||R (for strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence, and drug use)
||Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott
||Dec 4, 2015, Limited
**Above movie info c/o RottenTomatoes.com
Chi-Raq is the latest Spike Lee joint that deals with the urgent and unavoidable issue of Black-On-Black violence through the age-old conflict concerning the battle of the sexes. With his newest film, Black-On-Black violence theme is presented to us through the classical Greek comedy lens. The plot is based on the plot of Lysistrata, a comic play written by the Greek playwright, Aristophanes in 411 BCE.
The initial play written centuries ago dealt with the long, drawn-out Peloponnesian War, a war between the Spartans and the Athenians who had one thing in common, they were all Greeks. The play’s heroine and namesake, Lysistrata, was a headstrong Athenian woman who encouraged all Greek women to refrain from sexual activity in order to encourage their men not to war with one another. The war was literally brother against brother. The plot of the play was a brilliant base for Spike Lee’s film in that the motivations for and the lingering nature of the Peloponnesian war parallel today’s tragic urban theme.
Lee’s Classical and Contemporary Style Mix
Lee’s film also snatches from other classical and contemporary themes and events to draw attention to the skyrocketing Black-On-Black crime rate in Chicago, in particular. The name of the movie, itself, is synonymous with needless, corrosive conflict and war. The suffix, obviously, is named for the country “Iraq,” which was needlessly attacked, overthrown and destroyed as a result of false information and bogus provocation. Today, the war-torn country is a shadow of its former self. Compared to the Chicago of old where, as Angela Bassett’s character, Miss Helen, stated, “it was gang code never to shoot children” the toughs of Chicago have lost what may be considered a touch of chivalry that added to the polish and modern glorification of the older gangs. Today, the gangs of Chicago, much like the city itself, are a shadow of their former selves. The fighting that occurs is less about honor and more about wanton bloodlust and senseless vendettas as rival gang members can order the execution of babies and children in order to incur the suffering of their brothers. The name “Chi-Raq” is also a reflection of the musically improvisational language of Hip Hop culture and its, oft times, glorification of violence and vainglorious living.
Understanding Black Feminism
Other plot equivalents deal with the name of Lee’s heroine, also named Lysistrata, played by Teyonah Parris. For those who may not be familiar with the classical play, the name wouldn’t seem odd, since many modern-day African-American names can seem equally exotic…it works! Just like her classical counterpart, she enlists all the women of the city of Chicago, including rival gang women, to withhold the “punani” in order to end senseless violence of the Black youth of Chicago. This city-wide sex strike sparks a hilarious worldwide, solidarity sex strike among all women. This bold and unthinkable act is symbolic of an amazing reversal and redefinition of feminism and power created and, now, led by African-American women. To these women, the power of the “punani” isn’t about having power over men, but using her power to bring about a desperately needed change in the Black community…a reevaluation of what life is all about. It’s not about just making the babies, but creating the conditions to preserve human life once it’s created.
Lee’s message has even deeper layers because once the issue of “making babies” is raised, so too is the value placed upon the Black woman. In the movie, she is portrayed as everybody’s sexual fantasy…from the brothahs to even the most Confederately racist of White men. Spike Lee’s portrayal of her is a slick one in that he uses the common negative stereotypes attributed to Black women to raise the issue of the hypocrisy of sexual activity in an atmosphere of casual violence towards Black children. Why make the baby only to have it snuffed out in a hail of bullets in a short while?
Lee’s Deeper Layer
Lysistrata’s boyfriend, a violent rival gang member played by Nick Cannon, is aptly named, Chi-Raq, because of his amalgamous portrayal of your average sociopathic neighborhood thug. His character is the embodiment of the worst evil imaginable in a thug. Lysistrata’s efforts to stop the violence don’t seem to move him in the same positive direction to quit, much like his “blue-balled” compatriots. Ultimately, in the end, it takes another rival gang member, played by Wesley Snipes, to break the situation down to him and force him to face the reality that the gang life is just not as important as gettin’ it on and getting on with life. At the end of the film, his character is surrounded by all the film’s major characters and he is forced to face many more realities…that his father was locked up 20 years prior for accidentally killing a child with a stray bullet and that his fateful condition, as a gangster and a child murderer, was passed down to him through a cruel condition of society. While he is arrested and escorted off the scene, he eloquently voices his fire in a soliloquy of classic Greek proportions that warns brothas like himself to “bring the Truth” and confess to their internal pain and to the senseless murders of the innocents…and thus, ”end them.”*
As a rabid Spike Lee fan, I give this movie 3 thumbs up for the style of presentation, casting and yes, originality! Only Spike Lee can use his own unique and unusual style of storytelling to drive home multi-layered messages floating just beneath the obvious one. Kudos Spike!
* ”To be, or not to be- that is the question…Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.” (Shakespeare 3.1.1750-54)