Chi-Raq (2015, dir. Spike Lee) is a modernization of the classic Athenian comedy Lysistrata, first performed in 411 BC during the Peloponnesian War. When I heard about Lee’s film, I was intrigued, since it’s not every day a movie based on an ancient play gets produced, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the film, you may wish to do so before reading this post, since it discusses major plot points, including the end of the film.
Lysistrata was first performed during a war between the Athenians and the Spartans. The war began in 430 BC, and had continued ever since. By 411, the tide of the war had begun to turn against the Athenians. 4 years previously, they had opened a new front in the war with a disastrous invasion of Sicily; they had lost much of their navy and large numbers of citizen sailors had been captured. The failure of that invasion probably marked the point at which the Athenians should have decided to cut their loses and sue for peace, but the Athenians stubbornly refused to do so.
So in 411, Aristophanes, who was part of the anti-war faction at Athens, staged Lysistrata as a critique of the war. In the play, Lysistrata proposes to bring the war to an end by persuading both the Athenian and Spartan women to go on a sex strike. They vow not to have sex until the men arrange a peace. To advance their cause, Lysistrata’s followers occupy the Acropolis and seize the state treasury, which will hinder the war cause, since the city will not be able to pay its war expenses without it. During a conversation with one of the city’s magistrates, Lysistrata accuses the Athenians (who are literally sitting in the audience watching) of having made disastrous decisions in the war. Eventually a desperately tumescent Spartan herald arrives with news that the Spartans want to negotiate, and the equally desperate magistrate agrees to sit down and discuss terms with him. Lysistrata shows up with a young woman named Reconciliation and uses their lust for her as an incentive to keep the negotiations moving. The peace is celebrated with a feast. Throughout the play, choruses of Old Men and Old Women clash in bawdy ways, dramatizing the struggle between masculine lust and feminine chastity.
The play is often today read as an anti-war play, which is probably reading more into it than Aristophanes intended. The play does not condemn war in general, only this war in particular. By 411, the Athenians were clearly tired of war, but could not seem to find a way to extricate themselves from the conflict without damaging their pride. The play wittily suggests that male military aggression and male sexual desire are somehow combined.
Lysistrata is not an easy play to stage nowadays. In this period, Athenian comedy was extremely topical, and many of the play’s references no long make sense to audiences who don’t know who, for example, Hippias or Cleisthenes were. Many of the jokes are directed at men who were probably sitting in the audience, satirizing them for their personal foibles and reputation. The play also contains a lot of jokes so deeply connected to the exact situation that modern audiences won’t get them any more; during the negotiations, the herald and the magistrate treat Reconciliation’s body as a map of Greece, discussing which parts of it they want to claim, but without understanding the actual geography of the war, the double-entendres lose much of their punch.
Another challenge to staging Athenian comedy is that it is extremely bawdy, far more so than all but the most raunchy of modern comedies. This mixture of political satire and sex jokes is off-putting to most modern audiences. Imagine a Saturday Night Live political sketch crossed with American Pie and you start to get the effect. Athenian comedy is so frankly sexual that one scholar commented, “if you don’t find a dirty joke in a line of text, you’re probably not looking hard enough.” The women of Lysistrata want the war to end because it’s interfering with their ability to get laid and purchase dildoes. The Spartan herald’s erection is given almost an entire page’s worth of attention, as people try to guess what he’s got hidden under his cloak. This is not some genteel Victorian farce; this is comedy all about penises and vaginas.
Lee has transposed the action of the play to the south side of Chicago, often nicknamed Chi-raq by its inhabitants because there is enough violence for a war zone. The two warring factions are rival gangs, the Spartans, led by the rapper Demetrius ‘Chi-Raq’ Dupree (Nick Cannon), and the Trojans, led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). One day, Chi-Raq’s woman, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) stumbles across the scene of a gang shooting in which an 11-year old girl has become an innocent victim. She sees the girl’s mother Irene (Jennifer Hudson) grieve for her daughter and demand that something be done.
