Aristophones’ Lysistrata is one of the most important plays ever written. Aside from being one of the earliest surviving comedies, it is one with a raunchy universality that ensures its endurance. The focus on duel wars: of the sexes and of the battlefield, has made the political resonance of the play easy to re-contextualise, and as such it has become a staple of Community theatre. The concept of women using a sex strike to put a halt to violent conflict has been put into practice a number of times in real life, causing actual change, making Lysistrata a perfect emblem of how classical art can have a timeless relevance. Spike Lee also keeps an eye on the timeless. The legendary director of Do The Right Thing and Malcom X is an unashamed classicist, whose take on Black Cinema puts David Lean, Kurosawa, Altman, and Busby Berkley into a melting pot and creates some of the most colourful, formally elegant and transgressive films to come out of the USA since the death of New Hollywood. His political intentions always at the forefront of his work, the news that Lee would be helming a modern day reinterpretation of Lysistrata, the action transposed to gangland Chicago (a cliche at this point but if anyone can turn well trodden ideas into success it’s Lee) seemed like a perfect way for a director whose recent work has seemed increasingly less vital to reclaim his place at the centre of the zeitgeist. Chi-Raq, which is spoken mostly in a verse which apes the original text but includes the dialect of the area, follows the strong headed Lysistrata as she organises the women around her, and eventually all the women of Chicago (nicknamed Chi-Raq) to go on sex strike until their men have ceased the gang war which results in daily shootings.
This feels like a film kids are shown in school to liven up their literary studies. One wonders how much impact Chi-Raq will have outside of the classroom. It is a typically empowering story for women, however Lee actually removes much of their agency. Lysistrata and her goons lock themselves up, and then wait for the men to sort it out between themselves. The message that women, especially black women, can stand up and make a difference is a vital one to spread but Lee still can’t help but objectify the women in his film, either with his leering camera, or the constant references to Lysistrata’s looks. Characters are constantly reiterating how sexy they find her, asking the audience to stare in the way that they do. Lee isn’t making a statement about the male gaze, merely falling victim to it. A shame, as there is a great realism in how difficult the women find it to keep their pact, giving the women a sexual life that is defined by themselves, not by the men.
Lee crams the frame full of people like nobody else, creating a community and making even background players feel like complete characters. However this vibrancy can end up making the film feel rough and unpolished. Wesley Snipes’ performance, for example, undercuts the seriousness of subject and shows up how confusing the tone of the film is. His Cyclops is feared as a ruthless gangster whose pride has the feud continuing way past its sell by date, and yet, reduced to a comic relief, we feel no tension from his presence. We hear his violent plans but see very little put into place. Nick Cannon as rapper/gang leader/Lysistrata’s boyfriend Chi-Raq is so straight-faced that the conflict with Cyclops seems unbalanced and lacks real threat. There is a third-act revelation regarding one of these characters that is out of nowhere in terms of the film itself but is the most glaringly obvious resolution Lee could have come up with, answering a question that didn’t need to be answered, makes a tragedy that stood in for a universal problem into something specific to these characters. For a film that beats its chest with calls for change, providing the audience with catharsis in this way undermines the continuing struggle. Do The Right Thing, to which this is earning some comparison, was so open-ended in its conclusion, effectively pointing the camera back at the audience and questioning us for answers. Chi-Raq lacks this subtlety.
The use of verse shields the lack of decent content in the scenes. John Cusack appears as a preacher to deliver a monologue of interminable length. He tears apart the ills of America in what should be a rousing scene, but it has no real connection to the narrative and Cusack’s performance is tired and silly. There is a long scene in which Jennifer Hudson scrubs the blood of her child from the streets, but with such a sentimental soundtrack, and connected by repetitive scenes that fail to escalate the plot or stakes, the emotional impact is lost. A harsher edit may have worked in Chi-Raq’s favour, at over 2 hrs it falls apart but a 30/40 minute shorter version may have carried the intended punch.
But at least Lee is unafraid to fail. Although Chi-Raq doesn’t work, it is still an ambitious film that bears his hallmarks and, for better or worse, grabs your attention throughout. The fact that he commits to a film entirely in verse, that he creates a mashup of Greek theatre and Gangsta culture and is entirely confident that the audience will follow his train of thought, that he creates a vision of a city removed from our own reality but alive in Lee’s own brain. In that respect this is closer to School Daze, his campus set quasi-musical that similarly repeated the phrase ‘Wake Up’ throughout.