Lysistrata: “[The] salvation of all Greece lies in the women’s hands.”
Calonice: “In the women’s hands? A precarious place to be!” — Aristophanes
Where Spike Lee goes, controversy inevitably follows. The latest imbroglio for the 58-year-old filmmaker was over the making of Chi-Raq, a film about gun violence, in Chicago. Windy City mayor Rahm Emanuel objected to the title, which uses a street nickname — pronounced “Shy-rak” — that likens the gun-plagued city to war-torn Iraq. Emanuel gave Lee the go-ahead anyway, over objections of Chicago alderman Will Burns, who said the title would hurt Chicago’s brand, labeling as violent “whole parts of the city,” where people “already walk around with a chip on their shoulders.” Media outlets piled on Lee, a resident of Brooklyn, for focusing on the violence in Chicago. And the Huffington Post wrote a damning screed against Chi-Raq based solely on the pre-release trailer!
Well, Lee didn’t name the city “Chiraq” — that moniker was earned by bloody statistics. Forty-five people shot during Easter weekend in 2015, six of them children. Five kids under 15 shot in a playground where they had gone following Easter services. The weekend before that, 37 people were shot, four of them dead. Over the July 4 weekend, 82 people shot, 14 of them dead. All of these lost souls –— daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, fathers — victims of gang warfare. Occasionally the violence has received national focus, as when Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old honor student who sang at President Obama’s second inauguration, killed just a week later by a stray bullet, less than a mile from the president’s Chicago home. “Until we do something about guns,” said Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, “don’t expect things to change overnight.”
That is the setting for Chi-Raq, Lee’s 58th “joint,” a stylized modern adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the famous satire from 411 BCE about one woman’s mission to end the nearly three-decade Peloppenesian War by engaging her fellow women in withholding sexual favors from their husbands until they agree to a truce. Gorgeous Teyonah Parris is the film’s Lysistrata, the girlfriend of notorious gangster Chiraq (Nick Cannon). The couple’s relationship is a very sexy one (“Ready for daddy to smash that cake? You’re finer than granulated sugar.”).
The movie, co-written by Lee and Kevin Willmott, is electric, crackling with energy, music, swagger and sex – and language, much of it, impressively, in verse. Not for everyone is the ribald language — “No peace, no pussy”; “total abstinence from knockin’ the boots”; couplets rhyming “conjugal couch/nappy pouch” “Do your duty/Give up that booty” — but, combined with the passionate condemnation of gun violence and its roots in corrupt politics — the film is a balls-out masterpiece. It’s the first film produced by Amazon Studios, which greenlighted the project after other studios passed.
This very theatrical piece is entertainingly narrated by the stylish Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson), wearing an orange three-piece suit and carrying a gold lion-topped cane.
An ongoing gang war between Troy Town and the Spartans and one night shooting breaks out at a hip-hop club. Later that night, Chiraq and Lysistrata’s apartment is set afire. Scared and weary of the violence, Lysistrata seeks refuge with wise, older Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), who long ago lived in the notorious Cabrini-Green apartments and is no stranger to gun violence. Seated on Miss Helen’s couch, Lysistrata asks, “Where’s your flat screen?” but soon is persuaded to research Leyman Gbowee, a Liberian activist who promoted the idea of a sex strike for peace. Lysistrata determines to enlist her friends, and all the women in Englewood and eventually all over the U.S and abroad, to join the movement. To the chagrin of the men at the barber shop, even the strippers have joined the movement.
The film weaves the story of the women’s abstinence movement, by turns serious and absurd, with the story of the killing of a little girl, Patti, by a stray bullet. Her mother, Irene, is played with genuine anguish by Jennifer Hudson, whose mother, brother and 7-year-old nephew were murdered in Chicago in 2008. Few scenes in film, or in life, are sadder than the sight of a little girl’s beribboned hair peeking out of a body bag, a bereaved mother scrubbing her daughter’s blood from a sidewalk, or weeping at the funeral of her baby girl.
Lee does a couple of interesting things in Chi-Raq. Patti’s funeral is in a Catholic church (adorned by a black Jesus), and the fiery eulogy is delivered by a white priest, Father Mike Corridan, played by Chicago resident John Cusack, an actor known for his political activism. There’s genuine pasion in his screed from the pulpit, decrying lax gun laws, the “urban murder reality gun show” that has children “admiring the thug life.” His sermon drills deeper. “Because our politicians are in the pocket of the NRA! Because of an economy that has abandoned the poor!” Poor people, he declaims, go “from third-rate schools to first-class high-tech prisons.”
The church, St. Sabana’s, offers a $5,000 reward for information about little Patti’s killer, and no one will come forward. Father Corridan and Irene desperately pass out flyers on the streets and are met with indifference.
Lysistrata and 74 other “unarmed women of color” invade and occupy the city’s National Guard Armory, following a wildly ridiculous mock seduction that finds General King Kong (David Patrick Kelly) riding an antique cannon and stripping down to his Confederate flag undies. Mayor McLoud (D.B. Cooper) is upset, not least because his former stripper wife is also denying him sex, and the police decide to “Noriega” the Armory, playing on huge loudspeakers “slow jams from the ’70s” – namely, the Chi-Lites’ “Oh Girl” — in order to get the women back with their men. They call it “Operation Hot and Bothered.”
The film that would work quite well as a stage piece, with a series of choreographed set pieces like the slow, sensual group dance in the Armory gym, the divided chorus of men’s and women’s picket lines, climaxing, as it were, in a sexual pas de deux between Lysistrata and Chi-Raq, complete with a brass bed.
Real life overlaps fiction and myth. There’s a very moving mass march across a bridge — “Chicago peace is our Selma” — that includes actual victims’ family members carrying photographs of their murdered loved ones.
As in Lysistrata in ancient Greece, there is eventual reconciliation. There are painful revelations and some justice for little Patti. Following the tragedy and farce, some hope in new programs for education, health and employment.
Lee’s farcical impulses sometimes grate, and the script’s leering banter feels a little uncomfortable alongside the film’s serious message. But this is an important film, a strong and deeply felt polemic that could not be more urgent. Grade: A