Lysistrata is not the first Greek play that would have come to my mind for an adaptation. Positioned in a new period of history, during which Chicago has seen deaths that rival those of American service members aboard, Spike Lee has given it new life.
By Kenneth Shipp
There’s no escaping what Mr. Lee is talking about as there are multiple message beating scenes. The first 5 minutes include the title track of the film set to kinetic typography (moving print) and really hammer home the situation. While it worked to deliver the situation, it was uncomfortably long and probably could have been edited down. After we get past that bit of awkwardness, we follow a plot similar to the play with most of the original elements making their way in. The Greek Lysistrata is trying to end the Peloponnesian War while Chi-raq‘s Lysistrata is attempting to end Chicago gang violence. The Spartans and Greeks are here but now represented as rival gangs. There are key differences as well; instead of barricading in a treasury, the heroines fortify in a National Guard armory. The younger women take over the armory instead of the Chorus of Older Women originally.
Right away, we can connect with Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) fairly easy. We don’t get to know much about her past, but her actions on-screen speak loud enough. She is rather hesitant to make any moves against her lover, Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon; the in- film character named himself after the Chicago-Iraq amalgamation). When she witnesses the heartbreak of a mother losing her child, she creates a plan with the aide of Miss Helen (Angela Bassett). What follows is the story of her determination and drive to see it through to the end.
The audience is treated to a bunch of hilarious and light humored moments sprinkled with the more serious and heavier times. We see the funny consequences of their self-imposed sex strike: empty strip clubs, sex parlors, sex crazed men, etc. We also see the continued violence and misogynist attitudes that are brought out as a result. Lee is able to tackle a variety of different themes successfully as a result. It brings to light some of the mindsets that may be allowing the violent status quo. The audience may not agree with all of Lee’s suggestions or ideas, but they are articulated well enough to be considered.
Solid performances are peppered throughout this one. Parris and Cannon anchor the film and make us care about their relationship and this new friction. Parris makes it feel like she’s lived in this role for awhile. She’s following her successful role from Dear White People with a more complete performance here. Cannon plays up the silliness of his character at the right moments. He also figures out when he needs to drop it down as well. This a far cry from his Drumline days. Samuel L. Jackson as Dolmedes delivers us an elegant, profanity laden narration the whole way through, showcasing how amazing Jackson can be at delivering witty rhyme. Almost all of this film is delivered in a rhyme that works very well in most instances. I preferred hearing it from Bassett, Parris or Jackson. Some of the other actors, like Snipes, didn’t have many of these moments. When they did, it wasn’t always matching the delivery of the three I mentioned above.
John Cusack is in this movie?? Most of his moments are fine, but remember when I said this film would hammer home the point? His sermon during the funeral service was a bit overdone and hammed up. That may have been the way Lee wanted it, but it certainly left an odd taste in my mouth. There is a lot of profanity and sexual references in this one. If that hurts your sensibilities, be forewarned. I wasn’t distracted by it and most of it was well meaning. The sexual references in particular are important since they highlighted how far each faction is from making peace. There’s a subtle reducing of the gender specific rants/jokes and manly bravado as the men finally have their eyes opened. Chi-Raq is the last to join them at the peace talks and by the end, his language is in stark contrast to those around him.
In a world with rampant violence, Chi-Raq is an excellent mirror to hold up and ask these tough questions. Spike Lee, relevant as always, has created another classic that will certainly contend and make you answer. It does have a heavy handed approach at times, but the overall goal is certainly hit well. If it were not entertaining and informative, those stiffer moments would be overkill.
Chi-Raq: 8 out of 10
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