USA 2015, 127 mins
Director: Spike Lee

In more than three decades as a filmmaker, Spike Lee has tackled topics as far-ranging as college fraternities, jazz music, the Son of Sam murder spree and influential Black nationalist Malcolm X, but his latest film, Chi-Raq, enters uncharted territory even for the prolific writer and director. From its incendiary title – a street-slang sobriquet that combines ‘Chicago’ and ‘Iraq’ in a grimly satirical reminder of the rampant violence currently plaguing the city – to its classical roots, Chi-Raq is sure to spark a firestorm of commentary with its depiction of life in a community that has become a combat zone.

‘I first heard the term “Chi-Raq” about two years ago,’ recalls Lee. ‘After the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and so many other people of colour, I started to post portraits of African-Americans slain by civilians or law enforcement on Instagram. I got so many responses from people in Chicago saying, you need to look what’s happening here.’

Lee learned that Chicago was undergoing a wave of violence that surpassed any other city in the U.S., with blood-soaked statistics that rival those of a war-torn country. In the first 10 months of 2015, more than 2,500 people had been shot in Chicago. The same period saw 430 homicides. The city had become the poster child for urban violence.

‘How is it possible that New York City has three times the population of Chicago, yet Chicago has more homicides than New York City?’ asks Lee. ‘How is it possible that Los Angeles has maybe one and a half times the population of Chicago and Chicago has more homicides than L.A.? It doesn’t bring me joy to say that. But a greater crime would be to duck my head in the sand and not acknowledge what’s going on.’

Never one to pull punches, Lee grapples with violence in America head-on in Chi-Raq, with a special focus on the sensitive subject of Black-on-Black crime. ‘It is like a war out there,’ he says. ‘It’s not just Chicago or New York – Baltimore, Maryland, is known as “Body More, Murderland” – but it’s on another level in Chicago because of the gangs. And it’s not just an urban issue. Right now, all across America, there are mass shootings. People are being gunned down left and right. This film is not only a declaration against the violence in Chicago, but the violence all across America.’

In a bold move, Lee and his co-writer Kevin Willmott have taken the inspiration for Chi-Raq from a play written almost 2,500 years ago, transferring the action of Aristophanes’ satirical masterpiece Lysistrata from ancient Greece to the South Side of Chicago. As in the original play, an audacious woman ends a war by organising a sex strike that forces the powerful men around her to put down their weapons.

‘It was Kevin who came up with the idea of taking the play and making a contemporary version of it,’ says Lee. ‘We just went back to the original source and took the conceit of women on a sex strike and placed it on the South Side of Chicago.’

Willmott, a writer and director as well as a professor of film studies at the University of Kansas, impressed Lee with his critically acclaimed 2004 mockumentary CSA: The Confederate States of America, a satirical history of the United States – written as if the South had won the Civil War.

Willmott had read Lysistrata in college and even appeared in a production of it. ‘Aristophanes, the great Greek playwright, wrote the play in 411 BC,’ he says. ‘In it, a group of women who are tired of their men going to war all the time decide to bring them to their senses in the only way they know how. We held on to the structure of the play and incorporated the realities that Chicago and other cities are facing today. It speaks not just to war, but to violence in general.’

Lysistrata’s initially disapproving neighbour and eventual mentor, Miss Helen, is played by Oscar-nominee Angela Bassett. The role reunites the actress with Lee for the first time since she played Dr Betty Shabazz in his 1992 film, Malcolm X. ‘I love Spike’s enthusiasm,’ Bassett says. ‘It’s in his voice, on his face, in his body. His style is very straight and to the point. He gives you a lot of room to create, but he’s very specific about his vision.’

Bassett was drawn to both the subject matter and the technical challenges of the script. ‘This is such an important topic,’ she says. ‘It seems like nobody wants to talk about Black-on-Black crime. How has it been swept under the carpet? Growing up in a certain generation, we learned not to let our slips show. This movie will shine a light on a problem we can’t hide anymore. If we think nothing of killing each other, then we’ve lost our humanity, our trust in God and in each other.’

Miss Helen runs the House of Common Sense and Home of Proper Propaganda, a local bookstore and gathering place for the women of the community. The character reminds Bassett of many of the women who surrounded and supported her as child in the projects of St Petersburg, Florida. ‘I was raised by a single mom,’ Bassett recalls. ‘All around us there were teachers, choir leaders, principals and vice principals who really took ownership of our present and our future. They were invested. That’s who Miss Helen is. She’s invested in this community. She and the elders are on hand to guide Lysistrata and the younger women through this time.’
Production notes

