One emotional peak of Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq comes during a South Side church service, performed in memory of a child accidentally murdered in a drive-by shooting. Gospel choirs and synchronized choreography give way to the impassioned words of Father Mike Corridan (played by John Cusack). Beginning his speech with a shouted “We don’t mourn like other people!” Corridan proceeds to indict gun violence writ large, police brutality, black market gun sales, voyeurism from suburban teens, income inequality, lack of educational opportunities, mass incarceration, and gang culture in one fell swoop.
The rhetoric is moving, hitting on many of the talking points of both the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-gun violence activists without contradicting either. But more important than that is the specificity of the church and its leader: while non-Chicagoans might be bemused or annoyed by the idea of a white preacher leading the rest of the community so powerfully, to someone familiar with the city it’s easy to see famed activist minister Father Michael Pfleger and his parish St. Sabina’s (which is invoked by name by Corridan in the film) echoed in the tone and content of Cusack’s acting. It’s a move that’s meant to indicate understanding of the South Side’s nuances, the parts left out of television reports and crime statistics, but also of drill and Chicago hip-hop. But the movie’s inclusion of a Pfleger-like character carries the real-life Pfleger’s baggage: It’s not hard to take the stance of rapper Vic Mensa, who tweeted earlier this week that “the white savior concept solicited through the father Pfleger character is hurtful to our power as dark-skinned people.”
But because of that complication, it’s one of the most successful moments of the film, and also one of the most jarring, as the vast majority of Chi-Raq is concerned less with accuracy or policy investigation and more with its straightforward retelling of Lysistrata, the ancient Greek comedy by Aristophanes. In the original play, women of Athens go on a sex strike in order to end the Peloponnesian War. With the South Side of Chicago as the setting, the two opposing gangs, the “Trojans” and the “Spartans,” fill in for the warring sides in Lysistrata. To further strengthen the parallel, the protagonist of the film, the instigator of the sex strike, is also named Lysistrata. Far from gritty realism or documentarian rigor, Lee is aiming at modern mythmaking, more Star Wars than City of God. Characters almost exclusively speak in rhyme, and Lee’s direction gives their words poetic gravitas, but also keeps them out of the realm of reality. Sometimes, as in a scene where the mother of a murder victim confronts the potential murderer, possibilities for catharsis approach, but are held back by the confines of the form. In this scene, not long after the murderer repents and confesses to the mother, he begins to preach peacefulness to those around him. However, throughout the heartfelt speech he preserves the rhyme scheme, blunting the effects of the words and depriving the message of the visceral force it needs.
Many who praise the film, often from New York or further (positive reviews within Chicago are less common) describe this as a way of creating ironic distance or as a way to focus the film’s message on the power of love and sexuality over violence. “Actually, it’s not a movie about gun violence—it’s a movie about masculinity!” they say, not completely without cause. Indeed, many of the questions about gun violence, and Chicago gun violence specifically, fade as the film enters its third act, shifting to grander questions about the rights of women and men everywhere, and baser (but still important) questions about just how much sex and love dictate our behavior as a society. In one late scene, as the sex strike sweeps across the world, members of both gangs reveal previously unseen sensitivity, questioning the validity of their lifestyle while also hoping for their lovers and partners to come home to them. If one could take that sensitivity and subversion of traditional masculinity away from the confusing realm of the film itself, it would stand tall as a unique moment of progressive maleness in 2015. It’s just near impossible to take the message as meaningful (or, for that matter, realistic) when it’s juxtaposed with the reality of Chicago.
Locals, of course, notice this problem immediately. One of the movie’s most outspoken critics, Chance the Rapper, focused on the exaggerated tone of the movie and the encoding of the Lysistratan tale as his main problems with the film, calling it “goofy,” “exploitive [sic],” and “problematic” on Twitter. He also said that “the idea that women abstaining from sex would stop murders is offensive and a slap in the face to any women that lost a child here.” When asked about these comments, Spike Lee had the chance to engage with the criticism head-on, perhaps by reminding viewers about the real-life sex strike success story in Liberia mentioned in the film (although this, not unlike Chicago, was much more complicated than Lee suggests). But instead, he decided to respond with an entirely different issue: Chance’s family relationship with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who receives the brunt of derision of authority in Chi-Raq. “Show me where he’s made criticisms about the mayor. I think your finds will be surprising. He’s not criticized the mayor. Why? His father works for the mayor.” For Lee, Chance’s critique of his film is indistinct from the notices he received from Chicago officials, warning him that the title “Chi-Raq” might detract from tourism in the area.
That attitude only serves to expose Lee’s overstep into broad-brush narrativizing, one that bleeds into the film and prevents it from being the message of hope and reason it so desperately wants to be. By singling out Chance as the primary critic of his film, and ignoring his associates and colleagues (like Mensa, who’s been similarly critical without avoiding the mayor), Lee aims to preserve his status as savior of Chicago and thus prevents himself from diving deeper. Similarly, as the film chugs along, carrying the effects of the sex strike across the world and even into the mayor’s office and the White House, any awareness of the complicated history, attitudes, and aspirations of the South Side fades. Lysistrata and her sisters continue to rattle off statistics and injustices at the establishment figures who attempt to dismantle the sex strike, the gangs grapple with their impotence, and everything else goes as expected. There’s no surprise, no real drama, and most of all, no complications. The final outcome of the movie wraps everything up nicely, with clear “good” and “bad” guys but mostly just peace all around, the sex strike having achieved its goal. Every Fortune 500 company ends up guaranteeing employment to disadvantaged young adults: could you ask for a better ending of a modern myth?
But with the title and the subject matter that it has chosen, to spend most of the movie reducing Chicago’s landscape and culture to “No Peace, No Pussy” is to ignore the multitude within. The problem with this type of movie is it’s impossible for it to carry the intensity it does without losing nuance. There’s no way to “rehabilitate” Chi-Raq without making a different and infinitely less sensational film. Chicago, especially the South Side, is home to not just gang members, grieving mothers, and shocked onlookers of drive-by shootings, but also shopkeepers, artists, businessmen and women, and musicians. By painting over all of them and reinforcing the narrative of the South Side as the “land of pain, misery, and strife,” at the expense of seemingly any other interpretation, any knottiness in the way that the world is, Lee seems to imply that stopping violence in Chicago is a fantasy, unattainable by rational means, only through parables and legend. It looks easy, sexual, and even indulgent on screen, all to perversely escape the difficulty of the task off-screen. Chance is complicated, Father Pfleger is complicated, gun violence is complicated, Chicago is complicated. But Chi-Raq is almost never complicated, and suffers for it.