When I learned that Chi-Raq, directed by Spike Lee, was playing at Images last Saturday, I was overjoyed. Not only had I been assigned to see the movie for my Winter Study class and had yet to do so, but as a fervent supporter of gun control legislation, I was eager to watch a film that I had heard was intended to provide powerful testimony against gun violence.
The film is based on Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, which takes place in 411 B.C.E. In the play, an Athenian woman named Lysistrata convinces her fellow Grecian women to withhold sex from their partners to force them to make peace and end the Peloponnesian War. The plot of Chi-Raq mirrors that of the play: After the shooting of a young girl, a Chicagoan woman, also named Lysistrata and played by Teyonah Parris, convinces other women in the area to withhold sex from their partners to force them to make peace and end the cycle of gun violence. The film’s title comes from the jargon of local rappers, who compare the city of Chicago, rife with violence and fighting, to war-ridden Iraq.
The film opens with an image of a map of the United States, colored in red, white and blue and overlaid with guns. Then, on a black screen, the lyrics to “Pray 4 My City,” by Nick Cannon, who plays one of the Chicago gang-leaders named Chi-Raq, flash in bright red letters across the screen. The ensuing three minutes are uncomfortable to sit through, in the most thought-provoking way possible: The song addresses gun violence in Chicago, with jarring lines such as, “People dyin’, everyday / Mamas cryin’, everyday.”
After the song, statistics flash across the screen, detailing the number of American deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, coupled with an image of those countries’ respective flags. Then, the number of murders in Chicago flashes across the screen, emphasizing that the number of deaths due to gun violence in this single city surpasses the number of American deaths in both wars combined.
The first six minutes of Chi-Raq set the stage for a serious, sobering examination of the plague of gun violence in Chicago, as well as in the United States as a whole. Unfortunately, the film does not fulfill its potential to critique said gun epidemic. Lee intended for the film to be satirical, employing humor to underscore the grave issue of gun violence. However, Chi-Raq does not achieve its desired effect; rather, it appears to make light of the serious issue of gun violence.
Although it’s clear that Lee’s hyper-sexualization of the female characters is intentional and meant to contribute to the film’s overarching satire, the plot ultimately seems to revolve almost exclusively around sex. If I hadn’t seen the opening few minutes, I would have thought the film was about women’s efforts to manipulate their partners to make them yearn for sex so much that they relent and give in to the women’s demands. The script of the movie itself also undermines its capacity to have a powerful effect. Every few lines in Chi-Raq contain end-syllable rhymes, just like the original, Lysistrata. While the intent was likely to mimic the Greek play, the effect is to render the characters’ rhyming lines meaningless, almost silly.
Numerous unnecessary plot deviations likewise detract from the movie’s overall critique of gun violence. For example, in one of the final scenes, Lysistrata and Chi-Raq have a final showdown to determine which group will win – whether the men will surrender their guns or the women will return to their partners. The confrontation takes place in an arena on a giant brass bed; whoever seduces the other first will win. With scenes such as these, it becomes nearly impossible to view the film as a serious criticism of gun violence.
That isn’t to say that Chi-Raq is entirely devoid of poignancy. There are some truly moving scenes in the film, such as the funeral for the little girl who is shot, an interaction between an insurance peddler and Lysistrata’s older friend Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) and the scene in which the little girl’s mother (Jennifer Hudson) discovers the identity of her daughter’s murderer.
But in the end, even scenes like these cannot save the film. Instead, they are overshadowed by the are by the satirical nature of Chi-Raq as a whole, rendering what could be a powerful statement against gun violence nearly meaningless.