Commercial films tend to have subjects. And they also tend to stick to them. But in the cinema of Spike Lee, a subject is just a starting point. Take Jungle Fever. Ostensibly speaking, that’s Lee’s melodrama about interracial relationships. But that movie splits its viewpoint down eight different directions, to also consider the black experience within corporate workplaces, and the crack epidemic of the late 1980s, and the corrosive influence of religion on frayed interpersonal relationships… we could go on like that. His latest, Chi-raq, fits the same diagnosis. We could state that this is an adaptation of a Greek satire, modernized and reset on the South Side of Chicago. But since we’re being honest, we’ll just say that’s the way that it starts.
The text in question is “Lysistrata,” an Aristophanes comedy dated around 400 BC. You may not know the name, but you’ve likely heard of its primary narrative conceit: The title character is a charismatic woman who gathers the women of all Greek states and convinces them to withhold sex from their husbands. Her goal is to end the Peloponnesian War by peace treaty; her strategy is to break the men’s fighting spirit under the weight of their unsatisfied erections. Lee, working with co-writer Kevin Willmott, allows the character to keep her name. But now Lysistrata (aka Miss Biscuit) lives in Chicago’s “Sparta South” Side, where she’s dating a member of the area’s Spartan gang, Demetrius Dupree (aka Chi-Raq, aka Long D). Across the way, on the other side of Lee’s impeccably art-directed housing project, there are the rival Trojans (led by Wesley Snipes’ Cyclops.) And in between all their gunfire rests everyone else.
One day the person stuck in that tragic middle is Patti, a girl of 11 or 12 years old. Her mother Irene (Jennifer Hudson) has to bear witness to the sight of her deceased child being taken off the street. That’s enough to set Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) into action—soon enough she has the ladies on both sides of the war shouting, “No peace, no pussy!” So we could say that this movie is a reckoning with the deaths of innocent victims that occur in close proximity to gangland gunplay—we could say this is a movie about quote-unquote “black-on-black violence.” But Lee, as usual, takes the opportunity to branch out wider. He’s always been interested in the complexes created by the intersections of “social problems” more than he’s been interested in the individual problems themselves. The sex strike allows him to equate the performative sexuality common in hip-hop culture (Chi-Raq, played by Nick Cannon, is a rapper) with the performative violence of crime culture (Chi-Raq’s also the most prolific gunman in his crew). The wider social implications of the strike allow Lee to satirize the callousness of government officials during times of lower-class crisis (see also: Lee’s two four-hour documentaries on New Orleans post-Katrina.). Sometimes the commentary comes coded, within a single shot: When we see the gang member’s hangouts, they’re framed the way that a surveillance camera would frame a prison yard.
As in Do the Right Thing, Samuel L. Jackson features as a one-man Greek chorus—an Ophulsian ringmaster—this time blatantly modeled after black-cinema hallmark Dolemite. And since much of the dialogue throughout Chi-raq is delivered in rhyming verse—“up in that butt” is matched with “bust a nut” more than once—that makes him more like an MC. Sometimes that designation is literal, too, as Lee often lets his faux-Technicolor compositions morph into screen-stretching song-and-dance numbers. That is, when he’s not filling the frame with his other flourishes: split-screens, onscreen text, still shots—he even embeds a Youtube clip. We could say that this movie is a satire, like the source text it’s born from. But you could also call it a musical. Or you could call it an urgent call to social activism. Or you could call it a carnival with a conscience.
What’s sure is that when the film opens with statistics regarding the increasing homicide rate in Chicago—a statistical anomaly among US cities—that’s not satire. When Father Mike Corridan (a John Cusack character modeled after Chicago priest and activist Michael Pfleger) speaks for 15 minutes about how “mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow” and identifies gang violence as a form of “self-inflicted genocide” perpetuated by the prejudiced structures of American corporate culture, that’s not satire. (His whole monologue is startlingly specific, enough to make for a top-shelf op-ed.) But what about a shot that depicts a gang member and a cop shooting bullets into the frame simultaneously, all while our MC raps that there’s no difference between the two? The word “satire” suggests “exaggeration.” Maybe that image has the bite of satire, but it also has the sting of unexaggerated realism.
Chi-raq is struggling to find what it means to be a satire in 2015—we’re still flying the Confederate flag over government buildings, so what’s left to exaggerate? Thus Lee lapses in and out of the musical numbers, and the rhyming verse, and the humorous tone. And sometimes he does struggle to make poetry out of the jumble. It’s hard to reconcile an extended Strangelove-adjacent sequence spent with General King Kong—who wears Confederate boxers and treasures his Whistlin’ Dick cannon—with the red-eyed sincerity of the performances given by Cusack and Hudson. And it’s harder, even, to comprehend Lee’s furious intermingling of politics: his sights are set equally on the seemingly incurable status of urban violence, the casual misogyny of rap music, the acidic effect of bureaucratic inaction on the local level, the damaging effects of malt liquor distribution on lower-class housing, the specific nature of gun availability in Illinois and Indiana, the fashionable qualities of leather chastity belts, and the misleading nature of unemployment statistics in major cities … the shots are deliberately scattered. And that’s going to draw the same complaint that many critics usually levy when they write about Lee movies: “It’s messy.” Because we tend to consider our politics under separate tents—one marked “guns” and the next marked “race” and the third marked “economic” and the fourth marked “entertainment” and the fifth marked “gender.” And we tend to like our films marked as “satire,” or “comedy,” or “drama,” or “musical.” But Chi-raq is the rare film to respect the complexity of American life, and the American cinema with it—it recognizes the inextricable quality that exists among these issues, these concepts, and these genres. It recognizes that the messiness is necessary.
CHI-RAQ. RATED R. NOW PLAYING AT AMC BOSTON COMMONS AND APPLE CINEMAS CAMBRIDGE.