Page to Screen is a regular column in which Matt Melis explores how either a classic or contemporary work of literature made the sometimes triumphant, often disastrous leap from prose to film. This time, he ventures to the South Side of Chicago by way of ancient Greek theater.
Please pray for my city
Too much hate in my city
Too many heartaches in my city
But I got faith in my city
This Chi-Raq, and I love that
You can’t take away from my city
Some can’t relate to my city
They die every day in my city
Nick Cannon’s bullet-riddled anthem “Pray 4 My City” blares atop the opening titles of Chi-Raq, filmmaker Spike Lee’s new satire addressing the grisly culture of gang violence existing on Chicago’s South Side. Reminiscent of Rosie Perez shadowboxing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” at the outset of 1989’s Do the Right Thing, Lee allows Cannon’s song to spin in its entirety and act as a gateway into his unflinching depiction of a Chicago most only read about. Cannon’s lyrics – an unnerving amalgam of anguish, local pride, and grim reporting – are plastered in blood red across a black screen, the track both prefaced and concluded by the flashing announcement “This Is an Emergency.” It’s the type of in-your-grill caution that smacks of hyperbole but, sadly, in certain Chicago neighborhoods, reflects reality.
During the filming of Chi-Raq (a period of 39 days this past summer), Lee cites that 331 people were wounded and 65 murdered in Chicago, a number higher than recorded in significantly larger cities like New York. And not a week before the film’s premiere, courts ordered the public release of police footage showing 17-year-old black male Laquan McDonald inexplicably gunned down by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. Clearly, gun violence is a daunting problem in the Windy City, and yet some Chicagoans aren’t supportive of Lee’s film or are dubious about his approach to “sparking discussion about how we can give our young people hope.” Several politicians, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, have urged Lee to change the name of the film from Chi-Raq (a portmanteau coined by South Side rappers) to a title that reflects more positively on the city. As recently as Friday night, Chicago hip-hop artist Chance the Rapper lambasted the film on Twitter as “exploitive and problematic” and characterized its makers as being uninformed interlopers.
Nobody can deny Chicago’s gang violence epidemic, and the value of the light that Chi-Raq sheds on this crisis can and will be debated. However, the choice to explore these tragic circumstances by contemporizing an ancient Greek sex farce may register at the poles or anywhere along the continuum between inspiring and infuriating, depending on the audience. Filmmakers have long looked to update old or even ancient literature or to use it as a framework for telling contemporary stories. Notably, Baz Luhrmann dropped Verona’s star-crossed lovers into a mafia war set in a modern urban environment, and the Coen Brothers borrowed from Homer’s Odyssey to tell the story of three escaped convicts in the Depression-era South. Neither of those films, however, set out to use a comedy to comment on an ongoing crisis that frequently hijacks the evening news and haunts obituaries. Lee’s curious and controversial project has earned him many detractors and definitely warrants asking the question: Did the acclaimed director do the right thing?
Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott based Chi-Raq on Aristophanes’ 411 B.C. anti-war comedy, Lysistrata. The play stands as one of the few surviving examples of “Old Comedy,” a dramatic form known for its political satire and abundance of sexual and scatological innuendo. In Lysistrata, the titular female character, fed up with a war-ravaged Greece, spearheads a sex strike among soldiers’ wives until their men agree to peace. In Lee and Willmott’s version, set mostly in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) mobilizes the girlfriends of rival gang members (Spartans and Trojans) to withhold sexual favors until the killing ceases. It’s a challenging adaptation for a number of reasons, particularly because while Lysistrata does carry an anti-war message, its structure isn’t designed to offer a panorama of Greek society. Lee’s film, on the other hand, aims to survey the wide-ranging scope of problems facing black America while being as topical as possible. For instance, when Dylann Roof savagely opened fire in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, three weeks into the shoot, Lee and Willmott immediately sat down to work the incident into their script. To even begin accounting for all the complexities that factor into the current climates of violence found in black communities like Englewood, Lee had to make several significant changes to Lysistrata.
For one, Lee heavily expanded the play’s roster of characters to meet his needs. The sartorially flamboyant Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) acts as narrator, MC, and ghetto guide, intermittently appearing to dispense Dolemite-style wisdom and facilitate the proceedings. John Cusack plays raspy-voiced Father Mike Corridan (based on Chicago’s well-known social activist Father Michael Pfleger), the white pastor of an all-black congregation, who delivers an impassioned eulogy that allows Lee to efficiently address several root issues that plague black communities. Lee also creates co-protagonist Chi-Raq (Cannon), Lysistrata’s boyfriend and head of the Spartans, and garishly eye-patched Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), leader of the Trojans, the two of whom ultimately bring the story to its hopeful conclusion. But most importantly, Lee develops a related, concurrent story line around the shooting death of a nine-year-old black girl, Patti, who gets caught in gangland crossfire. While Lysistrata and her contingent comically secure the means of reproduction with padlocks, Patti’s mother, Irene (Jennifer Hudson), along with Father Mike, heartbreakingly search for answers and justice. In a film that partly examines how pockets of young men can place so little value on their lives and those of others, Lee’s Irene reminds us of the true cost of Chi-Raq’s addiction to violence.
