Spike Lee has never been one to mince his words. “This is an emergency,” reads the foreword to Chi-Raq, Lee’s frenetically urgent and unashamedly brazen examination of escalating gang violence on the South Side of Chicago; he’s not kidding.
The title is a reference to the portmanteau of “Chicago” and “Iraq”, an endonym used by locals referring to the city’s Englewood neighbourhood, a domestic warzone with some of the United States’ highest crime rates. It’s a city where homicides have previously outnumbered the figure of US troops killed fighting on the frontline overseas. For added context: in January of this year alone, over 270 people were shot in Chicago, 51 of them fatally.
Chi-Raq is also the nickname of Demetrius Dupree (Nick Cannon), a local rapper and leader of the city’s Spartan gang, who are currently locked in a street war with Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), commander of the rival Trojan mob. Like many women in the Windy City, Chi’s girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) accepts her man’s loyalty to the loaded weapon as a part of life. But when another drive-by shooting leaves a little girl dead, Lysistrata decides enough is enough, and leads the city’s women on a sex strike that demands all the men of Chicago put down their weapons and renounce their impulsive hated; “no peace, no pussy”!An obvious reaction to the Black Lives Matter activist campaign, this is Spike Lee proving himself to still be a raw and revolutionary voice on the topic of race relations. Chi-Raq isn’t simply another film about police brutality subjugating the black man. Instead it’s a piercing pronouncement that points attention to the problem of, as Lee says in his own words, “black on black crime” that plagues the Chicago streets, whilst also confronting the oppressive structures that bind masculinity and politics.
Collaborated on by Lee and Kevin Willmott, the script is a very modern adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, which the pair pays homage to through the consistent communicative use of a verse-based rhyming scheme. Bathed in a bright vibrancy, it has the appearance of a sprawling cinematic stage show – complete with a naturally energetic Samuel L. Jackson playing a pimp-dressed pundit.There’s plenty of theatrical exuberance to revel in here; elements of existentialism; characters regularly breaking the 4th wall; a seductive “sex match” finale. But what tempers the film is truth. Teyonah Parris’ Lysistrata may have a sassy tongue and sexy wardrobe, but she’s defined by her sharp mind, and a strength to bring about change, not just for herself, but for others too – the men, in contrast, are ignorant idealists too close-minded to even consider an alternative to their lethal lifestyle. Crucially, she’s never larger-than-life; we identify with her struggle and immediately invest in her character. For all of its proclamations on violence and race, Chi-Raq feels, at its core, like a fist pump for feminism.
It’s also a soulful social commentary that’s fuelled by daring, dazing delirium. With an attitude that’s boldly aggressive, even if its understanding is somewhat simplistic – the transatlantic nature of Lysistrata’s protest stings of self-importance. Nonetheless, Chi-Raq marks a return to the political powerhouse picture-making Lee once made his name with; a film determined, and hopefully destined to inspire change. He closes with the same desperate cry for help he began with. The question is, were you listening?
This review was originally published as part of our Berlin Film Festival 2016 coverage.