People who complain that today’s movies are all the same haven’t seen Chi-Raq. I definitely recommend checking it out, as long as you know what you’re taking on.
Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata was originally performed in Athens in 411 BC. The name means “Army Disbander”, and that’s exactly what the title character does. She devises a plan by which the women of Greece can bring an end to the Peloponnesian War. It’s simple -they will not have sex with the men until peace is declared.
Chi-Raq is Lysistrata as done by Spike Lee. Think bold musical satire, better on concept than structure, and with serious points to make about gun violence. The film gets preachy at times, but that doesn’t mean its message is invalid.
Lee’s version takes place in present-day Chicago. Chi-Raq (pronounced “Shy-RAK) gets its name from an endonym used by South Siders that equates the city to a war zone.
The film’s opening sequence reminds us that more Americans have been killed in Chicago over the last fifteen years than in Iraq and Afghanistan together. Nick Cannon performs an electric “Pray 4 My City”. There’s even a screen flashing “This Is An Emergency” with red letters in all caps.
Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) loves emerging rapper (and Spartan gang leader) Demetrius “Chi-Raq” Dupree (Nick Cannon). The Spartans are engaged in a blood feud with their rivals, the Trojans, led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes, wearing an eye patch).
When a child, Patti, is killed in the crossfire during a Spartans/ Trojans shootout, Lysistrata feels compelled to take action. She organizes the women in a “sex strike” which will continue until the men stop fighting. Their slogan is “No Peace, No Piece” (although the film uses a slightly less printable version of that last word).
To raise awareness of their cause, Lysistrata and her troops take over an armory. News of their action spreads, and women around the world rush to join them. But how long can the standoff last?
The dialogue is in verse throughout, which works better with some of the actors than others. Cannon has no problem, ditto Parris and Samuel L. Jackson (who’s on hand as Dolmedes, a sort of play-by-play narrator).
Jennifer Hudson (as Patti’s mother) and Angela Bassett (as Lysistrata’s mentor Miss Helen) add strength and grace to roles that I found too brief. Would have liked more screen time with both of these characters.
John Cusack does his best as a priest working in a largely black area, but rapid-fire vocals aren’t his strong suit. The words of his funeral speech for Patti are moving, but Cusack’s delivery strips the eulogy of much of its power. (Cusack’s role is based on the real-life Father Michael Pfleger.)
Terence Blanchard’s score is compelling, for the most part. One huge, and hugely funny, exception is the use of the song “Oh, Girl” by the Chi-Lites. The men pipe it into the armory as an attempt to soften up the women. Luckily, Lysistrata finds a large supply of earplugs.
I don’t mind that Lee elects to vary from the Aristophanes play, although I had trouble understanding some of his choices. For example, there’s an unfunny, unlikely sequence where Lysistrata’s friend Rasheeda (Anya Engel-Adams) admits a group of men to the armory. (Somehow, they’ve obtained the keys to the women’s chastity belts.). All comes to naught, because Lysistrata and the other women stand tough before the marauders.
The entire sequence seemed like filler to me. Yet, Lee completely omits one of the play’s funniest scenes, which takes place roughly at the same point in the action. The women, frustrated by confinement, begin offering all sorts of flimsy excuses to be allowed to leave. One of them claims she is going into labor; a frustrated Lysistrata points out that she wasn’t even pregnant the day before.
Of course, the scene I’ve just described doesn’t have any bearing on the themes Lee has established for his telling of this story (black-on-black violence, the American gun fascination, gang warfare and the U.S. government’s complicity in it all). It’s a shame, because I think the scene from Lysistrata would add an additional dimension to the film. I have to admit, though, that Lee’s agenda is pretty ambitious as is.
Spike Lee has a way of engaging and distancing you at the same time. Very few film makers produce works that challenge viewers and do so to effect changes for the better. I think Lee may be one of them.
Theme: Based On Aristophanes
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