A person is shot every two hours and 45 minutes in Chicago. The rate is higher than the American soldiers death toll in Afghanistan and Iraq altogether. The title of Spike Lee’s new feature, Chi-raq, is a portmanteau of Chicago and Iraq, and a rapper’s nickname for the windy city. It is an artistic attempt to raise awareness of the tragedy in parts of the city, particularly the South Side.
The inspiration, though, is far older: the satirical version of Greek poet Aristophanes’ classical comedy ‘Lysistrata’. In the ancient play, Lysistrata arranges a meeting with all the local women in order to devise a plan to end the Peloponnesian War. She instructs the females to refuse sex with their husbands until a peace treaty has been signed. In Chi-raq, street wars between the rival gangs of the Trojans and the Spartans lead to the deaths of children and adolescents. Just like in the Greek classic, a group of local women led by the beautiful Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) decides to combat the spiraling violence with feminine guile and charms. A sex strike is intended to force all the young black men, including Lysistrata’s rapper boyfriend Demetrius Dupree (Nick Cannon), to renounce their impulsive hatred.
John Cusack, about the only white character in the movie, plays a preacher who presides over the funeral of a young murder victim. He is a strange fusion of the film noir On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954) and a real preacher. Samuel L. Jackson’s character is some sort of external narrator, a hybrid of a microphone controller and Charles Dickens’ creature, says Spike Lee.
Chicago has been a gangster’s town for a long time. America’s best known gangster Capone had a leading role in the illegal activities that earned Chicago a reputation as a lawless city. During the shooting, Spike Lee met the mayor. He allowed the director to film there, despite disliking the film title. The politician stated it would hurt economic development. Lee spoke quickly pointed out that there is no such development in the South Side.
Though Spike Lee is still a necessary voice to be heard, his concerns and cries to wake up are often too factional. He claims that his film is about diversity, but there is no diversity in his crew or themes. He does not even touch on other urgent equal rights themes such as prejudice against homosexuals and other minority groups in American society.
Chi-Raq is also a pseudo-feminist movie. Lysistrata is adored for her sexual appeal, but there seems to be little more to her. Her motto “No Peace/ No Pussy” reduces the female strength to her genitalia. Ironically, the motto aligns with recent elected President Donald Trump’s declaration “Grab her by the pussy”. It exposed a social flaw based in some assumptions that are nothing but pure mysogyny.
Spike Lee is a champion in the fight against racism towards black people. His films helped to catapult black rights in the United States decades ahead of other many other countries in the world. For example, Brazil has the largest black population in the world outside Africa and yet black people have virtually no representation in cinema. Lee explains his first impression of Brazil 25 years ago: “The first time I was here in 1987, I was shocked to see that on television and magazines, there were no blacks. It’s improved somewhat. But there is a lot to do. Whoever never comes to Brazil and sees the Brazilian TV via satellite will think that all Brazilians are blond with blue eyes” (interview with the online news portal Black Women of Brazil).
Many prominent Afro-American personalities – including Lee – are now saying precisely the same about the Oscars, pointing out that in the last two years not a single person of colour has been nominated. Lee declares at last: “Academy Awards is not really the problem. The problem are the gatekeepers.” Despite their shortcomings, films like Chi-Raq are instrumental in the fight to change these injustices.
Chi-Raq is out in the UK on Friday, December 2nd. Watch the film trailer below:
Note: This article was originally published in February 2016 during La Berlinale and has now been updated for the UK release.