Watching 'Chi-Raq' During Advent

Spike Lee's latest joint is here to teach us what lament really looks like.
Watching 'Chi-Raq' During Advent
Teyonah Parris in 'Chi-Raq'
Image: Amazon Studios

Teyonah Parris in 'Chi-Raq'

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.

Angela Bassett in 'Chi-Raq'
Image: Amazon Studios

Angela Bassett in 'Chi-Raq'

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.

Samuel L. Jackson in 'Chi-Raq'
Image: Amazon Studios

Samuel L. Jackson in 'Chi-Raq'

There are social reasons that Chi-Raq is startlingly timely. There’s at least one historical one, too, because right now it’s Advent, a time reserved on the Christian calendar for us to contemplate desire and longing. (“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” is not a throwaway lyric; Christ being called the “desire of nations” is no accident.) Advent dictates Christians read Isaiah 40, and if we don’t, we’ll hear it over the radio. It is a song that points to lament, speaks of turmoil, and promises peace that is coming, but not here yet. “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God,” it reads (or the tenor sings, in Handel’s Messiah). “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

So perhaps Chi-Raq’s farcical presentation of physical and sexual longing that forces a drive toward peace works precisely because it first winks, then points, then gestures wildly toward the real peace we crave.

The most purely uplifting song on the soundtrack is performed during a funeral service for a child killed by a stray bullet: the song is minister and gospel singer Cinque Cullar’s “All Power,” a rousing gospel anthem with choir and soloist and, in the movie, a group of liturgical dancers dressed in white. In the front row sits the weeping family, trying to offer praise as they mourn the lost girl. John Cusack plays the minister—raised just eight blocks from the church he now pastors—who preaches one of the longest, fieriest sermons I’ve heard on screen in a long time.

Nick Cannon in 'Chi-Raq'
Image: Amazon Studios

Nick Cannon in 'Chi-Raq'

But while his sermon is rousing, it’s the juxtaposition of praise and weeping that lingers. Many of us are used to those uplifting praise anthems to open a church service, and that’s an appropriate place for them—but at a funeral? Most of us, myself included are more likely to sing subdued tunes and dirges. At first I winced, thinking this was a classic example of paving over sorrow with forced joy. But then I saw the weeping in the midst of the attempt to praise, and I understood lament in a new way. It’s the on-screen embodiment of Job’s declaration that “though he slay me, yet will I trust him.”

A casual observer of American culture today can see that many Christians have never embraced lament. Many of us have never learned what it is to observe pain, then enter into it with courage. We’ve abandoned praying through the Psalms and scolded those who dwell in the valley of the shadow of death for not getting rescued fast enough.

Because we’re humans, we have to respond to terror and brokenness. And when we’ve failed to practice lament, all we have left in response is fear and violence. May the crooked paths be made straight.

Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Eerdmans, May 2016). She tweets @alissamarie.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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