There has been quite the uproar about this film and its name, “Chi-Raq,” and I have to start by telling the good public that there is no reason to be at arms about this. None. Zero. Chi-Raq is merely an adaptation of Lysistrata, where Spike Lee chose the backdrop of said adaptation to be Chicago. So as it says in the headline, “You won’t know Chi-Raq if you don’t know Lysistrata.” Because I didn’t see anyone boycotting or writing hate mail about Macbeth, Othello, or pretty little Leo (DiCaprio) prancing around in a Shakespearean adaptation…
What or Who is Lysistrata?
Lysistrata is a Greek comedy written by Aristophanes (the word itself in Greek means “Army Disbander”). Originally performed in classical Athens in 411 BCE, it is a comic account of one woman’s mission to end the Peloponnesian War. Lysistrata persuades the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their men as a means of forcing them to negotiate peace; yet that conflict sparked an epic battle of the sexes. Who’s at war you say? That would be Trojans and Spartans.
I believe the biggest issue with the film was two-fold: People didn’t like the name (Chicago + Iraq = Chi-Raq) and for some reason people thought this was a documentary. Well this is not a documentary, but it is one of the best adaptations I’ve ever seen. I’m not afraid to call it genius either.
So now that you know the framework of what the film is based-on, I’ll explain how it is so creatively overlaid on Chicago. In Chi-Raq, Trojans and Spartans are rival ‘gangs’ in different areas of Chicago. As opposed to war in Greece there was ‘war in these streets’ set by the heads of these gangs, Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) and Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is dating Chi-Raq and is the one who eventually rallies the women of Greece (Chicago) to take an oath of celibacy: “No peace! NO PIECE!” At one point in the story the women of Greece seize the Acropolis. So in Chicago this band of revolutionaries seize an armory and hold it hostage. I haven’t seen a film transpose the events of a Greek play so well since I thoroughly enjoyed the Cohen Brother’s “O’ Brother Where Art Thou?” (a marvelous adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey).
The casting for this film was excellent. The main protagonist is played by Teyonah Parris, who I immediately recognized from Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse and she absolutely nailed her role as Lysistrata. She was a strong character who would eventually go from “boo-thang” to Chi-Raq to conquering visionary. She had a plan, and her plan made an impact locally amongst the community, locally within black culture, and spawned a global movement of women empowerment (which was a beautiful thing to see).
The narration responsibilities were set for none other than Samuel L. Jackson, who played Dolmedes. The credits read Dolmedes but your audio/visual senses may detect Dolemite. His wordplay and decorative suits were a great match for his character and the setting. Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) is responsible for talking some sense into Lysistrata. As a familiar face in the Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, a dominant presence with her height, kindness, and beauty, and the closest person to Chi-Raq, Lysistrata was the perfect person to direct change in the city. You’ll see many recognizable faces but in order to get a truly beautiful appreciation of this film, you need to know Lysistrata. Then a light bulb will go off when characters make brief appearances named Dr. Aesop, Olympia, Tereus, Apollo, Oedipus, and Myrrhine.
One of the greatest things about this film is even though it’s an adaptation of a 2,000-year-old Greek comedy, the lines are chock-filled with useful information, sound insight, and will force your societal awareness. You’ll hear everything from Black Lives Matter and Trayvon Martin to hard-to-swallow facts. Like the Preacher’s (John Cusack) eulogy when he said “We go from third-rate schools to first-rate, top grade prisons!” Or when they showed different shots of downtown you could see a sign that read “Illinois Caskets 50% discount.” There was even a song that mentioned the amount of outrage shown for Cecil The Lion compared to shooting deaths of young people of color. I mean these are things you absolutely have to think about, they cannot be ignored. Lysistrata goes off on a ton of different subjects plaguing the black community and her discussion with Miss Helen was fantastic.
The high point of their exchange is when she strong-arms Lysistrata into researching Leymah Gbowee. Leymah Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for organizing nonviolent demonstrations (including a months-long sex strike) that helped end the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. These types of demonstrations are effective when thoroughly planned. The mere threat from the Missouri football team of not playing on Saturday’s forced their president’s resignation in less than 48 hours.
And it wasn’t just Lysistrata and Miss Helen dropping knowledge at every turn. Everybody played their part equally, as well as Dolmedes. In between his humorous antics, he was sure to pop you in the forehead with game, poetry, and more importantly, truth. It was him, who juxtaposed a black youth with a gun and a policeman, stated both their qualms, how they both are handling this police brutality pandemic incorrectly, and then moved on to the next topic.
This film is the type of project that will springboard careers and give audiences fresh insight and perspective. Now I’ve projected a few ladies in past reviews and so far I’ve been correct (3 for 3), with my most successful nod going to Margot Robbie. Be prepared to see more of the gorgeous and talented Teyonah Parris. Her role in this project will hold me over until her Starz Channel return.
The thing I most respect about Spike Lee is that he makes no bones about the truth. There is a serious lack of diversity in Hollywood and nobody cares to seriously address it. As long as his résumé extends, the fact The Academy would offer him an ‘honorary’ award, just goes to show how out of touch they really are. That goes for women as well. This past May I observed Salma Hayek at the Kering: Women in Motion talks in Cannes, describe her own personal struggles when dealing with men in the industry.
As long as visionary directors such as Spike and others have an outlet and a will, I’m 100% confident they will do the right thing. In a world where people are often rewarded for doing what’s right and ‘common sense’ isn’t as common as it once was, I’m looking forward to the rise and matriculation of the next Spike Lee, wherever he (or she) may be (can you hear me Ryan Coogler?).
There are too many quality one-liners to count, but one of the last ones that stood out to me was “Chicago’s peace is our Selma.” This film is an amazing formula of real-life issues blended with educational insight and topped off with a mountain of sexual themes. If large helpings of sex and vulgarity is not your thing, you still need to sit through this just for the comedy, the clarity, and the overall message. In order to get the most out of this you’ll need to come with open eyes, open ears, and fend off your cognitive dissonance with reckless abandon.