It may not take much to make Spike Lee angry, but there’s no denying he gives us his reasons and then some in “Chi-Raq,” a sprawling, blistering state-of-the-union address that presents Chicago’s South Side as a cesspool of black-on-black violence, gang warfare, gun worship and macho misogyny, ruled by unbreakable cycles of poverty and oppression. All that social outrage clearly demanded similarly outsized treatment, and Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott (“CSA: The Confederate States of America”) have found a remarkably accommodating vessel in Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” whose tale of an ancient Greek heroine leading an anti-war sex strike has been updated here as an alternately soulful and scalding, playful and deadly serious 21st-century oratorio. Blunt, didactic and stronger on conceptual audacity than dramatic coherence, this is still the most vital, lived-in work in some time from a filmmaker who has never shied away from speaking his mind or irritating his ideological foes, as he seems destined to do again with this attention-grabbing first feature to be released by Amazon Studios (co-distributing Dec. 4 with Roadside Attractions).
While the director’s overtly political satires have never fared especially well at the box office, the combination of ripped-from-the-headlines urgency and slick, provocative packaging should draw more than a handful of Lee fans and curious moviegoers — led by but not limited to black audiences — as “Chi-Raq” makes its way from theaters to Amazon’s streaming service. Rattling off enough social-justice talking points to irritate conservative commentators at least through the holidays, Lee’s movie has already drawn the ire of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel with its title, whose juxtaposition of “Chicago” and “Iraq” is defended in a powerful musical overture, “Pray 4 My City” (performed by top-billed star Nick Cannon). Introduced with the flashing on-screen words “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY,” the song is a grim ode to a major metropolis that has seen more Americans killed in the past 15 years than the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts combined.
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Chi-Raq is also the rap alias of Demetrius Dupree (Cannon), who is the lover of the beautiful Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), and also the leader of a purple-clad gang known as the Spartans; their sworn enemies are the orange-wearing Trojans, led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes in an eyepatch, natch). The names may come straight from the Peloponnesian War, but the setting is present-day Englewood, Chicago, where tensions erupt in a shootout one night at a packed concert venue (a scene that can’t help but provoke a queasy reminder of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks). But it’s not until an 11-year-old girl, Patti, is felled by a stray bullet, to the devastation of her mother, Irene (Jennifer Hudson), that someone decides enough is enough.
Enter Lysistrata. Actually, don’t enter Lysistrata, who decides the only way these men will lay down their firearms is if they stop getting laid. Backed by a wise peace-activist neighbor, Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), Lysistrata and her Spartan sisters reach across the gangland divide, persuading the women of Troy to join them in a campaign of abstinence until their men agree to talk peace. Before long, they’ve stormed a U.S. armory — after a nose-thumbing, not-very-funny scene involving the humiliation of a Confederate-flag-bearing crazy (David Patrick Kelly) — where they stage a peaceful but long-term protest, swearing a solemn oath of celibacy: “I will deny all rights of access or entrance / from every husband, lover or male acquaintance who comes to my direction / in erection.” That bawdy, rhyming style of dialogue pulses through much of Lee and Willmott’s script, whose characters blend rap idiom and rhythmic cadences into a stylized, vulgarized poetry that gives the picture an infectious pulse even when the narrative machinery occasionally stalls.
The focus on words rather than weapons (almost all the bloodshed takes place early and off screen) isn’t the only way the filmmakers honor and update their source’s ancient theatrical origins. The action periodically halts for the running commentary of Dolmedes, a one-man Greek chorus played, as he must be, by Samuel L. Jackson, his lip-smacking wordplay as colorfully varied as his sherbet-hued three-piece suits. The other key orator here is Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack, hoarse with conviction), a figure inspired by the real-life priest and social activist Michael Pfleger. During Patti’s funeral mass, which serves as the film’s emotional and musical centerpiece, Father Corridan invokes the spirit of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., unleashing a fiery harangue against the tyranny of the NRA, the glorification of thug culture, the mass incarceration of African-Americans, the lack of government investment in impoverished neighborhoods, and an overriding culture of fear and apathy that stands in the way of meaningful change.
