‘Chi-Raq’​ Scratches At Black America’s Generation Gap In A Time Of Protest

CREDIT: Parrish Lewis, Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios

Spike Lee directing on the set of Chi-Raq

Chi-Raq is a very funny movie. Measured on a belly laughs-per-minute scale, this is one of Spike Lee’s most successful pieces of work. The laughter is critical given the gravity of the subject matter here, and Lee’s ability to balance the two without sacrificing either is impressive and captivating.

But gauged on its broader merits, and in the context of a nationwide struggle by black Americans against an abusive criminal justice system, the film is tough to swallow. It espouses a heavyhanded respectability politics that threatens to drown out its many bright spots: A gracefully bawdy treatment of sex, a rollicking achievement in adapting ancient Greek verse to modern Chicago swagger, and a bevy of strong individual performances.

Lee seems to want to talk sternly and directly to a younger generation of black people who share his political awareness but often dissent from his analysis of where change should begin. But it’s hard to start a conversation with a slap in the face. And even though the film is nowhere near the grating, one-dimensional picture that trailers made it appear, it will be hard for the folks Lee wants to reach to hear Chi-Raq as dialogue rather than lecture.

That shouldn’t be the case, Lee says, noting his own personal participation in rallies and protests of recent years.

“I’m in support of Black Lives Matter,” Lee told me before the film’s release. “At the same time, I’m not gonna be silent when a 9-year-old, Tyshawn Lee, gets executed after being lured into an alleyway. I don’t think I’m doing Black Lives Matter if I’m only gonna talk about the cops and George Zimmerman and not talk about what we’re doing to ourselves.”

Chi-Raq does explicitly tip its hat to the movement that’s finally drawn mass attention to how frequently black bodies get gunned down in circumstances that would probably have gone differently for a white person.

There is nothing frivolous about its treatment of the people who are left behind when a child gets caught in gang crossfire. Lee has noted repeatedly that the movie features people whose real lives have been marred by such violence, including actor Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) and a group of black parents who hold up large pictures of their fallen children in a scene at the movie’s climax.

But the core takeaway from the film is the idea that black people have to commit resources to addressing black-on-black crime before — or at least concurrent with — making demands for change on the part of outside oppressors. It’s a notion common among both members of the black community speaking to their peers from conviction and from white critics looking to derail protest movements. Lee tends to treat the idea as self-evident, so obvious that it doesn’t need to be argued. His movie exhorts people to wake up, assuming that once they do they’ll think as he does about how a movement for black people’s dignity should set its priorities.

It’s not that black activists must look inward instead of outward in analyzing the plight of American inner-city life, the director said. He wants people to do both at once. “How can you only talk about the cops and then when we’re killing our own selves you’re gonna be quiet? Mum’s the word?” said Lee. “Nah, that’s not doing us any good either. It’s not either-or, it’s hand-in-hand.”

If Chi-Raq reaches the size audience it deserves, it might just stimulate that kind of hand-in-hand conversation with activists who often explicitly reject the advice and criticism of previous generations of black protesters and thinkers. The movie is a new and splashy entrant in a long-running inter-generational conversation about black protesters’ choices. How it’s ultimately received in that ongoing dispute is an open question as the movie hits theaters. But it promises to be a messy road, in part because of how often the film seems to rehash the idea that the kids don’t understand.

Chi-Raq is an adaptation of a nearly 2,500-year-old play, Lysistrata, in which a group of Greek women tired of war agree to deny their husbands sex until they agree to make peace. It’s both a bawdy piece of entertainment and a hard-nosed political treatise about using lust to stanch cycles of revenge and violence.

Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott haven’t just reimagined Lysistrata in the context of Chicago gang violence. They also adopted the play’s rhyming lyric dialogue structure and imbued their movie with the kind of intentionally fantastical tone of the theater. From the first freeze-frame monologue to the last larger-than-life sequence where sex strikers occupy a military barracks, Chi-Raq is quite clear: While it demands you take its subject matter seriously, you’re entering an un-reality where literalism isn’t going to help you.

