There’s a perverse moment, one on top of many in Spike Lee’s latest film Chi-Raq that’s too extreme to ignore. His main female lead, Lysistrata (a bold, strong and impactful Teyonah Parris) is using feminine will and seduction to entrap a general in Chicago’s South Side Armory. The general, an even more countrified Yosemite Sam played by David Patrick Kelly is in reality a Confederate flag loving, appreciate my history General who wears Confederate underwear. Lysistrata traps a Don Imus quoting General King Kong in his office, makes him ride an antique Confederate cannon aptly named “Whistling Dick” and watches as he begs to get off on all of his fetishism for black women. In most cases, close ups of Kelly riding that cannon like a bucking bronco and Parris stretching some of her Dear White People chops to an even extremer degree would make you cringe. In the context of Lee’s Chi-Raq, the scene is putting an outlandish face to hidden behind closed doors racism.

The main purpose of Chi-Raq (40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks / Amazon Studios) is that it asks its audience through a myriad of vehicles to question what’s actually going on in Chicago. Why is the murder rate for the past 15 years triple that of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why do news outlets continually throw out “black on black crime” and respectability politics in the face of common sense? No one has a direct, distinct answer for the ecosystem that makes up Chi-Raq as a set piece but in Lee’s case, he’s going to bring everybody from gang members to tone-deaf politicians up for shame. All under the guise of a 2,500 year old raunchy sex comedy written by Aristophanes updated to modern times.

Lee’s gamesmanship as a director has always dared us to think about current events and communities at large. It’s how we bristled with uneasiness after Do The Right Thing’s ground zero scene following the death of Radio Raheem. Or how the generational gap between educated black men and those who weren’t was a central scene in School Daze. Lee’s films don’t usually make heroes as clean, upstanding moralists. Just as Do The Right Thing allowed all of its characters to try and hide their warts with nobility and a sense of what they felt was necessary, Chi-Raq does it, albeit in far more preachy tones. It’s Lee’s best work after a few frustrating misfires (Red Hook Summer, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus) and a maligned moment of decency (Old Boy). His satirical take on a Greek tragedy brings him back as a black filmmaker constantly poking the establishment and political landscape in search of a breakthrough.

Parris’ Lysistrata is talked about how most men talk about black women they deem to be goddesses. Swaying hips, strong demeanor, filled with pride and weak at the knees beauty. Samuel L. Jackson, the film’s Dolemite-style narrator with even more colorful suits, offers up the most humorous description f the film’s heroine (“made George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson wanna kiss her ”). She’s dating a rapper, Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) who also doubles as the leader of the purple clad Spartans. At his shows, she’s a crowd hype man leading an ROTC stroll while he performs a paint-by-numbers drill rap song aimed at rivals. After a shooting takes place at one of his shows by an orange clad Trojans gang member, they go back to her place and have sex, only for the afterglow to be interrupted by her house being set on fire by said rival Trojans. It’s not after Lysistrata talks to her neighbor Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) that she hears of Chicago past, when even the gangs had a code in regards to shooting children and how it wasn’t always like this. So, Lysistrata gets her Spartan sister, goes behind enemy lines in recruiting the ladies of Troy to join her and the rest of the world begins to bow at their mercy. At least that’s what the general premise of her sex strike (complete with sultry chant) aims to achieve.

Even if Lee couldn’t necessarily argue his idea of feminism in recent interviews about the film, Chi-Raq could do all of the talking for him. Women, especially those of color play central roles as leaders, nurturers and protectors. Lysistrata’s sex strike, originated by Leymah Gbowee in her fight to end the Liberian Civil War literally makes the city go mad. It’s a commendable moment of representation. Lee and the film’s co-writer Kevin Willmott weave through so many jokes that they never lose sight of what the purpose is for the women of Chi-Raq, to lead and call for change.


The comedy of Chi-Raq is watching men from common areas all the way to the highest of political office turn a lack of sex into full-blown Reefer Madness paranoia, complete with more actually funny phallic jokes than there need be. Middle-class leaders such as Old Duke (Steve Harris) can only watch in horror as even his old boys club learn that even gay men are following Lysistrata’s demands. Harris’, though no different from Cannon’s Chi-Raq or even bejeweled one-eyed rival Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) argues the same general “women should know their role” point as they do. As he fails to get through Lysistrata, even calling her a “trifling bitch” for her deeds, he’s reduced to nothing, showing how powerful women are in Lee’s world, in the same vein his original femme fatale Nola Darling did with She’s Gotta Have It.

The problems with Chi-Raq are easy to notice, how it’s a political comedy about something that stings far too many people. How it somehow convinced Nick Cannon to rap the first song of the movie or even dares bring up respectability politics in a climate that readily dismisses it. Or how it tries to pack so much density into a two hour film. However, it lets Lee hammer talking points that are far too relatable. The NRA’s lining of political pockets, bankers continually denying loans to the poor, housing segregation, all of it is outlined in Lee’s most political moment, a eulogy for a young girl shot in the middle of a gun battle between the Spartans and Trojans.

John Cusack’s Father Mike Corridan, in a near exact replica of Chicago’s Father Michael Pfleger attributes all of the killing on so many factors that the simplest argument he has is, “you’re doing The Man’s job for him.” What Corridan argues is attribute to the same Greek ideas of fate, that man must struggle and fight the idea of being predestined to fail. Cannon’s Chi-Raq, though stubborn throughout runs as a lost boy who was never steered in a positive direction. He lives through images of brute masculinity, even as his gang friends are confined to wheelchairs, colostomy bags or even worse – die. As he refuses to admit his pain or even be vulnerable, his lover in far bawdier moments comes to understand hers.

Everyone is broken in Chi-Raq in some form or fashion, from Jennifer Hudson’s Irene who loses a child and can’t even begin to speak in rhyme like the rest of the city to Miss Helen who chastises a health-insurance salesman (Roger Guenveur Smith) about black boys dying on the South Side. Sandy Hook, the Charleston Shootings, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, all of them become small posts for Lee’s film to hitch on to. Sure, the musical choices are hammy and in some places Empire lite but in Lee’s convoluted interpretation of the situation, we all have a hand in fixing it.