The man behind the sermon, of course, is really Lee, whose preferred dramatic method here is to cobble together a grab-bag of grievances and hurl them at the screen with sometimes witty, sometimes clumsy abandon. To watch “Chi-Raq” is to feel as if you’ve stumbled into a hip-hop concert, a spoken-word recital and a gospel-choir performance rolled into one — held together by a Terence Blanchard score, and peppered with up-to-the-minute references to our never-ending national nightmare: not just Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, but also Sandra Bland and the Charleston, S.C., church shootings (“Dylann Storm Roof / he’s the proof / post-racial … poof!”). But for all its relevance to the Black Lives Matter movement, the movie focuses less on issues of white privilege and police brutality than on the dispiriting everyday reality of blacks killing blacks, a system of “self-inflicted genocide” that is the target of Lysistrata’s blue-balls diplomacy. Before long, women all over the globe are joining the protest, waving signs with their own versions of the movement’s “No peace, no pussy” rallying cry. (Somehow, it’s sloppily explained, Lysistrata even manages to get strippers and prostitutes in on the ban, while also shutting down porn sites and phone-sex lines.)
While it cites the example of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, a modern-day Lysistrata who helped improve Muslim-Christian relations in war-torn Liberia, “Chi-Raq” isn’t seriously proposing mass celibacy as a feasible solution to the problems of contemporary American society. But there are still potent, if obvious, insights here into how bloodlust relates to carnal lust, how guns function as phallic symbols, and how a culture of violent machismo engenders an exploitative attitude toward women — an attitude that Lysistrata and her sisters attempt to reclaim by strutting about in form-fitting military fatigues and chastity belts. These and other costumes designed by Ruth E. Carter dovetail splendidly with Alex DiGerlando’s detailed, color-coordinated production design; despite its gritty environs, the production has a bright, theatrical sheen, amplified by the expansive widescreen compositions of d.p. Matthew Libatique (in his fifth collaboration with Lee).
Uneven as storytelling, scattershot as satire, and capped by an emotional climax that feels too rigged to resonate, Lee’s latest joint is best appreciated as a vigorous and uninhibited work of social criticism, executed with the madly riffing instincts of a pop-cultural magpie. It’s a rare movie that can tap into ancient Greek literature and a century’s worth of African-American performance traditions, and still find time to sample freely from “West Side Story,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Patton” and “Dr. Strangelove.” There are also clear echoes of Lee’s own filmography, and if “Chi-Raq” never summons the tension and immediacy of “Do the Right Thing,” it can’t help but recall “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Girl 6” in the way it pivots, morally and dramatically, on the story of a woman’s sexual independence.
Parris first caught Lee’s eye with her memorable turn in “Dear White People,” and here, whether she’s rocking an afro or a slinky gold Cleopatra number, she projects intelligence and charisma as the film’s inspired voice of reason, even if there’s a certain flatness to her moral determination. In the more ambiguous role of Lysistrata’s lover-turned-adversary, Cannon has rarely been more commanding on screen, a brooding alpha figure who provides, in one of the film’s better scenes, a fleeting glimpse of the terrified, fatherless little boy within. Cusack and Jackson both have moments to savor, and Steve Harris (“The Practice”) is fittingly bellicose as Lysistrata’s most openly chauvinistic opponent. Harris is one of several Chicago natives in the ensemble — including Hudson, who gives the film a raw, uncomfortable jolt by enacting a fictionalized version of her own family’s violent tragedy. That sort of bold stroke is all too emblematic of “Chi-Raq”: Even when the movie’s choices veer on misguided, its confrontational attitude strikes a nerve.
And that willingness to charge on through, risking scorn and ridicule, is perhaps the clearest sign that this quintessentially Brooklyn filmmaker has given Chicago the raucous, despairing yet faintly hopeful tribute it deserves. Lee’s vision of a scarred, gutted city may not please the tourism board, but his movie is better for it: Its seething dramatic texture captures a deeper, more elusive beauty that — like reconciliation, reform or any other human ideal — can only be achieved when the illusion of safety is left behind.