Director: Spike Lee
I am guilty, at times, of judging a book by its cover, or a movie by its trailer. 2015’s movie trailers have been a particularly dishonest bunch. From AMERICAN ULTRA promising a stylish action-comedy but providing a flat, stilted romantic drama, to MR. HOLMES appearing to be about Sherlock taking on one last case but really being about him puttering around in a beekeeper hat for two hours, it has been hard to know exactly what to expect when one hands over their cash at a theatre. Spike Lee’s latest feature film, CHI-RAQ, fell victim to the same problem. A modern-day adaptation of Aristophanes’ LYSISTRATA, CHI-RAQ centers around the gun violence in Chicago and a sex strike, led by the eponymous Lysistrata (played by the wonderful Teyonah Parris), that aims to stop the violence.
McGruff the Crime Dog’s tactics were much less successful
Lee has always courted controversy with his films, and the response to CHI-RAQ’s trailer was some of the worst press Lee had gotten in years. For a film about the scourge of violence, many found the humorous tone of the trailer to be trivializing; how could anyone make a comedy about thousands of murders? Lee got himself even deeper into trouble when he appeared on TV with Stephen Colbert and said that sex strikes could help alleviate sexual assault on college campuses, a mind-boggling and insulting suggestion, especially given the fact that sex strikes are not shown to be effective. So when I went into the theater to see CHI-RAQ, my expectations were quite low. I was ready to be offended.
Could it get worse than this?
Here’s the thing, though: CHI-RAQ is incredible. From start to finish, Lee pushes the gas pedal to the floor, bouncing from stirring rebukes of white supremacy to some of the biggest laughs I’ve experienced in a theater this year. When Lysistrata sees that the gang war between the Trojans (led by a hilarious Wesley Snipes as Cyclops) and her boyfriend’s Spartans results in the death of an innocent girl, she enlists women from both sides of the conflict to go on a sex strike. Within the context of the film, CHI-RAQ does not necessarily seem to be endorsing sex strikes as an effective way of curbing violence. Rather, it uses the sex strike as a means to examine gender politics, police brutality, and to make some really great jokes. The trademark Spike Lee flair – snappy dialogue, bravura camera tricks – are still present, despite a somewhat unorthodox script. In the style of Aristophanes, CHI-RAQ is delivered in verse. Samuel L. Jackson plays Dolomedes, serving as a Greek Chorus, and the whole cast, from him to Parris to a surprisingly good Nick Cannon and John Cusack, are able to roll with the rhymes and make them sound only occasionally hokey. The film is at its best when the frustrated men try to find increasingly desperate ways to get around the sex strike, from attempting to break into the National Guard barracks where the women have holed themselves up to piping in slow jams to get them in the mood. It may be because I adore ridiculous, gaggy humor but Lee’s commitment to the silliness of this film really made it for me.
Chief Keef is rumored to be attached to the sequel
That is not to say that CHI-RAQ cannot be serious as well. It follows a similar pattern to DJANGO UNCHAINED (a film Lee criticized and refused to see, interestingly enough) wherein the violence done to innocents is just as horrifying as the comedy is rambunctious. The tone bounces around quite a bit. The film’s best sequence may be the funeral of a young girl killed by a stray bullet, where John Cusack’s Father Mike Corridan delivers a stirring eulogy, placing the blame for her death upon on greedy politicians and the NRA as well as the gangbanger that pulled the trigger.
It is worth mentioning, of course, that I am not from Chicago, nor am I black. So I may be too privileged to pick up on the political missteps that many say undermine the film. Spike Lee’s public comments certainly have not shone a positive light on the proceedings. But he would not be the first director to think his film was saying one thing while it was really saying something else entirely. Regardless, CHI-RAQ is a singular, shocking, bonkers motion picture. You deserve to make up your own mind about it, no matter what was in the trailer.