Not everybody has read Lysistrata by Aristophanes, but most people know the basic outline of the plot. During the Peloponnesian War, women from Athens and Sparta get together and agree that they none of them will have sex with their husbands until the leaders of both cities agree to end the destructive, and seemingly endless conflict. Spike Lee puts it more directly.
“No Peace. No Pussy.”
Lysistrata is a historically significant play, mainly for two reasons. It draws an explicit connection between sex and violence well over 2000 years before Freud. It introduces women onto the highly patriarchal stage of classical Greece as political actors. For most of history, women have rewarded men who are good at killing, but there have always been exceptions.
Spike Lee chose the plot of Lysistrata to frame his new movie Chi-Raq for obvious reasons. Between 2001 and 2015, 7467 people in Chicago were murdered, higher than the number of Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chicago, for black people, is Chi-Raq, a war zone, just like Iraq. Spike Lee has always hated violence. One of the most striking images from his great film Malcolm X comes when his assassins are loading their weapons in a back room. The table is so covered with bullets and shotgun shells that it looks like a small arsenal. Do the Right Thing dramatizes how the powder keg of racism and police brutality in a big city neighborhood could explode at any minute. Chi-Raq is no Malcolm X or Do the Right Thing, but it is an ambitious attempt to sound the alarm about the ongoing carnage in Chicago.
Lysistrata, played by Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris, is dating Demetrius “Chi-raq” Dupree, a rapper and gang leader. After a shoot out at one of his concerts between two gangs, the Spartans and the Trojans, and the murder of a 10-year-old girl, Lysistrata decides she’s had enough. She and Miss Helen Worthy, Angela Bassett, arrange a meeting between all the girlfriends of the two gangs. They “occupy” a National Guard armory, vowing to remain, celibate, until their boyfriends agree to turn in their weapons and arrange a truce. Soon their protest catches on, not only in Chicago, where even the local strip club can’t find enough woman to stay open, but all over the world. In one city after another around the world, we see demonstration after demonstration, groups who have taken the pledge that until there’s peace there will be “no pussy.”
The Victorians believed that men need sex more than women. Neither Aristophanes nor Spike Lee make that assumption. It lends a certain moral weight to Miss Worthy’s and Lysistrata’s occupation of the armory. None of the women are asexual. They’re not giving up what they don’t want anyway. Their abstinence is an act of discipline. They want to stop the violence more than they want sex. They love the men in their lives too much to see them get killed. Eventually the struggle becomes about who can go without an orgasm the longest, the men, who want to continue killing one another, or the women, who want them to stop. Surprisingly, it’s a tie. They both give up, but the men have decided that Lysistrata and Miss Worthy were right after all. They’re sick of the violence. They stack their guns up in a pile on the floor of the armory and sign a peace treaty. Demetrius Dupree, whose own father died violently in the 1990s, confesses to a a murder and turns himself into the police.
Chi-Raq is an uneven movie. I suspect that most people will either love it or hate it. Then again, Spike Lee’s films are always collections of individual scenes that may or may not contribute to the whole. Even in his best movies, there are good scenes and bad scenes, striking images and images that don’t quite work. In Chi-Raq, I thought a lot of the sex was vulgar and over the top. Spike Lee is simply too old to know what’s very sexy any more. The film’s main problem is too many characters and not enough character development. Nevertheless, there are one or two sequences that work, a surprising, but ultimately effective sermon by John Cusack as the white pastor of a mostly black church, a sleazy insurance salesman who tries to sell Miss Worthy a life insurance policy for her eight-year-old nephew, the takeover of the National Guard armory that plays like something out of an anti-Vietnam-War farce from the 1960s, a parody of the movie Patton by Samuel Jackson that I wish had been better developed. As you’re watching Chi-Raq, it seems overly long and a bit stagy, but it’s one of those movies that gets better after it’s done, after you begin to think about what you’ve just seen, after you give your brain time to assimilate its images and ideas.
I’m not sure why Chi-Raq hasn’t gotten more play on social media. It’s already had a limited run in theaters and you can stream it on Amazon. It also pissed off Rahm Emanuel, the dickhead Clinton and Wall Street connected Mayor of Chicago, who tried to get Spike Lee to change the name of the film from Chi-Raq. Lee didn’t. For that alone it’s probably worth seeing.