Spike Lee never had a chance. That's been clear since April, when the bile burst forth in response to the title of his new movie: Chi-Raq. A portmanteau of "Chicago" and "Iraq," the term unfavorably compares shooting deaths in this city with those of Americans serving in Iraq. It originated with drill, a menacing, nihilistic, and violent hip-hop sound that rocketed from Chicago's south side to rap's hilltop a few years ago. In 2014 Noisey, a music site created by Vice, the alternative media empire valued in the low billions, launched a dreadful eight-part Web documentary on Chicago hip-hop and gun violence called Chiraq.
Noisey's unenlightening venture drew millions of YouTube viewers but raised fewer hackles than Lee's new film when all we knew was the title. In April, Mayor Emanuel publicly denounced it for its negative connotations, and during the summer, Fourth Ward alderman Will Burns pushed a resolution calling for the state of Illinois to reject Lee's tax-break application. Once news broke that Lee's Chi-Raq would be a remake of Aristophanes's Lysistrata, about a group of women who start a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War, the think-piece generator shifted into overdrive, and for those who tend to the wounds of Chicago street violence, the thought of seeing their pain being portrayed as a sex satire has been too much to handle. Lee's finished project isn't strong enough to meet the mounting complaints against it—or say anything meaningful about the city's murder rate that hasn't been said better elsewhere.
But Lee gives it an admirable shot. The film opens with a tepid track by actor Nick Cannon called "Pray 4 My City" whose shallow lyrics about street violence appear against a black screen ("Please pray for my city / Too much hate in my city"). The song is quickly followed by a series of statistics (gun deaths of Americans serving in Afghanistan and Iraq; shooting deaths of civilians in Chicago) and a snippet of a speech by Reverend Michael Pfleger, senior pastor of Saint Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham and the "spiritual adviser" for Chi-Raq. A few shootings later, Miss Helen, a friendly Englewood sage played by Angela Bassett, proclaims her distaste for the word "Chi-raq." Lee's willingness to show his heart is in the right place can overwhelm the story.
Chi-Raq follows Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) as she faces down the senseless violence in Chicago. Her lover, Chi-Raq (Cannon), a rising rapper who likes to reference Tupac during foreplay, leads a purple-clad gang called the Spartans. Their rivals are the Trojans, who are clad in orange and whose leader, Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), sports a jewel-encrusted eye-patch and chortles like a hyena. Gang violence breaks out at the beginning of the film with spurts of gunfire during a Chi-Raq show at the Double Door, and the incident quickly spills onto social media—Twitter messages from social-media drillers representing both gangs flood the screen in purple and orange blocks. Hoping to get to Chi-Raq, Cyclops torches Lysistrata's house.
Lysistrata is finally moved to act after happening upon police tape and the sheet-draped body of a young girl struck by a stray bullet. At the behest of Miss Helen, Lysistrata researches Leymah Gbowee, cofounder of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which helped end the country's 2003 civil war with a series of nonviolent protests that included, yes, a sex strike. Lysistrata decides to unite the Spartan and Trojan women behind this idea. In no time they take control of a National Guard armory from Major King Kong (David Patrick Kelly), a white Confederate sympathizer with a fetish for black women. All the while Samuel L. Jackson's Dolmedes serves as the finely dressed, foul-mouthed Greek chorus. He drinks from a chalice brandished with his name and can freeze time and summon extras to help fill in the story's gaps with playful rhymes.
The entire cast speaks in verse, one of many distractions from the serious, um, thrust of the story. As Lee and cowriter Kevin Willmott (Jayhawkers, C.S.A: The Confederate States of America) explore the nether regions of their thesaurus seeking synonyms for sex, the movie is increasingly driven by the quest for booty. One of the more inspired narrative twists involves the police attempting to coax the sex strikers out of the armory with the aid of a PA system and irresistible 70s slow jams. The resulting dance sequence—with the women inside the armory strutting around in army fatigues and chastity belts and the men outside stripped to their undergarments— sets a high bar for absurdist satire that the rest of the film is unable to clear.
With so much oxygen wasted on sexually frustrated men, it's easy to forget about the gunshots that opened the film. Lee juggles a large cast of characters, so large that there isn't enough screen time for those who reckon most with the consequences of gun violence. John Cusack plays Father Mike Corridan, a character clearly inspired by Pfleger, but he reigns in just one scene, eulogizing the girl who died and shouting himself hoarse as he rattles off statistics about the systemic failures that have crippled Auburn Gresham. As the girl's mother, Jennifer Hudson isn't given much to do with her golden pipes but scream and moan. Her daughter is only ever seen lying beneath a white sheet and in a white casket.
The child's absence from the story underscores one of the biggest problems with dramatizing the carnage in Chicago: we rarely get to see victims of violence for their humanity, only for their loss of life. At the end of Chi-Raq, as the cast encourages Chi-Raq to confront his perverse pistol-packing lifestyle and the pain he's wrought, an army of people dressed in white appear in the background holding enlarged photos of black people taken by violence. More than likely these are real people killed in Chicago, but their names aren't mentioned. In Chicago, as in the movie, they live in the background. v