- Spike Lee
- Run Time
- 2 hours and 7 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
Make a chain! For the land is full of bloody crimes; the city is full of violence.
O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done for ever.
Spike Lee’s musical satire opened and closed in Cincinnati in 2015 before I could get out to see it, so I am grateful that Netflix has picked it up. A funny yet serious visual parable borrowing its plot from the racy classic Lysistrata by the Greek playwright Aristophanes, it will make you laugh and think about the terrible problem of black on black violence in our society. Some critics have called it “a mess,” and at some points it is, but what an entertaining and stimulating mess—for people of faith there is the most powerful social justice sermon that I have ever seen in my 40 years of writing about film! (Yes, even more powerful than my up to now favorite one that a priest delivers in the hold of a ship while standing over the murdered body of a stevedore in On the Waterfront!)
The ”mess” includes a lot of street language and racy scenes that make the film’s use dubious for church groups, but many adults will enjoy the mixture of music, dance, rhymed dialogue, and insight into race, gender, and politics. Stuffed with 13 songs dealing with love, hate, violence, desperation and the attempt to make a living, this musical is no La La Land, although it too contains a poignant love story! Lee and cowriter Kevin Willmott have moved Lysistrata’s original plot from Greece to the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago where two rival black gangs have stained its streets with the blood of children as well as gang members.
The film opens with the words of the song“Pray4theCity” appearing in blood-red letters on a black screen as Nick Cannon sings them. The chorus is a plaintive plea, much like that of the afflicted Psalmist:
Please pray for my city
Too much hate in my city
Too many heartaches in my city
But I got faith in my city
This Chi-Raq and I love that
You can’t take it away from my city
Some can’t relate to my city
They die everyday in my city
At the end of the song there is a reference to the controversy around the city’s nickname:
And y’all mad cause I don’t call it Chicago
But I don’t live in no f—–‘ Chicago, boy I live in Chi-Raq
Chi-Raq, Chi-Raq, Chi-Raq
Boy I live in Chi-Raq
Samuel Jackson has a role similar to the one that he played with such gusto in Do the Right Thing, serving this time as a one-man Greek chorus named Dolmedes making wry observations throughout the film and wearing a series of colorful 3-piece suits and a fedora. He sings and speaks in rhyming couplets, as do most of the other cast members.
Instead of Lysistrata’s warring cities of Athens and Sparta, we have the feuding gangs of the Spartans, led by rapper Demetrius Dupree who has assumed the name Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), and the Trojans, headed by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes)—yes, he does cover one eye with an eye patch (encrusted with rubies, no less!). Their two gangs have contributed to the death toll of the South Side until the total number of deaths have surpassed the US casualty rate of the entire Iraq War!
Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is Chi-Raq’s girl friend, and on the night when Lysistrata’s house is burned down by Cyclops in an attempt to kill Chi-Raq, she is given refuge by her neighbor across the street. This is the kind-hearted, intellectual Miss Evans (Angela Bassett). During their conversation Miss Evans informs her guest of the ancient play after which she had been named and of a modern example, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, a modern-day Lysistrata who strove to improve Muslim-Christian relations in Liberia during its bloody civil war. A “sex strike” was one of the African activist’s several nonviolent weapons in her campaign.
The above encounter, plus the accidental death of Patti, Irene (Jennifer Hudson)’s 11-year-old daughter, struck down by a stray bullet when gang members blast away at each other, inspires Lysistrata to act. She investigates the murder, but no one admits to seeing anything. They want to stay alive. She begins what quickly becomes a movement—no sexual favors until Chi-Raq, Cyclops, and their followers agree to an armistice designed to end the killings. Though opposed by the men, the movement spreads, from the gangs’ girlfriends to church women, and then somehow, even to women selling sex in brothels and over the telephone, joining in, leaving the guys frustrated and out of sorts. Before long the movement has spread beyond the US, and we see demonstrations in countries all around the globe. “The red wine has been drunk/The plan has been strunk!” Dolmedes exclaims, while the women proclaim to the men, “No peace, no pussy!”
In an ill-conceived vulgar scene in which the women sexually humiliate the head of the National Guard Armory, a General King Kong (David Patrick Kelly) who wears Confederate flag undershorts, Lysistrata leads her women in taking over the large facility and turning it into their headquarters. They are surrounded by police, the Mayor and other city politicians. The men (mostly whites) are not happy about the growth of a movement not beholden to them.
There are a lot of other developments and street language-laced songs. Ever so often we see guys in wheelchairs or walking with scarred bodies, the “lucky” ones surviving being shot but deprived of living normal lives—mirroring the plight of far too many veterans of the Iraq War.
