I would hesitate to dismiss any film by Spike Lee, who has a huge body of work covering over 35 years, much of it innovative and memorable. Chi-Raq must at least be acknowledged as unusual and daring. All the same, I have to admit I did not find the film one of Lee’s better efforts.
‘Chi-Raq’ is the rather sardonic nickname residents of Chicago have for a particular district of their city, combining the name Chicago with that of Iraq to imply the neighbourhood is something of a war zone. That area is the setting for Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s modernised adaptation of Aristophanes’ anti-war comedy, Lysistrata. The theme of the play is well-known: weary of endless war, the women of Greece unite to force its men to agree to a truce, by holding a universal sex strike. Spike Lee’s Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) leads the women of Chicago into a similar strike, in an attempt to force local gangs to call a halt to the almost daily warfare which has made their part of the city dangerous and ugly.
The drastic changes to the classic story are obvious. What is intriguing are the things Lee left unchanged. Since the original play was written as poetry, the script of Chi-Raq is performed in rhyming verse. The language is contemporary and typical of the streets of Chicago, but at times a little high-flown and lyrical, as the situation or the speech calls for it, striking a nice balance between colloquial or even vulgar speech and poetry. Some scenes include rap or gospel music, allowing the lyrics to convey the message in place of dialogue. The script of Chi-Raq manages to be poetic without losing touch with commonplace speech.
The film uses a narrator named Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) to introduce the story and its format, and to periodically provide commentary to the audience, a device that gives the film a little of the quality of a classic stage play. A few features of the original play are kept in place, but a great deal changed. The ‘chorus of old women’ from Lysistrata is replaced by one wise older woman, Miss Helen (Angela Basset) who guides Lysistrata in her efforts. A nod to the source also exists in the names of characters and groups; for example, the feuding Chicago gangs are called the Trojans and the Spartans.
Although supposedly a comedy, the film is tragic as least as often as it is humorous. Lysistrata’s efforts to convince her fellow women to agree to the strike are comical, but they are quickly followed by a horrific scene in which a little girl is shot in the street, caught in the crossfire during a gang battle. The child’s death inspires the women of Chicago to join in with Lysistrata’s plan and to oppose street violence by any other means they can devise.
The child’s funeral is a climactic scene in which the entire community is brought together. The eulogy is a remarkable bit of monologue, featuring John Cusack as Father Mike Corridan, a character based on Father Michael Pfleger, a Catholic priest and social activist who served a mainly black parish in a Chicago neighbourhood very similar to the setting of Chi-Raq. Corridan not only movingly grieves the deceased child, but angrily denounces the social and political circumstances that led to her death. His tirade manages to avoid being either condescending or melodramatic, and to reveal the realities behind the district’s troubles in an expression of heartfelt rage, in which the congregation joins him.
Sadly, from this point the story begins to lose its momentum. The strike is carried out, the gangs refuse to give up their war, and the siege continues. In a rather slapstick scene, a group of unarmed women manage to take control of an armoury by vamping all the military personnel there. The men outside try to regain the armoury, not by literally smoking them out as in the play, but by playing romantic music through a loudspeaker. This silliness is finished off with a contrived sex challenge, which is apparently meant to be fanciful or symbolic but which is simply not effective. Finally, Lysistrata’s strike is taken up not only by all the women of Chicago, but ultimately of the entire world. We are shown news footage of women picketing for peace around the world, even in nations which are not at war and have almost no urban violence to oppose, and the central message because diluted and confused.
The central and important character of Lysistrata is not as strong as it might be. The performance by Teyonah Parris was excellent, but she is given few really significant speeches. Even her strongest moments, debating with local militia or encouraging her followers, do not come across nearly as well as Fr. Corridan’s sermon. The character could have been used more effectively.
This is a bold and interesting concept, well worth the attempt; and like all Spike Lee films it has some powerful moments, making it worth the effort in spite of unfortunate lapses.