Lysistrata gathers a bunch of her friends and arranges a meeting with some of the women who date the Trojans, including Indigo (Michelle Mitchenor), Cyclop’s woman. She persuades them to swear an oath. “I will deny all rights of access or entrance from every husband, lover, or male acquaintance who comes to my direction in erection. If he should force me to lay on that conjugal couch, I will refuse his stroke and not give up that nappy pouch. No peace, no pussy!”
From there, the movement grows as even the strippers, prostitutes, and guys on the down low take the oath. Then the women seize control of a National Guard armory, and the movement goes global, much to the frustration of Mayor McCloud (D.B. Sweeney), whose wife takes the oath. From there, the story plays out to its conclusion.
But as the story progresses, Lee inserts scenes of Father Corridan (John Cusack) performing the funeral for the murdered girl and leading an anti-gun march. Although skeptical of Lysistrata’s tactics, he plays an important role in getting Chi-Raq to come to the negotiating table. He and Irene circulate posters offering a reward for information about who shot the girl. Finally, at the end, when it looks like the negotiations between the Spartans and the Trojans will collapse because of Chi-Raq’s resistance, he tearfully acknowledges that he is the girl’s killer. Accepting the magnitude of his crime, he is led away, calling on all the gang members to admit their guilt in the situation and work to end the violence.
On paper this all sounds heavy-handed and tendentious. But Lee manages to make the material work through a combination of three contrasting elements. The film is every bit as vulgar as the source material. Jokes about dick and pussy and blue balls abound. The Old Men of the film just want to get laid again and are determined to restore their masculine pride, while the Old Women aren’t entirely happy to give up sex but see the greater goal behind the strike.
But the coarseness of the humor is off-set by the fact that most of the dialogue is in rhyming verse. Although some of the verse feels a bit clunky, and can be hard to follow, at its best, it becomes Shakespearean, elevating the vulgarity to the level of high art. Chi-Raq’s speech at the end plays as a morality tale, in which the actor is exhorting the audience to learn from his mistakes. Here’s an example, in which Lysistrata confronts the Old Men:
And then there is the profound passion of the film. The film opens with a prologue text informing us that more Americans have been killed in Chicago in the past 15 years than in both the Iraq and Afghan wars combined. “This is an emergency!” a voice declares at both the start and finish of the film. Cusack delivers the funeral sermon with an urgency that grows to fury at “this self-inflicted genocide,” and it’s clear that he is voicing Lee’s own feelings about the situation. Both Lysistrata and her friend Dr. Helen (Angela Bassett) deliver powerful speeches about how they are fighting to save the lives of their community.
Jennifer Hudson’s performance is particularly powerful. Her own personal tragedy, in which her brother-in-law murdered her mother, brother, and nephew in their West Chicago home, hangs over the film, a profound reminder that this is not simply an exercise in entertainment. When Hudson as Irene leads an anti-gun march, she is surrounded by dozens of extras all carrying photos of the actual relatives they lost to gun violence. And the film is not afraid to point fingers. At different moments, it accuses the NRA, the prison-industrial complex, Indiana’s gun shows, the Republican party, the media, the banks, and the adolescent gang-bangers of all playing a role in the slaughter. The mayor is a thinly-veiled satire of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who reportedly opposed the film because it was bad for tourism.
Lee has quite masterfully managed to transpose Lysistrata for a modern audience, capturing the marriage of bawdy humor and serious intent and even much of the original’s structure. Both play and film are in verse, both make use of song and dance, and both have choruses that act to set the stage and keep the action moving; Lee’s chorus is Samuel L. Jackson.
Given the challenges of reproducing Classical Athenian comedy for modern audiences, Lee has pulled off an impressive feat. While Chi-Raq is not a perfect film (the verse is not always easy to follow, and a few scenes fall flat, including one where Lysistrata seduces the general of the armory), it’s a worthy effort, both in terms of cinema and in terms of the cause it serves, and you should definitely give it a viewing.
Want to Know More?
CHI-RAQ [DVD + Digital]is available on Amazon.
Lysistrata is a classic, and definitely worth reading. The Penguin edition of Lysistrata and Other Plays (Penguin Classics) would be a good place to start.
If you want to know more about the remarkable Leymah Gbowee, she tells her story in her book Mighty Be Our Powers.