Spike Lee’s audacious Lysistrata adaptation cum Chicago drill-scene musical instantly identifies itself as a contemporary work of pop filmmaking with its opening salvo: an honest-to-God lyric video. Audiences are made to sit tight and take in every struggle-signifying word from the fictional, Lil Durk-like melodic rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), followed by a final title card—“This is an emergency!”—flashing in blood-red letters against a black backdrop.
The immediate effect of this lengthy credits sequence is the establishment of ambitions that decisively depart from that of the modest, micro-budgeted projects that Lee has been involving himself with over the last decade. Chi-Raq is a Spike Lee joint in the urgent sociopolitical register of Radio Raheem’s boombox—a call to arms that’s also a call to disarm, repurposing Aristophanes’s classical comedy of women’s activism as a slam-poetry parable that ballsily and soulfully satirizes the systemic, racially motivated practices that perpetuate Chicago’s gangland violence.
The film darts hyperactively from its main story—in which Chi-Raq’s fed-up girlfriend, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), leads an army of Chicago women to protest against black-on-black violence by promoting a vow of abstinence—to hilarious sidebars with one-man Greek chorus Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson, riffing on his Do the Right Thing role), to the full-blown church of a fire-and-brimstone-sermonizing John Cusack, to a heist-like sequence in which Lysistrata and her militant sisters occupy a National Guard Armory by honeypotting the racist white veterans who patrol its grounds. There’s also Jennifer Hudson’s devastating subplot as the grieving mother of a 12-year-old daughter lost to gang violence, and the amusing dynamic between an eye-patch-wearing Wesley Snipes (as a gangster named Cyclops, natch) and the distraught owner of a Southside night club, played by Dave Chappelle, hilariously ranting on the problem of his “empty stripper pole.”
That Chi-Raq’s Altmanesque narrative scope never succumbs to its many plot digressions is testament to how assured its core components are. To put it another way, it’s a testament to Parris, an actress who established acting bona bides with the Spike-descendant race-relations campus comedy Dear White People, and who grounds even Chi-Raq’s most outlandish silliness in the pathos of female intolerance toward a male-perpetuated violence that claims the lives of mothers, sisters, and children.
Her most powerful scene galvanizes a section of the film otherwise dominated by broad gags, like the sight of the Chicago PD doing a choreographed dance to the Chi-Lites’ ageless panty-wetter “Oh Girl,” by hitting the right combination of anger and sadness. “We gonna make sure these fools put down these guns,” growls Lysistrata through gritted teeth, rebuking scorn of men who prove unable to see past the short-sightedness of their own lust to recognize the righteousness of the women’s cause.
Chi-Raq is a film all about dispelling the cultures of corrosive ignorance that plague societies, and a celebration of those indefatigable apostles of change who, through their heightened awareness, deliver the populace from the invisible influence of corrupt, state-funded systems of power. The film’s impressively eclectic screenplay (two-parts rapped rhyme, one-part poetic prose, lots of purposeful, rhythm-breaking slang throughout) touches on the concept of the new Jim Crow, identifying the chauvinistic pattern of disrespect toward black women by socially marginalized, culturally impotent black men, and indicting the societal indifference to black-on-black crime committed outside white neighborhoods—a sentiment delivered by Cusack’s white pastor.
Spike’s tactics are rarely subtle, as in an unflinching sequence of a white cop and black gangbanger positioned side by side in the frame, simultaneously breaking the fourth wall with a barrage of bullets. But his sophisticated view of gun culture, and biracial distribution of blame, calls for every over-the-top technique employed over Chi-Raq’s two-hour runtime. One more exclamatory title card ends the film, distilling its message to two vital words: “Wake up!”