Women withhold sex to end gang war in angry, vital ‘Chi-Raq’
Black lives matter to Spike Lee. In his new film Chi-Raq, an excoriating look at gun culture and gang violence in urban America, Lee wants to make sure they also matter to black youths who are killing each other in record numbers, as well as to the failing institutions that are supposed to be serving them. A provocative mash-up of classical tragedy, rap music, minstrel show, and musical theater, the film is an in-your-face explosion of anger and vitality.
Lee and co-scriptwriter Kevin Willmot borrow their source material from the ancient Greeks. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is a comedy of sex, warfare, and gender relations, in which the women of Greece, led by the title heroine, make a sacred pact to withhold sex from their men unless the men make a peace treaty to end the devastating Peloponnesian War against the Spartans.
The filmmakers reboot the story for Chicago’s gritty South Side, where gang warfare in the impoverished neighborhoods (as we’re told early on) are responsible for twice as many deaths in a given period than the death toll of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq combined. Lee’s updated Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is the girlfriend of an aspiring rapper calling himself Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), which is local slang for the war zone of the South Side.
Chi-Raq is also the leader of a gang called the Greeks (their colors are purple), whose rivals are the Spartan gang, who dress in orange. One night, onstage at a local club, Chi-Raq’s show is busted up by gunfire. Later that night, while he and Lysistrata are doing the down and dirty at home, someone sets fire to the building. When a 7-year-old girl is killed by a stray bullet in the neighborhood and the pain of her sorrowing mother (Jennifer Hudson) touches everyone, Lysistrata gets an earful from her neighbor, Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), who claims ending the violence is everybody’s responsibility.
Lysistrata Googles her namesake, and gathers her girlfriends. They meet with the Spartan girlfriends, and once the trash-talking is over, they make a pact to withhold sex from their men until they turn in their guns. To make sure there’s no backsliding, they infiltrate and take over the Armory building downtown and lock themselves in. The women at the strip club sign on, and the movement spreads to upscale and professional women as well. As the sex strike continues (“No Peace, No Pussy” is their battle cry), angry women all over the globe take up the cause.
Lee sticks surprisingly close to his ancient source, from the characters’ names (Wesley Snipes plays a one-eyed gangsta called Cyclops), to the use of Greek choruses to comment on the action. Aristophanes’ Chorus of Old Women is Miss Helen and her sisterhood of doctors and lawyers; the Chorus of Old Men is a local black lodge brotherhood. But he also uses a devilish master of ceremonies (Samuel L. Jackson, impeccably duded up) to set each scene, and lavish music and dance numbers, like the funeral at the church, and the precision chorus line of the women in their chastity belts dancing at the Armory. And most of the dialogue is in verse, albeit the rough, profane rhymes of rap songs.
With so much going on in Lee’s ambitious vision, there’s a lot that doesn’t work. That the compassionate church pastor (John Cusack) is white suggests the violence affects all races, but since it’s said he grew up in the neighborhood, shouldn’t there be a few other white parishioners too? The wheezy sex farce of the scene when Lysistrata worms her way into the Armory by promising her favors to the white racist commanding officer (it involves a Civil War cannon called “Whistling Dick”) is grueling to sit through.
But images of silent women carrying posters of their murdered children, or neighborhood streets full of young men in wheelchairs and on crutches, add up to a powerful statement. Lee lays plenty of blame on an uncaring government that fails to ensure jobs, affordable housing, and social services in black communities. But he aims his movie at the young black urban audience, knowing the first change that’s gotta come is in attitude.
*** (out of four)
With Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, and Samuel L. Jackson. Written by Spike Lee and Kevin Willmot. Directed by Spike Lee. A Roadside Attractions release. Rated R. 127 minutes.
PEACE MAKER Teyonah Parris plays the leading heroine, Lysistrata, in Spike Lee’s ‘Chi-Raq,’ which parallels Aristophanes’ comedy ‘Lysistrata.’