Teyonah Parris John Cusack Chi-Raq

CREDIT: Parrish Lewis, Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios

Lysistrata here is played by Teyonah Parris (Mad Men, Dear White People), who carries an all-star cast full of many better-known faces and names. It’s a star turn, and Parris is captivating — and not just by virtue of being the central female figure in a raucous flick centered on sex and desire, often costumed skimpily as a result.

“You have a movie where people go on a sex strike, so there has to be sex,” Parris said in an interview. “I just think [Lee] did it beautifully. Yes, this is what we’re using, but we’re using it tastefully. … It’s for your consumption, and at the same time it’s not.” Parris gives a much stronger performance than Nick Cannon does as her boyfriend, Chi-Raq, an angry gangbanger stereotype with a killer smile. But the movie succeeds or fails less on the strength of their chemistry than on an overall presentation that’s concerned more with whole communities of people than any one relationship.

In Aristophanes’ original, the idea for the sex strike comes from Lysistrata herself. But in Lee and Willmotts’ adaptation, it comes instead from an older, scholarly woman named Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) who is both angered by Lysistrata’s enthusiastic participation in the street life in their neighborhood and sympathetic to her as a human being.

Helen prefaces the sex strike idea with a line that epitomizes the themes that young black activists and their allies are most likely to find insulting in Chi-Raq. “The best way to hide something from black people is to put it in a book,” she tells Lysistrata, attributing the aphorism to Malcolm X. The line drew audible groans from attendees of color at the screening I attended.

It also appears to be misattributed. I could find no historical citation for Malcolm having coined it, and it seems more likely it was invented by Lewis H. Michaux, the owner of a radical Harlem bookstore which Malcolm frequented. Michaux’s New York Times obituary quotes the line as being his, and the line is attributed to him in a novelized quasi-biography written by his great-niece and a handful of less-authoritative works available online.

Regardless of its historical provenance, Lee’s deployment of the sentiment in this specific way carries an unmistakable message in the context of Chi-Raq’s story. Parris’ Lysistrata can act upon an idea that will ultimately bring her peace, but she can’t come up with it on her own. She has to have it handed to her by an erudite elder who doesn’t own a television and scorns the distractibility and simplemindedness of her community’s young people.

Basset’s character later joins the strike, bringing a cadre of older but no-less-lascivious women with her. That chorus of elder women gets a counterweight in the form of aging men from the local Knights of Euphrates chapter. The contrasting scenes of these two older groups talking with each other reveal the male elders to be comparatively damaged and dysfunctional, baffled not just by their pent-up lusts but by a rancid nostalgia for that old-time patriarchy. It’s an effective if unsubtle contrast, and serves as one of many tempering notes to the self-blame that’s central to Chi-Raq’s diagnosis of black struggle.

On top of the generational condescension implicit in Helen’s handling of Lysistrata, Lee sees to it that the only character in the film to contextualize inner-city crime within structural racism is white. Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) is based on the real-life Rev. Michael Pflegler, a white priest who’s dedicated decades to Chicago’s neglected pockets as the head of a black congregation there. Cusack’s speech decrying political cowardice, the NRA, and the silence of black witnesses fearful of reprisal from gang members just about succeeds despite its weight. But again, the black subjects of Lee’s discourse are presented receiving wisdom about their plight from someone else rather than generating it themselves.

“I’d rather follow [Father Pflegler] than a lot of these [black] preachers who preach the ‘prosperity gospel,’” Lee said. “The truth is the truth, doesn’t matter who’s saying it. I mean, Dr. Ben Carson is black, Clarence Thomas is black. That doesn’t mean what they’re saying is right.”

In Lee’s fantastical un-reality version of Chicago, direction about what to do comes from older and whiter community members. But the willpower to follow through comes primarily from the younger people who are directly caught up in the cycles of neglect, poverty, crime, and fear that the priest details. Youthful energy and organizing give life to the solutions Bassett’s and Cusack’s characters offer, and just about triumph in the end.

That dynamic plays an important role in the part of Chi-Raq that is a political treatise on how to make change in American society. It is a conciliatory offering to those most likely to regard Chi-Raq as an assault, amid the broader urgings to pull up your pants and fix racism from the inside out.

The movie commits screentime to celebrating life and humanity, too, , in addition to serving as an open letter to young black people living and dying in places like the South Side. Lee finds a stronger footing in those other elements of the story and film, thanks in large part to Parris and to costume designer Ruth E. Carter (Black Dynamite, Crooklyn).

