In Merry Measure
By Michael Koresky

Dir. Spike Lee, U.S., Amazon Studios

For those who like their movies to be perfectly sculpted little jewel boxes, everything gleaming and in its right place, Spike Lee’s cinema has always been anathema. Whether he’s working with an anything-goes genre fluidity, as in She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze; a more contained chaos, as in Do the Right Thing or Crooklyn; or even within a largely functional mainstream message-movie idiom, as in Malcolm X or Clockers, his movies are not suitable viewing for those who feel the need to point out that a film, even a great film, has “flaws.” The fact that Lee has often wed his unruly style to socially relevant topics that might seem to demand a more “sensible” approach only makes his idiosyncrasy more acute, and in this critic’s opinion, more robust. Bamboozled’s nightmarish plunge into satire, with its wildly upsetting modulations of broad comedy, violent tragedy, and psychological portraiture, continues to resonate, perplex, and incite debate because of, not in spite of, what were once seen as aesthetic and tonal transgressions. And so with Chi-Raq: reckoning with the subject of gun violence in America on a purposefully absurdist level without minimizing any emotional horror or political urgency, Lee’s latest is sure to meet with resistance from those who feel it’s not appropriately sober or ripped-from-the-headlines real. Instead, Lee, as always, is going for something more peculiar and totally cinematic, with a rigorous soulfulness and internal musical consistency.

Cowritten by Kevin Wilmott (who made the parodic dystopic mock-doc CSA: The Confederate States of America), Chi-Raq is set in a fictionalized version of Chicago, the bullet-plagued Midwestern city whose South Side has become one of many unfortunate barometers of violence in America. Lee opens the film with a series of chilling murder-rate statistics: according to the math, there have been more killings of Americans in Chicago since 2001 than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined during the same period. The loud and clear point—this is a war zone—is further brought home by a succession of lyrics (“Police siren everyday/People die everyday/Mommas cry everyday/Fathers tryin' everyday”) for the song “Pray 4 My City,” which appear emblazoned in red text on the black screen as we hear it in its entirety on the soundtrack, performed by Nick Cannon. Lee’s use of the song to directly communicate his themes right out of the gate is primal and powerful, but in flashing the lyrics on-screen, he’s also firming up the film’s main stylistic mode of address: Chi-Raq is largely performed in verse.

Lee’s film not only takes inspiration from ancient Greek drama, it also adapts its vernacular, updating its rhyme and rhythm for contemporary audiences easily accustomed to the verbal calisthenics of rap and spoken-word performance. The result is invigorating, an up-to-the-moment work that feels instantly like part of a particular artistic legacy. Set and shot in the poor South Side neighborhood of Englewood, the film uses the basic concept of Aristophanes’ circa-411 battle-of-the-sexes comedy Lysistrata, in which the title character enlists all Athenian women in a plot to bring about the end of the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex from the men. Underlining their film’s connection to the ancient Greek play, Lee and Wilmott imagine a world ruled by rival gangs named the Spartans and the Trojans. But the use of verse is more essential to the film’s overall conception than such classical homages; by having its actors frequently speak in rhyming couplets or talk in a forceful measure that underlines the very construction of the sentences, Chi-Raq becomes a testament to the power of words. And in a film that mostly shies away from depicting bloody violence onscreen, that’s quite a statement.

The film grants us a narrator, a wandering poet named Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson, updating his Love Daddy routine from Do the Right Thing, this time out of the radio booth and onto the streets, decked out in orange suit and green tie), who informs us of the film’s Aristophanes provenance: “We retain his verse to show our love for the universe.” But our real guide through this alternately tough and lyrical terrain is Lysistrata herself, played with resourceful empathy by Teyonah Parris, a vision in tiny cut-off jeans and gravity-defying high-heels. The girlfriend of Cannon’s tattooed tough-guy Spartan leader, nicknamed Chi-Raq (né Demetrius Dupree), the wayward Lysistrata, raised an orphan, undergoes a gradual moral awakening after a group of Trojans attack and set fire to her apartment while she and Chi-Raq are in flagrante delicto. After she moves in with her neighbor, the wise and fed-up Miss Helen, played by Angela Bassett with her customary steely outrage, the neighborhood discovers that an eleven-year-old girl, Patti, has been killed by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting linked to the conflict between the Spartans and Trojans, making the need to do something about this seemingly inescapable cycle of violence ever more pressing. Lysistrata’s initial response is predictably myopic: “I can change Chi,” she says of her boyfriend’s thuggish behavior. Miss Helen, inspired by a radical social movement started by Nobel Peace Prize–winning Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, is more drastic: deny them sex, therefore reversing the roles of this destructively patriarchal power grid. In other words, cut the men off at the head.