For people of faith the most powerful scene is the funeral mass for the dead child at which parish priest Fr. Mike Corridan (John Cusack) expresses the outrage and grief of the distraught mother and congregation. Following in the footsteps of such prophets as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, he laments the gun violence as he excoriates the National Rifle Association and those who buy the guns in Indiana and bring them into the city and sell them at great profit. He also talks about the lack of jobs and the poverty that leads to drug dealing in the community. He talks about the structural barriers that cripple the people—the lack of government and financial investment. He addresses the culture of fear and announces that St. Sabrina will pay $5K for information leading to the arrest of the girl’s murderer. He denounces the glorification of thug culture, the mass incarceration of African Americans, and invokes the spirits of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Fr. Corridan speaks of “our struggles,” something that when I did my research, discovered he could say with authenticity because Cusack’s character is based on the real life social activist Michael Pfleger* This man probably has done as much to improve life in the South Side as any ten politicians. The priest broke all the rules by insisting that he stay on at St. Sabrina beyond the normal 12-year limit—as of now almost 40 years. Continuing his fire-breathing sermon as he moves from the chancel and down the aisle, he reaches Irene’s pew and embraces the crying mother in a warm hug. I loved it later on when Chi-Raq shows up at the priest’s summons and gives him some money, Fr. Corridan says that it will go toward the reward money. Even without his sermon we know this priest is sensitive to his parishioners because of the large portrait of Christ posed between God’s two hands displayed on the front wall of the chancel. It is not the usual white Jesus, but a mural by an artist I have long admired, Fr. Fernando Arizti, the Jesuit priest/artist well known for his depictions of Christ as a black man. From several articles about Fr. Pfleger and St. Sabrina’s that I have read, the priest’s bringing art by African Americans into the church came only after hard struggle, even some African Americans who wanted to assimilate into white culture being opposed.
The film ends in a very dramatic way and upon a welcome theological note of grace. The latter comes when the person whose bullet killed little Patti tearfully acknowledges his guilt and faces both the mother, the women, and fellow gang members. Not all of the vulgarisms of the film and the occasional misstep by Mr. Lee can diminish the power of this confessional moment!
The filmmakers join with Thoreau in affirming the power of saying NO to wrong. Even if it is just one person, that moment of rejection is powerful and can grow. “No peace, No pussy!” may offend, but it is a clear declaration by the women of the battle. After watching and reflecting on this visual parable, I thought of one of my favorite films with a similar message, Amazing Grace and Chuck. It begins with “Once upon a time,” cluing us in on the filmmakers’ intention that it is like a fairy tale, a speculative, “suppose this were to happen, and then…” The wrong to be rejected is nuclear destruction, and the story is about a Little League star pitcher visiting a nuclear missile site and becoming so upset at the potential destruction that would destroy his beloved little sister, that he gives up baseball in protest, much to the dismay of his coach, his teammates, and his parents. The local story is unusual, and so is picked up and transmitted around the nation. A star Boston Celtics player is so intrigued that he stops off to visit the boy and is so impressed by the lad’s sincerity, that he refuses to play basketball until the nation renounces its policy. Soon a stadium full of other athletes are dropping out, and then…well the “then” involves the President of the United States (a very stately Gregory Peck) and the Soviet Premier. Such a delightful film to watch after Spike Lee’s rambunctious movie! But, I digress…
While admitting that at times the Chi-Raq’s makers overstep the bounds of good taste and decency, this satire is nevertheless one film you should not miss. As stated earlier, there are probably too many R-rated ingredients to show at a religious establishment, but surely you have some friends who can stand these vulgarism and appreciate the passion of the filmmakers protesting the horrendous violence wracking a great city.
The film is book-ended by the opening song which ends with the flashing phrase “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY,” and then the end card distills the film’s message into the command, “Wake up!” Unfortunately, most Americans preferred to sleep, put off by the message. The film fared poorly at the box office, reminding me of that old seminary joke, “There are no profits in the prophets.” But you will definitely profit from watching this. It is a good investment of your precious time!
*As I read a half dozen articles about this incredible priest, I thought that there ought to be a movie about his exciting life. Lo and behold, there is, a documentary, about an hour long, chronically his years of serving the people of his parish—the congregation at such a low ebb when he took over during the 80s that its membership had shrunk greatly. Through his dynamic preaching and activist service to the people of the neighborhood, the church has grown to about 2000 members—and he is still pastor, though the hierarchy regard him as a thorn in the side. It is entitled Radical Disciple: The Story of Father Pfleger, but unfortunately at the present only available for sale at $250 from Berkeley Media. It has been shown at various colleges, so you might check around for its availability. I have written the company to see if there are plans for wider distribution. If you check it out on IMDB, you will note that there is just one review posted—by none other than the dean of reviewers, Roger Ebert, reviewing it in 2009.
This review will be in the July issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.