The great strength of the Chi-Raq is its handling of sex. Adapting Lysistrata to inner-city Chicago means making a movie about black people’s sex lives. Early film history is littered with work that fetishizes black bodies and reduces African American sexual psychology to ugly stereotypes of boundless appetites and almost superhuman abilities. In the western cinema lens, black sex has often been an excuse to dehumanize, to render people as animals incapable of self-control.

Perhaps some viewers will bring exactly those stereotypes with them to the theater and walk away feeling reinforced. But that wouldn’t be Lee’s fault. Sex here is not just universal but universally dirty and raunchy. As the strike spreads, it jams up everyone from Lysistrata and Chi-Raq to the unreformed Confederate who runs a local army building to the white Chicago mayor who’s obsessed with interracial sex.

And while Lee gives audiences plenty of Parris’ body — and those of many other striking young people of color, mostly but not exclusively women — his camera also holds things back. The director has been superb at balancing eroticism and humanity on film for decades. The ice cube scene in Do The Right Thing is one example among many: It’s simultaneously titillating, romantic, and unwilling to fully indulge the audience’s voyeurism.

He brings the same careful control to Chi-Raq, showing plenty of skin and oodles of lusty pillow-talk before literally cutting the lights and denying your retinas a porny payoff near the film’s end. (You’ll have to settle for the aural version.) The movie gives you horny black people navigating desire and emotion honestly without ever reducing its characters to mandingo stereotypes. Lysistrata and her army are sacrificing their own enjoyment for a greater good, in a way that lets them express and indulge their own love of sex without defining them by it. As they do, Lee shows you a rainbow coalition of races and cultures around the world joining in the same bawdy protest in a dozen different languages.

Sam Jackson Chi-Raq

CREDIT: Parrish Lewis, Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios

Laughter is one of the best natural partners to sex, and Chi-Raq has laughs by the bucketload. The absurdly bouncy rhyming cadence of the script invites plenty of goofiness on its own, and Lee gets a platoon of especially funny cameos from Dave Chappelle, Isiah Whitlock Jr., D.B. Sweeney, Steve Harris, and others. But most of all, there’s Samuel L. Jackson’s narrator figure.

As Dolmedes, Jackson appears periodically to deliver straight-to-camera rhyming monologues, somehow making each one more over-the-top than the previous. A cynic might say Lee has cast Jackson in roughly the same role he now plays in credit card commercials: A carnival barker in a well-cut suit lending his expressive vocals to somebody else’s pitch. But again, this is a fantasy, a pageant version of Chicago tailored to deliver a mix of chuckles and polemic. In that context, Jackson’s basic schtick is the perfect glue.

Jackson should thank costumer designer Ruth Carter. She swaddles him in a succession of suits that are right on the line between “costume closet” and “fashion-forward Prom attendee.” In his first speech, Dolmedes is in purple and grey to match the gang colors that dominate the rap show Chi-Raq is playing for his Spartans. In a later one introducing the rival Trojans more fully, he’s switched to complementing shades of orange to suit the new set. After Lysistrata’s army captures an army base from its racist horndog of a superintendent, Jackson shows up in a palette pulled from U.S. military color schemes.

Lee’s team leans even heavier into the theatrics when the story affords them large groups of people to arrange and synchronize. No single choreographer is credited for the film, but the coordinated movements of the respective armies of women and men, and Trojans and Spartans, are perfectly suited to the movie’s fantasy world. Lysistrata’s occupying army switches costumes from gang colors to revealing fatigue-cut whites with shiny chastity belts over the top, and then performs a series of ensemble maneuvers that would fit right in at a step show. It’s over-the-top in much the same way as Jackson’s series of monologues, and just as entertaining.

Maybe all that sugar still isn’t enough to get the medicine down in the end. Not in the way Lee seems to want, at least. But it should be enough to whet appetites, even among those nauseated by the trailers and sick to death of black respectability politics. If so, Lee might just get to have his conversation after all — if there is anything left to say between people who would demand accountability from the powerful first and those who insist the oppression is also coming from inside the house.