Spike Lee's 'Chi-Raq' Pits Abstinence Against Violence In Rhyme

Dec 4, 2015
Originally published on December 4, 2015 5:12 pm

The words "This Is An Emergency" flash on-screen in red block letters at the outset of Spike Lee's satirical call to disarm, Chi-Raq, setting up the newscaster who'll set up the title.

"Homicides in Chicago, Ill., have surpassed the death toll of American special forces in Iraq," he says.

Hence Chi-Raq. During the title sequence, rapper Nick Cannon, who plays an up-and-coming rap star in the film, underscores the urgency in song: "Please pray for my city / Too much hate in my city / City of Chi-Raq."

But his character's a gang leader, and when one of his concerts erupts in gun violence and he shrugs it off as an occupational hazard, his girlfriend decides she's had enough. Her name is Lysistrata, and if that rings ancient Greek theater bells, you'll be able to guess what happens next. Aristophanes wrote a satire 2000 years ago in which his Lysistrata convinced war-weary women in Athens and Sparta that their men would lay down their weapons if the women just denied them sex.

Chi-Raq's Lysistrata (a terrific Teyonah Parris), though, is dealing with gangland purples and oranges — the Trojans and the Spartans, as it happens. She does a quick Web search and comes up with a more recent example: Leymah Gbowee and the 2003 sex strike that helped bring both sides to the table after 14 years of civil war in Liberia. So she heads over to the South Side home of a rival gang leader's girlfriend with exactly that proposal:

"Total abstinence from knockin' the boot," is how she puts it, initially to howls of laughter, but later to more serious consideration. And finally to a pledge that spreads first to the other women of Chicago, then to cities around the U.S., and ultimately all over the world.

Lee and his co-writer Kevin Willmott aren't just updating Greek satire; they're doing it mostly in verse, which adds a degree of artificiality, obviously, but also means the dialogue feels like an extension of the hip-hop on the soundtrack.

There was a time in the summer /
when it got hot /
your child could go outside and play /
and not get shot

So sayeth Angela Bassett as Helen (of Troy, presumably), an oracle with vision. The men for the most part are objects of derision — see this rhyming thing is catching. One exception, a pastor (John Cusack) whose sermon at a child's funeral is not in verse and gains enormous power from that difference. It rings with a fury the audience will share after watching a mother (Jennifer Hudson) scrub her daughter's blood from a sidewalk.

Chi-Raq marks a return for Lee to the vigorous, agitprop filmmaking that first brought him attention, but he's a far more accomplished blender of seriousness and showmanship today than he was in the mid-'80s. Put together the conviction and anger of Do the Right Thing, the sexy feminism of She's Gotta Have It, and the sheer star power of the likes of Wesley Snipes, Dave Chappelle, Harry Lennix, Samuel L. Jackson, and even if the result feels a little uneven in Chi-Raq, it's bound to be persuasive. Call it a bracing, cinematic call to action as potent as it is timely.

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Chicago, gun violence remains epidemic. There's been more than 2,000 shootings this year. Much of the violence there is gang-related. Chicago is fertile ground for Spike Lee's new movie, a satire about ending the killing. Critic Bob Mondello says the film, which is titled "Chi-Raq," is adapted from an ancient Greek play, but it's pretty current.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHI-RAQ")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) This is an emergency.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: This warning flashes on screen in red block letters, setting up the newscaster who will set up the title.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHI-RAQ")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Homicides in Chicago, Ill., have surpassed the death toll of American Special Forces in Iraq.

MONDELLO: Hence "Chi-Raq." During the title sequence, rapper Nick Cannon, who plays an up-and-coming rap star in the film, underscores the urgency in song.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHI-RAQ")

NICK CANNON: (As Chi-Raq, singing) The city of Chi-Raq and get your baby...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Do you want justice?

CANNON: (As Chi-Raq, singing) Please pray for my city.

MONDELLO: But his character is a gang leader, and when one of his concerts erupts in gun violence and he shrugs it off as an occupational hazard, his girlfriend decides she's had enough. Her name is Lysistrata, and if that rings ancient Greek theater bells, you'll be able guess what happens next. Aristophanes wrote a satire 2,000 years ago in which his Lysistrata convinced war-weary women in Athens and Sparta that their men would lay down their weapons if they just denied them sex. "Chi-Raq's" Lysistrata and her girlfriends head over to the South Side home of a rival gang leader's girlfriend with exactly that proposal.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHI-RAQ")

TEYONAH PARRIS: (As Lysistrata) Total abstinence from knocking the boots.

(GROANING)

MONDELLO: Understandable reaction. A few minutes later though...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHI-RAQ")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) I mean, you really think something like that could bring peace?

PARRIS: (As Lysistrata) Y'all know the power we have over them withholding just a day. Imagine a month, a year. Oh, they going to bring the peace.

MONDELLO: So they take a pledge.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHI-RAQ")

PARRIS: (As Lysistrata) Repeat after me. I will deny all rights of access or entrance.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (As characters) I will deny all rights of access or entrance.

PARRIS: (As Lysistrata) From every husband, lover or male acquaintance.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (As characters) From every husband, lover or male acquaintance.

PARRIS: (As Lysistrata) Who comes to my direction in erection.

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: You'll note that they're rhyming. Spike Lee and his co-writer, Kevin Willmott, aren't just updating Greek satire. They're doing it in verse, which adds a degree of artificiality, obviously, but also means the dialogue feels like an extension of the hip-hop on the soundtrack.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHI-RAQ")

ANGELA BASSETT: (As Ms. Helen) There was a time in the summer when it got hot. Your child could go outside and play and not get shot.

MONDELLO: That's Angela Bassett as an oracle with vision. The men, for the most part, are objects of derision. See, this rhyming thing is catching. One exception, a pastor whose sermon at a child's funeral is not in verse and gains power from that difference. It rings with a fury the audience will share after watching a mother scrub her daughter's blood from a sidewalk.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHI-RAQ")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You cannot murder our children then go back to the crib, turn on SportsCenter, eat a Whopper and fries and act like nothing ever happened. We will not allow this self-inflicted genocide to continue.

MONDELLO: "Chi-Raq" marks a return for Spike Lee to the vigorous agitprop filmmaking that first brought him fame. But he's a far more accomplished blender of seriousness and showmanship now. Put together the conviction and anger of "Do The Right Thing," the sultry feminism of "She's Gotta Have It" and the sheer star power of the likes of Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, Samuel L. Jackson, and even if the result feels a little uneven in "Chi-Raq," it is a bracingly persuasive, a cinematic call to action as potent as it is timely. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN IN CHICAGO")

YANEISHA FRANKLIN: (Rapping) I was born in Chicago, killers everywhere you go. Can't even sit on the porch 'cause the bullets be trying to score. And the kids be wanting more to play around in the playground. Instead, they gather, stay down and pray you're safe inside that door. But then they fought. When the get the guns, put them down. In Chi-Raq, they'd rather be a shooter than look like a clown. Got your family going so crazy. Your girls, keep at me baby. Mamas sad. They cry, they weep. Lost their baby to the streets... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.