In building a movie about contemporary Chicago on ancient Greek foundations, Lee also builds on the mighty founding principles of political and philosophical thought. Far from mocking the subject or approaching it lightly, Lee takes on gun violence with a scathing seriousness that spares nobody—not the characters in the film and not its viewers.
Just as Scorsese did, Lee turns his fierce gaze back at the members of the audience. Together, the song and the sermon, heard when no image is seen, are a gauntlet that Lee throws down to himself: What can popular art be in a time of crisis?
How can a work of mass entertainment live up to the moral challenge that the priest poses? How can art depict and respond to the crisis, reflect the monstrous societal forces that render many black lives unlivable or simply unlived, and yet be—as art—free, personal, intimate, and beautiful?
Amazingly, Lee creates such a work of art, not by tamping down his style, suppressing his personal impulses, or subordinating his intuitions to principles, but by heightening and extending his style. He renders it inseparable from the ideas that he offers and the ideals he exalts—and fuses those analyses with a fierce, tender, overwhelming emotional power.
With the burden of incommensurable pain that suffuses the movie from start to finish—a burden that the movie helps to bear with its own flamboyant fury—Lee has created a raucously joyful yet howlingly haunted jazz requiem for a ravaged city and a ravaged generation.
The title of the movie is also the nickname of one of its main characters, played by Cannon. In its first dramatic scene, Chi-Raq is performing onstage at a night club—rapping with bravado about his own gunmanship and readiness to shoot down his rivals—when a gunman from the rival gang, the Trojans whose color is orange , tries to shoot him but strikes another member of the group.
He puts them aside with some sexual references to another weapon that he intends to use but his house is targeted once again by the Trojans. Some skeptical critics have doubted that a sex strike would, in fact, be effective in forcing violent men to surrender their firearms—as if Lee were issuing a handbook rather than making a movie. It takes more—much more—both at a personal and a society-wide level, for them to do so.
At a personal level, it takes pain—the experience of pain, the confrontation with pain, the contemplation of pain, the testimony of pain—and Lee dramatizes pain as a matter of overwhelming public spectacle and intimate anguish. The public side emerges in the story of a seven-year-old girl named Patti who is gunned down in the street; her mother Jennifer Hudson expresses unspeakable grief with heartrending precision exactly the grief that, with time, Miss Helen has given form and structure with thought and study.
That sermon is a brilliant set piece in which the priest played by Cusack like a man possessed by the holy spirit reproduces Pentecostal cadences in a fierce, incisive tirade that sets out the historical and political back story to the violence. They do so with a vast range of emotions, from frantic comedy to righteous fury, that is constantly underpinned, as if by the deep pedal point of an organ, with a weary and bottomless mourning perched on the edge of tears. Where Scorsese, an unflinching realist, sees an unbreakable cycle of ambition and avarice, Lee takes a daring leap into political fantasy to offer a vast, quasi-utopian vision of a United States in which the cycle of violence is broken.
The flamboyant fury of the women led by Lysistrata, chanting and dancing and gyrating with a joyful exuberance, is energized by grief and righteousness. Samuel L. Jackson plays this role with sardonic oratorical majesty. Here, too, Lee offers a brilliant twist—solely by means of great casting.
Cyclops, a one-eyed man with an orange sequined eye patch and a heavy gait, has done prison time and is still getting used to life on the outside. What is often called, with offensive political intent, black-on-black violence is usually a call for mere repression—send the police into black communities, arrest and incarcerate, and then expect the residents to thank them.
The subject of the film is the creation of circumstances under which private citizens who use guns against each other can be persuaded to give them up—and to renounce the criminal life from which guns and violence are inseparable.