The bizarro concept of a ‘President-elect Trump’ came to pass despite the wishes, clearly stated on the stump, of the entertainment-industrial complex. They all came out for Hillary — Queen Bey, the Boss, Jay-Z, J-Lo, SJP, Kimye, Madge, Meryl, Gaga, Lena D, old uncle Team Clooney and all. How the alt-right cackled when this star-spangled nobility got in-yer-faced by a basket of deplorables from the West Virginia coalfield. In the circumstances, now is maybe not a propitious moment for Spike Lee (who felt the Bern) to unleash a finger-wagging homily about America and guns.
Chi-Raq, you wouldn’t be alone in not knowing, takes its title from the alternate name lately given to Chicago in the state of ‘Killinois’. Over the same timeframe, the city’s sidewalks were strewn with nearly as many American corpses as Iraq was during the US occupation. And so it continues.
The lion’s share of the murders are black-on-black, gang-on-gang. But because street gunfights on the city’s South Side feature non-marksmen wielding SMGs like hosepipes, crossfire victims tend to include innocent children, also black. One such 13-year-old girl is gunned down towards the start of Chi-Raq, when two rival gangs are incompetently duking it out with Uzis. Her mother (Jennifer Hudson) discovers the corpse surrounded by police tape.
Among the onlookers is Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), the bootylicious girlfriend of cocksure rapper-on-the-make Demetrius ‘Chi-Raq’ Dupree (Nick Cannon). He heads up a purple-liveried gang called the Spartans, whose mortal enemies are the orange-clad Trojans run by a galumphing idiot in a glittery eyepatch called Cyclops (Lee regular Wesley Snipes).
All these names would suggest that Lee’s characters have been at class. civ. nightclasses and further bloated their egos by conferring upon themselves a pick’n’mix of mythical antecedents. In fact, Chi-Raq is a bit more targeted than that. Plotwise, the film is a pretty straight lift from Lysistrata, the Aristophanes comedy in which Athenian women threaten to withdraw access to their sexual organs unless their warmongering menfolk lay down their weapons. ‘No peace! No pussy!’ is their not entirely Grecian slogan in Lee’s update.
It works. The nooky moratorium — even the strippers abandon their poles — causes the entire city to go into male meltdown. The mayor, no less, is denied conjugal privileges when the protesting sorority don hot leather chastity thongs and hole up in a military facility. As Cyclops Socratically puts it, ‘These hoes have literally shut down the penis power grid.’
Lee has much fun toying with the fixtures and fittings of the source material. Samuel L. Jackson, in an array of natty suits, pops up as a choric commentator name-checking his homey ’Stophanes and telling you what’s what: ‘Welcome to Chi-Raq, the land of pain, misery and strife,’ he hollers. The entire script is in rap. Thus, more than in regular films where the pictures do the talking, there’s a ton of barely comprehensible shouting. On the plus side the dialogue throws up flavoursome rhymes (duty/booty, masochism/jism, etc.) as part of a cacophonous verbal firework display.
The classical allusions are a messy old grab-bag. The conscience of the story is a bookworm called Helen (Angela Bassett) and there’s a walk-on for a mother-loving wimp called Oedipus. The untidiness seeps across the entire movie. There are sexily choreographic Bollywood-style crowd dances, a sequence of high farce featuring a phallic cannon, a boxing-style seduction contest, and news montages of pussy-power strikes from all over the world. Even France.
Lee can’t be faulted for berserk energy and try-anything braggadocio. Eight years of Obama’s laments have made no dent in the standing of the NRA. Why not a last-ditch day-Glo infomercial about the massacre of innocents? Not that Lee, who lays on a groaning platter of guilty pleasures, shirks the responsibility to be intense and serious. Posters of the slain line the sidewalks. An outlet called Illinois Caskets offers 50 per cent discounts. Halfway through the film, a funeral rant from John Cusack’s pastor is a sustained and high-octane howl of pain. ‘Guns,’ he screams, ‘have become part of America’s wardrobe.’
It’s not all Greek to Lee. The plot is rooted in actuality — a sex strike, we’re told, helped bring peace to Liberia. Plus he’s been this way before: in She’s Gotta Have It, his 1986 breakthrough, a sexually liberated young woman from Brooklyn road-tests three different boyfriends before deciding to deprive men of her body and go without.
For all its contrived pop-video silliness, Lee’s modest proposal is a far more potent intervention than the fuzzy revenge dramas of Quentin Tarantino, which retroactively mow down history’s bullies in puerile sprays of ketchup. His quixotic aim is to get the message to the hood.
Malcolm X, the subject of a previous Lee film, is cited: ‘The best way to hide something from negroes is to put it in a book.’ So put it instead in a bonkers tragicomic lecture about deadly penis extensions. A riot.