By Conor McNally
Chi-Raq, the latest film directed by Spike Lee, is an adaption of the Greek comedy Lysistrata written by Aristophanes in 411 BC. Spike Lee decides it’s high time for a reboot and updates the play to modern-day southside Chicago. The area is nicknamed Chi-Raq by its citizens because the number of homicides there is greater than the number of US army fatalities in whole of the Iraq war.
For those in need of a quick brush-up on the work of Aristophanes, the play is about a woman named Lysistrata who attempts to end the Peloponnesian war with a sex strike. In the film, a woman also named Lysistrata tries the same tactic to bring peace between the rival gangs of Chicago. This can best be described as the ‘plot’ of the film although there are so many narrative detours and tangents that the film is best understood not in plot but in tone.
Chi-Raq is anchored by a terrific performance from Teyonah Parris, who is supremely sexy and confident in her portrayal of Lysistrata. Films about gangs are so often centred on the men but Chi-Raq is far more interested in the female characters. The death of a child caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting results in the women realising they must take action. The wives and girlfriends of the rival gang members come together and decide that refusing their partners sex is the best way to force a change within their community.
What follows is a frequently funny and confusing hotchpotch of narrative strands that shows the city coming to terms with what’s happening. The dialogue is mostly delivered in rhyming verse which pays tribute to rap but feels more theatrical in its execution. The onscreen narration by Samuel L. Jackson only adds to the feeling that what we’re seeing is not a realistic portrayal of life in urban Chicago but a polemic, which deals with issues around violence in black communities in an artistic way that’s simultaneously new and very, very old.
The film is not just about Chicago, it is a call to action to stop the violence across American cities. Spike Lee recognises better than most the unfairness that African-Americans endure but rejects any excuses for gang violence. In the film, a Catholic priest played by John Cusack excoriates the NRA and the political class for their part in perpetuating the violence in American cities but Spike refuses to lay the blame solely on these institutions. Everyone has to help in solving a problem of this magnitude.
There’s probably not a greater living director whose stock has fallen as much as Spike Lee in the last two decades. After bursting onto the scene more than 25 years ago with Do the Right Thing, still his masterpiece and one of the great modern American films, his output has lurched between the greatness of Malcom X and the awfulness of his Oldboy remake, interspersed with projects like Bamboozled, which charms and bewilders in equal measure.
Chi-Raq can be seen as a return to form for Spike but that assumes any kind of linear direction to his career. What makes him great is what also frustrates. He is a truly unique voice in cinema, a polemicist and an artist all wrapped into one. In Chi-Raq, Spike has so much to say about violence, oppression, gender and race and he says it all at the same time. This can lead to some unevenness in the film but very few can get their point across as strongly and enjoyably as Spike.