Is it a good month in America for an antigun movie or what? Bitches, it’s always a good month in America for an antigun movie. The newest, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, might be the best ever. It’s sexy, brash, and potent — a powerful weapon in its own right.
It’s an adaptation of Aristophanes’ 413 BCE antiwar satire Lysistrata, in which the title character — whose name means “army disbander” — convinces the women of Greece to withhold sex to get the men to stop fighting the Peloponnesian War. Lee shifts the battlefield from distant Sparta to the streets of Chicago, where young black males are busy killing young black males — along with unlucky bystanders, some of them children. The title is a fusion of Chicago and Iraq — although a prologue points out that fewer Americans have actually died in Iraq since the turn of the millennium. Rahm Emmanuel asked Lee to change the name because it was bad for the city. (Hey, so is suppressing a video close to a tight runoff election showing a cop shooting a teenager 16 times.) But there’s no hiding that Chicago is a war zone and a mayor’s corrupt fiefdom.
In the film, Chi-Raq is also the nickname of a rap star (Nick Cannon) who happens to be the boyfriend of a bombshell by the name of Lysistrata, played by Teyonah Parris with all cylinders firing. She stares down the camera. She swings her derrière while eyes explode all over, like Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help It. It's hard to believe she is the actress who played Don Draper’s secretary Dawn Chambers on Mad Men, who kept most of her thoughts (and private life) to herself — but she did, after all, go to Juilliard.
The great “classic” plays aren’t dead plays. A change in emphasis or setting and they bloom anew, as suited to our times as the first day they were staged. You know at once Lee gets that when he keeps the Greek chorus — and makes him Samuel L. Jackson, who strolls through the film in natty three-piece suits. Does it matter that Jackson has pumped more bullets into people onscreen than most living actors have? Yes. I’d like to have seen an acknowledgment of that — a goof on his own Tarantino-enhanced fan base, an admission that guns and attitude have made him an avatar of cool. Elsewhere in the films, guns and attitude make you look stupid.
The action proper begins in a club in which Chi-Raq does a number filled with violent gun imagery — and a shoot-out leaves two dead. Not long after, a mother (Jennifer Hudson) discovers the body of her 11-year-old daughter in the street, accidentally killed in a drive-by shooting. Lysistrata — pilloried for the company she keeps by a sober, angry middle-aged neighbor, played by Angela Bassett — has an epiphany. She rounds up other girlfriends of gang members — including rival gangs — for a sit-down. She makes them take a pledge. Henceforth their slogan is, “No peace, no pussy.” Nice alliteration, nice assonance.
The women’s action leads to stylized musical numbers, raunchy vaudevillian skits, and scenes of bureaucrats like the mayor (an emasculated pop-top version of Rahm) sputtering wildly after 75 women take possession of an armory — with hostages. Lee takes a broad, slapdash approach, but that’s what works for Aristophanes — whose slangy, gloriously smutty comedies don’t play well cleaned up. (My favorite translation is a recent one by Sarah Ruden, which is crammed with profanity and anachronisms.) This adaptation, which Lee wrote with Kevin Willmott, makes rhyming verse out of street language. It has a lot of groaners (“Whose crib this be?”) but more than enough punch to compensate.
Lee is really in his element. From the start of his career, his movies — or “joints” — have been full of messages. He’s less interested in behavior and more in signposts, with every shot a kind of Brechtian placard. But that’s exactly what Lysistrata calls for! Chi-Raq has everything great agit-prop needs, including a centerpiece sermon over the coffin of that little girl delivered by John Cusack, his character modeled on Catholic priest and activist Michael Pfleger. The priest holds up a gun for the stunned congregation of mourners, saying it came from an Indiana gun show where its buyers could bypass Chicago’s strict laws. He says our politicians are “in the pocket of the National Rifle Association,” and speaks of young black men “going from third-rate schools to first-rate, high-tech prisons.” He also blames a community in which not one witness to the shooting will come forward.
That’s the realism part of Chi-Raq, which includes scenes of real shooting victims talking to the camera and real mothers holding blown-up photos of real lost children. Using Jennifer Hudson — who lost members of her family to guns — is another gesture toward reality. But even the most cartoonish performances — by Cannon, Wesley Snipes as a one-eyed member of the Trojans gang called Cyclops, Harry Lennix as the mayor’s aide, and D.B. Sweeney as the mayor — don’t wink at the audience. Broad comedy doesn’t need to be camp. It can be serious business.
Chi-Raq made me think back to my 20s, when I spent time traveling around Europe seeing political theater — cabarets, melodramas, some staged in pubs at lunchtime, some in union halls. It wasn’t all good, but some of the messiest productions were the most memorable. They teamed professional actors with people in the community. They were an ungainly mix of tones. They had references to events in the news that week. They were urgent and alive. Chi-Raq has all that, and two things more: (1) Sex, and plenty of it, and (2) Auto-criticism. Lee isn’t just blaming authority figures. He’s also trying to shame the kind of macho nihilism that has poisoned the community from within.
And he hasn’t just let his movie do the railing. Lee has been leading marches in Chicago and New York — and mouthing off about Rahm Emanuel, a cartoon of a politician who’s more outlandish than anything in Chi-Raq (or The Wire, for that matter). Lee and Aristophanes have joined their voices across millennia, and they make beautiful music together.