Over the course of its 127-minute running time, Spike Lee's Chi-Raq is angry, beautiful, preachy, absurd, inflammatory, hilarious and heartbreaking. Sometimes, it's all of these things simultaneously. It is never subtle, but it is never dull. The film is often messy, but its messiness often feels inextricable from the passionate righteousness of its message. It fuses deliberately outlandish, provocative satire with raw, heartfelt cries for change, which sounds like a recipe for disaster but somehow proves enormously effective.
Many “message movies” conclude with a series of sobering statistics and a sad, thematically appropriate song. The message Chi-Raq has to deliver is so urgent that Lee decides to go ahead and open with these things. “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY” the film announces in big, bold letters. Nick Cannon (who also stars in the film) performs a song featuring emotionally direct lyrics:
Please pray for my city,
Too much hate in my city,
Too many heartaches in my city,
But I got faith in my city,
This Chi-raq and I love that,
You can't take it away from my city,
Some can't relate to my city,
They die everyday in my city.
Then, we're treated to a series of sobering statistics: between 2001-2015, the number of American citizens who have died on the streets of Chicago has been greater than the number of American soldiers who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Next, we hear an excerpt from a sermon on Chicago's violence being delivered by Father Michael Pfleger, who concludes his despairing meditation on the city's endless cycle of killing thusly: “Heaven help us all.” Finally, our story begins with a tough moment: a young girl dying in the street after being caught in the crossfire of a gang war.
This is devastatingly heavy subject matter for a movie, but the film itself never even comes close to the sort of grim miserablism that often marks cinematic explorations of such weighty topics. More often than not, Chi-Raq is a frisky, energetic, irreverent satire. Lee isn't taking Chicago's death toll lightly (something he was accused of when the film's first trailer debuted), but he understands the old truth that sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott (who also gave us the terrific Ken Burns-flavored satire C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America) use every method at their disposal to ensure that people sit up and listen. Sometimes, that means hitting them with tough truths. Sometimes, it means offending people. Sometimes, it means making them laugh with outlandish gags. Sometimes, it means colorful star cameos. Sometimes, it means attention-grabbing visual ideas.
The plot is based on Aristophenes' Lysistrata, which tells the story of a woman who ended a war by persuading women on both sides of the conflict to withhold sex from the men until peace had been reached. In this version, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, Mad Men) is the girlfriend of up-and-coming rapper Chi-Raq (Cannon), who also serves as the leader of a powerful gang called the Spartans. Their rival gang is the Trojans, led by the eccentric Cyclops (Wesley Snipes, Blade). Lysistrata has been content to overlook her boyfriend's violent life for a long time, but after seeing the grieving mother (Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls) of the little girl that was gunned down, she decides it's time to act. The sex strike proves enormously effective, as the movement quickly begins to catch on with women all across the city (and eventually, all over the globe). The movement's motto is direct and self-explanatory: “No peace, no pussy.”
This material grows more farcical as the film proceeds, leading us to such wondrously preposterous sequences as the scene in which a group of desperate, horny men attempt to break down the defenses of the opposite sex by playing sexy, soulful '70s slow-jams over a loudspeaker. It's an absurd premise, and there are all sorts of complications to deal with in the notion that women should be responsible for resolving the violence of men. However, to make such complaints is to miss the larger point the film has to make: it's not about the specifics of how the world is fixed, but about the fact that humanity is capable of fixing quite a lot of it and simply doesn't have the will to do so. At times, I was reminded of Ridley Scott's The Martian, which made the case that we are capable of achieving all sorts of astonishing things if we have sufficient motivation. Chi-Raq makes a similar case, but the absurd nature of the motivation here reveals the despair beneath the film's optimism: it would take something truly outlandish to motivate this country to do something about gun violence.
Lee tends to avoid faux-gritty “realism,” instead embracing the film's theatrical roots and employing a wide variety of colorful storytelling devices. At least half of the film's dialogue is spoken in rhyme, with poetic soliloquies often serving the same function that songs do in old movie musicals. Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) plays the film's onscreen narrator, strolling into the middle of busy scenes and offering memorable (and often playfully cryptic) commentary on where things stand. Every so often, a large group of characters will transform into a Greek chorus, offering exclamations of protest or excitement in unison.
Even with these deliberate splashes of artifice, the film consistently hits us with reminders of the real world we live in. The names of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland are invoked, as are the names of Dylann Roof, George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson. There's talk of Charleston, of Sandy Hook and of Ferguson. This is a film about Chicago, but it's also much bigger than Chicago: at various intervals, Lee offers images of protest from all over the world, suggesting the hunger for peace that exists within every society.
Lee draws a lot of interesting performances out of his actors, often bringing in seasoned pros who manage to hit just the right notes in a brief amount of screentime: Angela Bassett (What's Love Got to Do with It) brings an enormous amount of emotional weight to some of the film's more serious-minded scenes, John Cusack (Love & Mercy) delivers a show-stopping sermon, Harry Lennix (Titus) creates a memorably grouchy authority figure, Dave Chappelle (Chappelle's Show) makes a delightful appearance as a strip club owner, Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. (The Wire) makes memorable use of his catchphrase (you know the one)... everyone feels well-placed. Cannon and Parris do a fine job of occupying the film's central roles, essaying very different shades of stubbornness and private doubt.
I've been disappointed by a lot of Lee's recent films (particularly the sloppy Red Hook Summer and the mostly-dull Da Sweet Blood of Jesus), and I suspected that his best days were behind him. I was wrong. Somehow, he seems to have found his mojo again in Chi-Raq, which is easily his most vital, compelling film since The 25th Hour. Yes, there are moments that don't quite work, ideas that feel a little muddled and musical cues that seem too on-the-nose. There are nits to pick, but this is such a commanding, bold, ambitious piece of filmmaking that I have no interest in dwelling on its comparably insignificant shortcomings. This is a movie that has something to say, and it will not be ignored. This endless killing must stop. Our addiction to guns must be cured. The fact that Black Lives Matter must be acknowledged. Love must conquer hate. This is essential viewing, and 2015's most important film.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 127 minutes
Release Year: 2015