Truly classic works have a way of enduring over decades, centuries even. Or in the case of Lysistrata, millennia. Aristophanes’ 2,500-year-old satire, in which women unite in denying men sex until they stop killing each other, serves as the basis for Spike Lee’s adaptation, Chi-Raq. In Lee’s hands, Chi-Raq takes a theatrical style (with rhyming verses and musical moments) and applies it to a setting that is more timely than any film released this year: modern-day Chicago, a.k.a. Chi-Raq (a portmanteau of Chicago and Iraq).
It’s in Chi-Raq, as the narrator Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) tells the story, that Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) lives with her rapper boyfriend, Demetrius “Chi-Raq” Dupree (Nick Cannon) [and yes, his choice of moniker is a topic of discussion]. Dupree is also the leader of the Spartans, a gang in rivalry with the Trojans and their leader, Cyclops (Wesley Snipes, complete with eye patch). After a shootout, an arson, and a drive-by shooting of an 11-year-old girl occur in quick succession, Lysistrata moves in with her neighbor, Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), an advocate of nonviolent protest. It’s here that she comes up with a non-violent way to potentially end the violence in Chi-Raq: she will work to get every woman in a relationship with a gang member to deny the men sex until they can find a long-term truce. Or, as Lysistrata more succinctly puts it, “No Peace, No Pussy.”
Eventually, the message spreads beyond Chicago, going global and bringing in a range of women from the partners of powerful men to sex workers, with some gay men even joining the women in solidarity. Among the targets are members of the military and the militarized police. Lysistrata and her group take aim at the National Guard Armory, and after seducing Confederate-loving General King Kong (David Patrick Kelly), they commandeer the Armory. Meanwhile, a black fraternal organization, led by Ole Duke (Steve Harris), become so fed up with being denied sex that they lead a counter-protest to try and bring Lysistrata’s campaign to an end.
Meanwhile, Father Mike Corrigan (John Cusack) delivers a eulogy at the funeral for the aforementioned murdered girl that quickly turns into a fiery 10-minute monologue that rails against the uniquely American love of firearms. He then joins forces with the girl’s mother (Jennifer Hudson) in papering the neighborhood, looking for clues and offering a reward for information on the girl’s killer.
Normally, when a film is called “timely,” it’s in some vague thematic way. Chi-Raq‘s timeliness isn’t vague, though – it’s explicit. Among the individuals and locations mentioned as part of the cycle of violence that’s become more prominent in the past few years: Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, George Zimmerman, Dylann Roof, Sandy Hook and Ferguson. Even the film’s release hits on an explicit sense of timeliness: a film about gun violence in Chicago comes mere days after Chicago’s police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, was fired over the Chicago PD’s deplorable handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting.
Under Lee’s guidance, Chi-Raq‘s fire-hot subject matter is tackled directly, beginning with opening song “Pray 4 My City” played in its entirety against a black screen, with the lyrics lighting up the screen in text of varying sizes. But the film is also injected with a wicked sense of humor. From the narrator’s winking delivery and Oedipal cracks to specific setups like the unusually specific right-wing nature of the general Lysistrata seduces, Chi-Raq works as a legitimate satire by shifting easily between outrageous humor and equally outrageous observations about society. Wisely, Lee makes sure to not stick to any one mode for too long; most of the film works, but a few parts don’t hold up quite as well as the whole.
For the numerous issues raised, Chi-Raq doesn’t attempt to deliver any answers on how to correct them. Chi-Raq is more focused with bringing something to a conversation that’s gone on for years now. Considering that external events have proven just how necessary that conversation still is, it’s effectively (and unfortunately) timely. As the film says in large text early on, “This is an emergency.” And as the screen proclaims when the film ends: “Wake Up!”