine gags like a racist general who humps a cannon in Confederate-flag underwear — an idea that sounds musty but had the entire theater howling? Aristophanes would be having a blast. Both he and Lee loved to pick fights with their contemporaries, be they Euripides or Tyler Perry, and they loved to name names. The original Lysistrata called out a dozen warmongering local politicians, and Lee takes license to do the same. He packs the script with references to Dylann Storm Roof and Condoleezza Rice. But more than that he's focused on chanting the names that hurt, almost as though they give his movie strength: Sandy Hook, Eric Garner, Ferguson, Tamir Rice.

Chi-Raq has some delightfully outrageous moments: an erotic dance number set to the Chi-Lites; a televised mano-y-gónadas duel on an enticing brass bed; Cannon's pledge to get "Freaky deaky all up in dat butt, come on girl let's bust dat nut." Eyebrow-raisingly, the old play is even bawdier. Aristophanes had the balls to end one scene with the women frightening four men into "defecating in terror." And at his climax, an entire male chorus brandishes prop erections.

Forgive Chi-Raq its tonal shifts between comedy and tragedy, which can feel like a ride in a parabolic rocket. One minute, you're giggling at Dolmedes' boast that he was "weaned on Thunderbird from my mama's titty." Then John Cusack, a Chicago boy himself, gives a sermon at a child's funeral that is Lee's blaring call to arms. "We go from third-rate schools to first-class, high-tech prisons," Cusack's pastor screams, his voice close to breaking. Outside the church, the dead girl's mother (Jennifer Hudson) is the only character who doesn't speak in couplets — her plain anguish cuts through the chatter.

As in Do the Right Thing, Lee embraces everyone in his neighborhood. He even loves Chi-Raq, at least enough to let us inside the mind of a murderer to meet the scared kid who grew up paranoid about his reputation. Twice, Lee cuts between Chi-Raq and his Cyclops as they squabble with their girlfriends and rally their troops. The joke is that these deadly enemies are, in fact, nearly the same. If they can't empathize with each other, they definitely can't empathize with the women, whom the men see as unhinged, easily conquered crybabies. We know better. After all, throughout history, women have also been forged through battle. Even in cultures where they haven't gone to war themselves, they have to be strong enough to love warriors, live without them when their men are at the front, or in jail, and bear the next generation of guerrillas and victims — and live without them, too, when those children are killed.

Women can do anything. Just look to Leymah Gbowee, a real-life Lysistrata, whose 2003 sex strike helped end the Liberian Civil War, install a female president, and win her a Nobel Peace Prize. Or the topless activists of Femen combating sex slavery in the Ukraine. Or Pussy Riot in Russia or the Slut Walks here at home, all of which use the power of the female body to demand change. Or Chicago's own April Lawson, who was so infuriated by the execution of a nine-year-old boy this November that she's launched her own sex strike. So far 86 women have joined. What if Lee's wild imagination wasn't so imaginary? What then?

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Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her work also appeared in the other Voice Media Group publications — the Village Voice, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly. Nicholson’s criticism was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014 by Cahiers du Cinema.