Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is basically unclassifiable under traditional movie categories. Is it a comedy? Because it sure is hilarious. Is it a tragedy? For sure. Is it satire? Farce? Protest? Check, check, and check.
If we can’t classify it through the movies, let’s try poetry and music. Chi-Raq is raucous and transgressive, but most of all, it’s a lament. And lament is exactly what we—you and I—need to learn: right now, this year, this month, this week, today.
Chi-Raq opens with an overture, like an opera, Nick Cannon’s “Pray 4 My City,” lyrics printed on the screen in red against a black background. It’s a rap, a desperate cry for the listener to intercede on behalf of Chicago:
Police siren everyday
People die everyday
Mommas cry everyday
Fathers tryin’ everyday . . .
. . . It’s Chi-Raq and my city’s lost
I can’t fall victim to Satan
Please pray for my city, hurry up
Please pray for my city
Too much hate in my city
Too many heartaches in my city
But I got faith in my city
From there it’s a whirling dervish of a movie, slinging itself from wall to wall as it probes the uncomfortable tensions that sit underneath gun violence in America—specifically in Chicago, where the murder toll recently surpassed the number of American deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq, combined. Children are dying from misfired bullets. Death is a fact of life, and the film boldly proclaims that everyone is at fault: gang members for picking up the guns, gun sellers in the next state over, lawmakers and leaders for failing to do their jobs.
Chi-Raq is based on Aristophanes' ancient comedy Lysistrata, performed first in Athens in 411 BCE. In the play, the title character—a woman—decides she’s had enough of the Peloponnesian War. She convinces the women of the town to withhold sexual relations from their husband and lovers until the war is ended. In Lee’s retelling—narrated by a roaming Samuel L. Jackson—Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, in a career-making role) does the same, igniting a world-wide movement for peace led by women when she realizes the power she holds over her boyfriend (Nick Cannon), leader of the Spartan gang, and convinces the rival gang leader’s girlfriend to do the same.
That this movement originates in the midst of a place ruled by egos and machismo and libido is all the more remarkable; that the film comes to some specific policy conclusions at its end is less significant than its no-holds-barred critique of every single person who is complicit in the epidemic.
There’s so much going on in Chi-Raq that it’s easier to get a finger on its pulse from the soundtrack, which also starts with “Pray 4 My City” and follows with R. Kelly’s “Put the Guns Down.” It’s not all political; halfway through we get Sam Dew’s “Desperately,” a sweaty ballad of desire. By the final track, Jennifer Hudson is singing in “I Run” that the Bible says that one day crying will be no more, but till then, we run, and we cry.
A lot about the film will probably steer some viewers away: obviously, there’s explicit sexual language and a bit of nudity, along with plenty of profanity, some gun violence, and what the MPAA calls “thematic material” in spades. As a film, it’s also just messy and repetitive, with tonal shifts that can be especially strange if you don’t know what’s it’s spoofing; in several cases, it’s obviously referring to Dr. Strangelove, another biting sex comedy that took no prisoners in its indictment of systemic stupidity.