Thus far, Chi-Raq has been a work of dark sociopolitical immediacy, yet the introduction of Lysistrata’s—and the film’s—high concept gives it a new complexion. The idea of sex as weapon is not inherently funny, yet Lee uses it almost as a way to break down tensions in the film, even as it escalates between characters. This makes sense, as Lee’s satire here stems from the absurdity of masculine aggression, the belief that violence (from war and genocide to smaller scale conflicts) is inherently a disease of manhood. The notion of the penis as a gun finds its perfect counter in what becomes the war cry of Lysistrata and her sisters-in-arms: “No peace, no pussy.” The film thus grows increasingly wild, in deferential rhythm to its sudden turn to the implausible. Lysistrata is not only able to bring onboard the rival Trojans’ girlfriends (which includes, amusingly, Felicia Pearson, The Wire’s diminutive butch Snoop), but is also persuasive enough to convince women around the world to join the cause, depicted in cable news snippets from various countries of female protestors reiterating the slogan in their own languages.

The result is a case of global blue balls, leading men to start acting even more foolishly, which allows Lee to go purposefully off the rails. He indulges in satire, some of it raucous: Dave Chapelle has an uproarious cameo as a nightclub operator nonplussed by the absence of strippers on his poles; later the men organize a slow-jam dance number cum battle royale, set to the Chi-Lites’ “Oh, Girl,” to try and coax sex from the women—unsuccessfully—in a scene reminiscent of School Daze. At other times the slapstick is forced, as in an extended sequence of Lysistrata infiltrating the local armory by seducing a Civil War–obsessed white general in Confederate-flag-printed tighty-whities; the spittling, frothing performance of D. B. Sweeney as the city’s sexually frustrated mayor; or any of the various moments concerning the Knights of Euphrates, a society of well-bred yet mewlingly childish men—including a pathetic thumb-sucker named Oedipus—who feel particularly threatened by the women’s emergence as a force to reckon with.

This being a Spike Lee film, however, it continues to toggle between cadences, establishing a stop-start emotional rhythm that somehow never betrays its inner moral coherence. Every appearance by South Side Chicago’s own Jennifer Hudson, who has never been more convincing onscreen than as Patti’s anguished mother, brings the film back to grim reality, her presence a constant reminder that the singer and actor herself lost her mother, brother, and nephew to gun violence in 2008. And in a centerpiece scene set at Patti’s funeral, presided over by a firebrand priest, played with intensity by John Cusack in a role modeled upon inner-city Chicago’s anti-gun activist Father Michael Pfleger, all humor melts away. Lee uses Cusack as a mouthpiece, giving him the film’s most sustained single monologue (crucially, not in verse), a take-no-prisoners revivalist-style speech that takes on gun control but also the political and economic forces that keep neighborhoods like the South Side repositories for anger, disenfranchisement, and, ultimately, bloodshed.

In this scene, Lee also employs a directorial trademark, using rhythmic cutting, repeating the actor’s same phrases from differently angled takes, to create a peculiar, powerful punctuation—a technique used to more humorously pointed effect in Bamboozled (“You know what I’m sayin? You know what I’m mean?” ad nauseam). Chi-Raq exists within the Spike Lee universe: check out those posters for Da Bomb, the heinous malt liquor Lee parodied in Bamboozled and Red Hook Summer, plastered on the sides of buildings. In these and other larger ways, this is defiantly, unavoidably an auteurist work: it feels like it’s constantly springing forth, splenetically, fascinatingly, from the mind of its central creator. As such, it stands not only as an intensely political film but also as a direct statement of intent from a director who has often been accused of marginalizing or essentializing female characters. Lysistrata necessarily skirts the line between being independent and objectified: she may often be viewed as a sex object, but a necessary one who uses her sensuality and beauty as artillery. That the withholding of sex by a dominating woman—in a chastity belt, no less—is itself a fantasy rather than a nightmare for many men is perhaps a matter better left explored elsewhere. Lysistrata—and Parris—may be more image and idea than a fully conceived person, but Lee knows that any successful radical political movement needs an attention-getter.