Directed by: Spike Lee
©: Da Chi-Lite Joint Inc.
Production Company: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks
This production participated in: New York State Governor’s Office for Motion Picture & Television Development’s Post Production Credit Program
Presented by: Amazon Studios
Executive Producers: Jon Kilik, Kevin Willmott
Produced by: Spike Lee
Line Producer: Jason Sokoloff
Unit Production Manager: Jason Sokoloff
Locations Manager: Monoleto Wilborn
Post-production Supervisor: Jonathan Ferrantelli
1st Assistant Director: Randy Fletcher
Script Supervisor: Mary Tallman
Casting: Kim Coleman
Written by: Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
Director of Photography: Matthew Libatique
Visual Effects by: Big Film Design
Editors: Ryan Denmark, Hye Mee Na
Production Design: Alex DiGerlando
Art Direction: David Meyer
Set Designer: Jessie Haddad
Costume Design: Ruth E. Carter
Department Head Make-up: Suzi Ostos
Department Head Hair: Cheryl Pickenpack
Titles by: Big Film Design
Title Designer: Randy Balsmeyer
Music Score: Terence Blanchard
Keyboardist: Michael Drayton
Trumpet: Brian Schwab
Saxophone: John Goldman
Violin: Zara Zahareiva
Bass: Joshua Ramos
Vibraphone: Justin Thomas
Trombone: Kendall Moore
Drums: William ‘Plu’ Harmon
Percussion: Walter O’Neil
Organist: Pierre Walker
Guitar: Augustin Alvarez
Choreography: Maija Garcia
Head of Movement: Maija Garcia
Sound Design: Phil Stockton
Production Sound Mixer: David Obermeyer
Re-recording Mixer: Paul Hsu
Supervising Sound Editor: Philip Stockton
Stunt Co-ordinator: Jeff Ward

Nick Cannon (Demetrius Dupree, ‘Chi-Raq’)
Wesley Snipes (Cyclops)
Teyonah Parris (Lysistrata)
Jennifer Hudson (Irene)
Steve Harris (Old Duke)
Harry Lennix (Commissioner Blades)
D.B. Sweeney (Mayor McCloud)
Angela Bassett (Miss Helen)
John Cusack (Father Mike Corridan)
Samuel L. Jackson (Dolmedes)
Anya Engel-Adams (Rasheeda)
Michelle Mitchenor (Indigo)
Ebony Joy (Marcy)
Felicia ‘Snoop’ Pearson (Dania)
La La Anthony (Hecuba)
Val Warner (Electra Johnson)
David Patrick Kelly (Major King Kong)
Sarunas Jackson (Big Mike)
Corey Hendrix (Jah)
William Binion Gines (Armonty)
Prince Eazy (Cairo)
Lorraine Ward (Kandy)
MJ Carey (Sergeant Toney)
Samuel G. Robertson Jr (Private Alto)
Tony Fitzpatrick (Chief Riptide)

USA 2015©
127 mins

Wed 1 May 18:10 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator); Fri 3 May 21:00; Tue 14 May 12:30; Sun 26 May 13:00
Henry V
Thu 2 May 14:40; Thu 9 May 20:15; Thu 30 May 14:30
The Magic Flute Trollflöjten
Fri 3 May 12:00; Fri 24 May 20:25; Tue 28 May 14:30
Pandora’s Box Die Büchse der Pandora
Sat 4 May 15:10; Fri 17 May 18:00; Sat 25 May 13:10; Fri 31 May 14:30
West Side Story
Sun 5 May 19:30; Thu 16 May 14:30
Mon 6 May 20:20; Sat 11 May 14:45; Tue 21 May 14:30
A Streetcar Named Desire
Tue 7 May 12:10; Sat 18 May 20:30; Fri 24 May 14:50; Sun 26 May 17:40
Wed 8 May 18:10 (+ intro); Sun 12 May 20:40; Mon 27 May 12:30
His Girl Friday
Fri 10 May 18:10; Sun 19 May 20:30; Thu 23 May 18:30; Wed 29 May 18:00 (+ intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large)
Beautiful Thing
Mon 13 May 20:40; Wed 22 May 18:20 (+ intro by Simon McCallum, BFI National Archive Curator); Thu 30 May 12:10
Bluebeard’s Castle Herzog Blaubarts Burg
Wed 15 May 18:10 (+ intro by Alex Prideaux, Marketing and Events Manager – Our Screen Heritage); Fri 31 May 18:10
Mon 20 May 18:05; Thu 30 May 20:30

Never miss an issue with Sight and Sound, the BFI’s internationally renowned film magazine. Subscribe from just £25*
*Price based on a 6-month print subscription (UK only). More info:

Welcome to the home of great film and TV, with three cinemas and a studio, a world-class library, regular exhibitions and a pioneering Mediatheque with 1000s of free titles for you to explore. Browse special-edition merchandise in the BFI Shop.We're also pleased to offer you a unique new space, the BFI Riverfront – with unrivalled riverside views of Waterloo Bridge and beyond, a delicious seasonal menu, plus a stylish balcony bar for cocktails or special events. Come and enjoy a pre-cinema dinner or a drink on the balcony as the sun goes down.

Enjoy a great package of film benefits including priority booking at BFI Southbank and BFI Festivals. Join today at

We are always open online on BFI Player where you can watch the best new, cult & classic cinema on demand. Showcasing hand-picked landmark British and independent titles, films are available to watch in three distinct ways: Subscription, Rentals & Free to view.

See something different today on

Join the BFI mailing list for regular programme updates. Not yet registered? Create a new account at

Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Contact the Programme Notes team by email