Words like confrontational, controversial and audacious have often been used to describe director Spike Lee. Now those same words, and more—think boisterous and dynamic for a start—and can be applied to his new film, “Chi-Raq,” a modern day adaptation of the Greek play “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes, first performed in 411 BC.
Set in modern day Southside Chicago a.k.a. Chi-Raq, the update sees the neighbourhood torn apart by gang violence. Rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) and his girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) are at the center of the action, a glamour couple affiliated with the Spartans. Across town Cyclops (Wesley Snipes, complete with glittering eyepatch) leads the Trojans. A nightclub shooting at one of Chi-Raq’s gigs, arson at his home and the death of a young neighbourhood girl caught in the Spartan v. Trojan’s crossfire pushes Lysistrata to find a solution to the violence that plagues her home. Her outlandish plan is simple but ingenious. She convenes the wives and girlfriends of all the gang members, Spartans and Trojans alike, and urges them to withhold sex from their men until the guys agree to put down the weapons and sign a peace treaty.
That’s the story in broad strokes. There’s more, including a seasoned community activist played by Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson as a grieving mother, John Cusack as a fiery priest and Samuel L. Jackson’s flowery-tongued one-man Greek chorus named Dolmedes but the pieces are stitched together with such daring creativity that paragraphs of description won’t prepare you for the cheeky experience of watching “Chi-Raq.” Lee mixes and matches powerful anti-violence statements, large-scale dance numbers and outrageous comedy in an olio of social commentary that shouldn’t work, but does.
When Irene (Lawrence) scrubs her daughter’s blood from the street, pouring water on the stain only to watch it spread and grow bigger, Lee effectively and lyrically makes the metaphorical point that no matter how hard you scrub, the bloodshed will increase.
Later as the women are holed up at the National Guard Armoury the men use romantic songs broadcast over loudspeakers to break their will. Just as they begin to swoon to the smooth sounds of “Oh Girl” by The Chi-Lites, Lysistrata provides them with earplugs and the sex strike goes unbroken.
The tone is all over the place, made all the more bizarre by the dialogue, which is all in verse. “The situation is out of control,” says a strip club owner (Dave Chappelle) after his employees join the strike, “and I’m in front of an empty stripper pole.” It’s today’s language filtered through Aristophanes, Tupac and Kendrick Lamar, vital and bold.
“Chi-Raq” is a heady experience. Lee is fearless in his handling of the material (he co-wrote the script with Kevin Willmott), taking chances narratively and visually, to tell the timely and hot button story of a “self-inflicted genocide.” It is powerful, preachy, maddening but ultimately unforgettable.