Spike Lee’s most recent movie, “Chi-Raq,” arrives in theaters today after months of critical speculation that it would do everything from derail the movement for criminal justice reform into the old black-on-black crime canard to trivialize the murder rates in Chicago, where the film is set. And “Chi-Raq, a musical remake of Aristophanes’s Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” is certainly a confounding film. The movie follows Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) — a woman so beautiful “She made both George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson want to kiss her,” in the words of Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson, narrating the film) — who launches a sex strike that eventually goes global, bringing about world peace, corporate commitments to full employment and an Emmett Till Trauma Center to the city’s South Side.
“Chi-Raq” is, in other words, a patently bonkers movie. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, or about Parris’s excellent star turn, since I saw “Chi-Raq” shortly before Thanksgiving. Its power lies in its stylistic lunacy and political defiance. At a moment when art is often evaluated for its compliance with an existing political agenda, “Chi-Raq” is a perfect example of the much more interesting work culture can do, making us see existing issues differently by making suggestions or speaking in terms that are currently outside the acceptable bounds of political conversation.
“Chi-Raq” is a movie about respectability politics where the most admirable people are black women who embrace their own sexuality and confront the powerful in decidedly aggressive terms and the villains include a fraternal order of middle-class black men. It’s a movie that relies on old tropes about the moral superiority of women, but one that interrogates all the ways men try to regulate female behavior. And it’s a film where Lysistrata’s sex strike is so successful that the movie actually ends up as a despairing illustration of the persistent power of American apartheid.
Of the objections to the film, I think the fairest is that “Chi-Raq,” by virtue of its source material, participates in the traditions of argument that suggest women control access to sex and that black women are responsible for the moral uplift of their communities. When my colleague Soraya McDonald and I pushed Lee on those points in a November interview, he was dismissive to the point of mockery of the feminist critique of these ideas.
“Are you going to stand behind that feminist stance and say why should we women do it? Or are you going to save your children?” Lee demanded of us. “As a feminist, you should want, I think correctly, that you should want for murders to stop. As a feminist, you don’t want your daughter, or your son, or any mother to have their children murdered. That’s not part of feminism? I would like to hear the argument from feminists why they should not be asked to do that. In the black community, it’s all hands on deck.”
But Lee’s movie actually resolves the idea that we need to prioritize either black life or feminist goals better than Lee himself does in conversation. Part of what’s compelling about “Chi-Raq” is the way it treats the film’s male characters as they try to wrangle women back into the sexual posts they’ve forsworn and how foolish, vainglorious and nasty men end up seeming in the process.
Rival gang leader Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) tries to shame his girlfriend Indigo (Michelle Mitchenor) by asking her “Why you so frigid?,” but she refuses to be shamed. Strip club owner Morris (Dave Chappelle) gets increasingly frantic when his employees stop showing up for work, telling his customers “I need some active-duty, first-class vagina.” Lysistrata dupes General King Kong (David Patrick Kelly), who runs a South Side armory, by playing into his sexual fantasies of black women and asking him to treat her “Like you’re Stonewall Jackson come to rescue little old darky me from the Damn Yankees.” He obliges and channels Don Imus in the process; she blindfolds him with a Confederate flag and commandeers the facility, forcing a standoff between the sex strikers and the Chicago police.
The starkest of these interactions comes when Old Duke (Steve Harris), the leader of the Knights of Euphrates, a fraternal organization whose members have been confounded by the strike (including a few who feel deprived by the fact that gay men have been taking Lysistrata’s pledge). Old Duke and the Knights march into the armory intending to unlock the padlocks Lysistrata’s comrades have taken to wearing and ordering them home. When Lysistrata refuses, Old Duke lashes out at her, calling her “You trifling little black b—-.” It’s the nastiest thing anyone says to Lysistrata at any point in the movie, and it comes from a black man who thinks of himself as a respectable leader in his community. Lysistrata slaps him, and “Chi-Raq” pauses a moment to marinate in the shame and defeat he has brought upon himself.
In that sense, “Chi-Raq” is another example of the most interesting part of Lee’s political sensibility. I’ve seen plenty of people wondering how “Chi-Raq” fits into a filmmaking career that includes “Do the Right Thing.” But while “Do the Right Thing” contains a deadly incident of police brutality, it’s not really a film about police violence. And while the action in “Chi-Raq” is kickstarted by the death of a child in a gang-motivated drive-by, it’s not a movie about black-on-black crime, but rather a larger meditation on generational violence, both as practiced by the state against black Americans and by individuals against each other. Instead, both films, along with Lee’s outstanding and underrated film about the Million Man March, “Get on the Bus,” are really about movements and communities and how they work out — or fail to resolve — the issues that divide them.
