Spike Lee is many things; subtle is not one of them. In 1989 — with three movies under his belt — the Brooklyn-based producer/director exploded on to a grand stage with Do the Right Thing. The movie stirred the pot and caused a fair amount of controversy, but what makes Do the Right Thing so prescient is how it touches on the very real and very human emotions attached to racism, violence and hatred. With the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown last summer, Do the Right Thing looks as current as the nightly news.
Now Lee is back with Chi-Raq, his most powerful and boisterous movie in years. But Lee has matured greatly — a 58-year-old brings a much different perspective to the table than a 32-year-old does. With Do the Right Thing, Lee was urgent, insistent that we must do something to stop this madness. In Chi-Raq, that urgency is there, but so is the knowledge that these issues run a hell of a lot deeper than he previously thought.
To drive this point home, Lee appropriates Aristophanes’ comedic play, Lysistrata — a group of Greek wives withholding sex from their war-hungry husbands in hopes of ending the Peloponnesian War. Lee transports the action to modern-day Chicago where two rival gangs, the Trojans and the Greeks, conduct their battle in the streets while spitting dialogue in verse.
Aristophane’s style blends perfectly with Lee’s setting. The film revolves primarily around Chi-Raq’s rapper persona (played by real-life rapper, Nick Cannon) and Chi- Raq’s girlfriend, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) who convinces the women of both sides to withhold sex from the men until both sides put down their guns and take up peace. Lysistrata and Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) lead the women in a nonviolent revolt, take over Chicago’s National Guard base and rally women across the globe with a simple chant, “No Peace, No Pussy.”
Chi-Raq is funny and fun, but it is not a movie to take lightly. As the title alludes, the streets of Chicago’s South Side are as violent as any war zone in Iraq, and Lee has the stats to back it up. He also has a complex and volatile scenario on his hands, and Lee takes every cause imaginable and tosses it in: poverty, substance abuse, lack of education, lack of spirituality, accessibility to firearms, political parties in the pocket of the NRA, and on and on. Lee is utterly fearless in his pursuit and inventive in his way of using the frame to relay information. And Chi-Raq is the work of a director who is fed-up with the problem, but not with finding a solution.
It’s a solution worth fighting for and worth sacrificing for. Lee realizes that violence isn’t just another gangbanger gunned down in the streets or just one more coffin in the ground, it’s another empty chair at Christmas time, one more incomplete family picture at Mom’s birthday. The holiday season is here, as is the time for families to come together and fill family rooms with laughter and love. Chi- Raq is an important reminder that some of these rooms are forever silent and will always remain tragically empty.