The title of Spike Lee’s new film Chi-Raq refers to a slang term for Chicago, so called because the number of deaths there in recent years have eclipsed those of American military personnel in Iraq. Lee uses this statistic and this setting to spin a bold, witty, rollicking re-imagining of the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata. In an effort to hasten the end of the Peloponnesian War, the heroine of Aristophanes’ play convinces the women on both sides of the battle lines to withhold sex from all men until peace has been negotiated. Lee gives us a street-wise Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) who struts down the sidewalks of Chicago in cut-off shorts and an Afro, “a gorgeous Nubian sister” (to quote Dolmedes [Samuel L. Jackson], the film’s one-man-Greek-chorus narrator), “as tough as Coffy and sexy as Foxy Brown, / Hell! Beyoncé Knowles herself had to bow down.” When the film opens she’s in the thrall of a rap artist and gang-banger who also goes by the name Chi-Raq, content to wile away her time at the club and in the bedroom. Then she’s given a lesson in consciousness-raising by a neighborhood matriarch (played with elegant gravitas by Angela Bassett), whereupon she organizes a sex strike in order to rid the city of the gang violence that so often claims innocent children as its victims.
Because Chi-Raq attempts to tackle so many hot-button issues (not only misogyny and gun control but also police brutality and anti-black racism) its fit with Aristophanes’ source text is slippery to say the least. That slipperiness, though—the impulse to throw more into his films than he can really organize—is one of the things I’ve grown to love about Lee’s filmmaking over the years. Lysistrata acts as little more than a structural gimmick allowing Lee to deliver what feels like a racialized state of the union address, peppered with up-to-the-minute references to the Black Lives Matter movement, George Zimmerman, Sandy Hook, and President Obama. Like so many of Lee’s previous films, Chi-Raq is driven by a liberal sincerity that feels almost quaint in the age of irony: he affirms such stalwart institutions as the church, the family, and the power of social organization with an earnestness that’s apt to cause eye-rolling in younger viewers. I, for one, will gladly take Lee’s earnestness over the shrill pomposity with which these issues have recently been discussed. When set beside the Twitter snit-fits and flame wars that pass for activist discourse nowadays, Lee’s old-fashioned polemics begin to look more appealing than ever.
Lee’s earnestness is also made easier to swallow by his trademark flair for color, sound, camera movement, dialogue, humor. Chi-Raq is an immensely entertaining and endlessly surprising film. Characters speak in rhymed verse; Oedipus himself turns up, a mama’s boy in a prim gray suit and wonky glasses; a speech at a men’s club slips into a rendition of “If I Were King of the Forest” from The Wizard of Oz. Lee stages a beautifully edited dance number to The Chi-Lights’ “Oh, Girl.” A particularly hilarious set piece has Lysistrata pretend to seduce an old white military geezer who gets off (literally) on Confederate war paraphernalia. As is so often the case with Lee’s films, about 65% of it works and you don’t really care about the other 35% that doesn’t. This is political cinema at its most vivid and energetic.