In “Do the Right Thing,” the death of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) in a police chokehold is absolutely an indelible moment. But the events that lead up to it are just as important.
The events of the hottest day of the summer are an uneasy exploration of whether the neighbors who rotate around Sal’s Famous Pizzeria still have the capacity to resolve their differences and live in some sort of accord, if not perfect harmony. Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) argues with Sal (Danny Aiello) over why the restaurant’s Wall of Fame features only Italians. Radio Raheem has an unpleasant dispute with the Korean couple (Steve Park and Ginny Yang) who run the convenience store where he buys the batteries for his ubiquitous boom box. Mookie (Lee himself), Sal’s delivery man, grouses at both Sal and his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) about what he’s owed and his persistent lack of hustle. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) tries to act as a community caretaker, even though no one really wants him to lead, dismissing him as a drunk.
All these interactions end raggedly, a series of lit fuses that burn down when Sal loses his patience — and his sense of himself as a community institution — and smashes Radio Raheem’s jukebox in a blaze of racial invective. Radio Raheem is killed by the cops, but his death punctuates the spreading necrosis of the neighborhood around him.
“Get on the Bus” is strikingly different in form from “Do the Right Thing” and “Chi-Raq”; it’s a plain, unpretentious movie, the film equivalent of a bottle episode of television, about a group of men who are traveling from Los Angeles to Washington for the Million Man March. But like “Chi-Raq,” it’s about the conversations that happen and the tensions that develop within movements and communities. While the men on the titular bus have all made the decision to take the same journey, they have different reasons for joining the March, and over the course of their long drive, they must resolve some of those tensions.
Randall (Harry Lennix, who plays the Chicago police commissioner in “Chi-Raq”) is convinced that his lover, Kyle (Isaiah Washington), is breaking up with him because of internalized homophobia; by the end of the film, Kyle has been able to convince Randall that he simply isn’t in love with Randall anymore, but that Kyle has embraced and integrated his identities as a black gay man and a veteran. Gary (“Do the Right Thing” veteran Roger Guenveur Smith) is biracial and must convince his fellow passengers of his solidarity with them. He’s also a police officer, which complicates his growing friendship with Jamal (Gabriel Casseus), a Muslim convert who has tried to distance himself from serious crimes he committed while a member of a gang; at the end of the film, Gary tells Jamal he will have to arrest him when they return to Los Angeles.
The passengers achieve a fellowship separate from the official March by the end of the movie, but it’s not without cost and loss, the same sense of pain that lingers at the end of “Do the Right Thing” and “Chi-Raq.”
Lee’s willingness to lean into the brokenness of both characters and whole communities is one of the things that distinguishes some of his most compelling filmmaking. And while the particular Greek play he and co-writer Kevin Willmott have chosen to use to animate “Chi-Raq” may raise all sorts of political hackles, the vendettas and struggles against God-like forces that animate Greek drama give the film its power to bust through the existing norms of political conversation.
The killing of a black child, Patti, by a black man is the instigating incident in “Chi-Raq,” but it’s clear from the beginning of the film that both the shooter and the child are part of a much larger and much more complex dynamic. “I don’t remember that time,” Lysistrata says to Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), a neighborhood activist who tells her that the South Side wasn’t always marked by endemic violence. “It existed,” Miss Helen promises her, with a delivery that makes the age she’s describing sound legendary rather than only a few decades distant. But while Miss Helen encourages Lysistrata to take a stand, she also warns the younger woman that “When they murder white children / And things don’t change / Black lives are way out of range.”
Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack, in a role modeled on the real-life Father Michael Pfleger, who pastors St. Sabina in Chicago) gives a powerful eulogy for Patti that lays out the moral reasoning of the film: that shootings like the one that murdered the little girl are the product of a political and economic system that aims to destroy African American communities, but that the perpetrators still bear moral responsibility for the triggers they pull. It may be true that “Historically speaking, murder’s in that boy’s blood,” as Corridan says of Dylann Storm Roof, who allegedly killed nine people at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., and that “Patti’s gone because our politicians are in the pockets of the National Rifle Association or are its silent co-conspirators.”
But these realities are not permission to be passive: Corridan and “Chi-Raq” argue, in a modern advancement of Greek ideas about fate, that individuals can and must struggle against any sense that their lives are predestined for them, whether by a father’s absence or generations of economic deprivation. “Give Lysistrata what she wants,” Chicago Mayor McCloud (D.B. Sweeney) snaps at his police commissioner, Blades (Lennix), as “Chi-Raq” reaches its conclusion. “She wants world peace,” Commissioner Blades tells him, skeptically. But the mayor stands firm: “Well, give her f—— world peace,” he insists. If only the determination of black women and the exasperated will of white men could make it so.