Arriving weeks after the US elected a president who tried to appeal to African-American voters by telling them, “What the hell do you have to lose?”, Chi-Raq is a bold, provocative and topical blast. It takes its title from a controversial nickname for Chicago that references the city’s high levels of gang violence, especially on the predominantly African-American south side.
When a trailer showcasing the film’s humorous moments was released last year, director Spike Lee felt compelled to state: “Chi-Raq is not a comedy, Chi-Raq is a satire.” To be precise, it’s a thrillingly ambitious musical satire based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, an ancient Greek play about women who withhold sexual relations from their husbands in order to speed up peace negotiations. When she sees an innocent child killed in a gang shooting, a formidable young Chicago woman called Lysistrata (Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris) reaches tipping point with the growing gun violence that’s already forced her to flee her home. Inspired by a female Liberian peace activist who used a sex strike to help end her country’s civil war, Lysistrata encourages her fellow south side women to wear chastity belts until their male partners agree to dissolve their gangs. Soon, their catchy slogan of “No peace, no pussy!” is resonating across America and all over the world.
Although Lysistrata is a far more enlightened character than her rapper/gang-leader boyfriend Chi-Raq (All That’s Nick Cannon), who initially tries to dismiss the women’s sex strike, Chi-Raq’s feminist credentials sketchy at best. In 2016, should a woman really need to use her body as a negotiating tool? But there’s no denying that Lee manages to convey his main message about the senselessness of gang violence without diluting his highly stylised and frequently surreal vision.
His characters speak mainly in rhyming verse; Samuel L. Jackson appears intermittently as a dandyish narrator called Dolmedes; and there are several musical set-pieces, including a sexually charged dance routine to the Chi-Lites’ classic soul ballad ‘Oh Girl’. Chi-Raq can feel tonally uneven as it lurches between absurdity and sincerity, but it’s still a thought-provoking and ferociously entertaining piece of work.
- Director: Spike Lee
- Actors: Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Samuel L. Jackson