Apart from the film’s controversial title, Lysistrata’s sex strike ranks as the most headline-grabbing element of Lee’s adaptation. Posters with the slogan “No Peace. No Piece” (“No Peace. No Pussy” in the film) are hard to miss. It’s also a point on which Aristophanes and Lee display surprisingly different attitudes. Aristophanes uses the sex strike purely as a comedic vehicle to mock certain figures en route to delivering a political point. (Remember, this was a play written by a man in a time where all roles — even female parts — would have been performed by men for an all-male audience.) It’s a flimsy premise that Aristophanes never fully commits to, and his eventual advice for Greece, articulated by Lysistrata, never even mentions the role of women in a peaceful society. While Chi-Raq’s sex strike similarly gets played out for comedic effect on-screen (it comes across as farcical), Lee has curiously gone on record as saying that such a movement might actually work. In several interviews, he’s cited the work of Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee as a successful example, even though Gbowee has admitted that sex strikes had “little or no practical effect” other than attracting media attention. Lee’s intention may be to paint Lysistrata’s boycott as an act of female empowerment, but he runs the risk of alienating audiences who find it misguided to suggest that withholding sex may be the most powerful tool modern women can wield in order to make their communities safer. It’s a criticism that Lee’s comments, not the film itself, elicit.
In fairness to Lee, Chi-Raq actually brims with strong female characters. Parris’ Lysistrata, unlike her Greek counterpart, acts as a leader who partners with rather than manipulates other women to meet her goals for peace. Both Irene and the older Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) are mothers who have lost children to gun violence, but Lee doesn’t present them solely as victims. Irene, wounds still fresh, tirelessly canvasses her neighborhood to find her daughter’s killer, and the educated Helen rallies the older women in support of Lysistrata. Each prominent female character in the film dedicates herself in some way to bringing about peace, fitting portrayals given that Lee used many extras who are activist mothers who have seen their own children murdered.
Obviously, burying children is no laughing matter, so it’s not surprising that seeing Samuel L. Jackson strutting in a pimp suit or Dave Chapelle spitting verse about stripper poles might seem insensitive. Whenever asked why he chose to make Chi-Raq a satire rather than a documentary or straight drama, Lee often turns to Do the Right Thing as an example of how a film can be both funny and serious. And Chi-Raq is seriously funny. Lysistrata, like much of Aristophanes’ surviving plays, uses sexual innuendo and buffoonery (defecating guards and tented tunics galore as the sex strike lingers) to downplay polemical aspects, and Lee follows in that madcap tradition. These elements can make us laugh, but they can also steer us towards the more serious issues at hand. So, yes, we may groan when Chi-Raq rhymes to Lysistrata about leaving his gun but bringing his “pistol” to bed, but Dolmedes’ line about how fine she is (according to him, both Darren Wilson and Eric Garner would approve) comically, if crudely, hints at more pertinent matters than sex. Likewise, it’s difficult not to laugh when the government initiates project “Hot and Bothered” — pumping the Chi-Lites’ “Oh Girl” into the occupied armory — in order to try to weaken the striking women’s resolve, but we might also realize that the government only seems to care about these people because the Mayor, Commissioner, and President have found their wives on strike as well — a subtle but incredibly damning commentary.
Most importantly, though, despite its humor and silliness, Chi-Raq never makes light of its gun violence or fails to treat its serious characters with respect. Ole Duke (Steve Harris) may be a sex-starved old fool, but we eventually see he’s a decent man who, like the other old men and women, are simply hostages of their neighborhood’s violence. Mid-film, Lee brings back the wounded gang members from the movie’s opening club shooting — one wheelchair-bound and the other down several organs; these people aren’t treated like arm-cannon fodder in a Tarantino shoot ’em up. And one of the most heartrending scenes in all of cinema this year must be Hudson’s character (remember that the actress lost her mother, brother, and nephew in a shooting in 2008) on her hands and knees in the street, trying to scrub her baby’s blood from the pavement with soap and water. A memorial of stuffed animals, photos, and a sign that reads “Patti, you will be in our hearts forever” stands erected behind her. It’s all the more heartbreaking to understand that some of those who contributed to the memorial may know who killed Patti but won’t dare snitch.
“People change when they decide to change,” Miss Helen tells Lysistrata. Ultimately, that’s the conclusion that Lee’s Chi-Raq lands on. It doesn’t prescribe a solution, as Aristophanes’ play does, nor does it discount the various obstacles present in the black experience that can make changing one’s way of life exceedingly difficult, but it does offer that beginning to any type of meaningful change: hope. Early in the film, a fellow Spartan in a wheelchair says to Chi-Raq, “We gotta do something different. Don’t you wanna do something different?” But it’s not until Chi truly feels the damage that he’s caused others that he can answer that question. As the strike presses on, one by one, the Spartans and Trojans — some disabled, some scared, and still others, like Chi-Raq, carrying a heavy burden that just won’t lift — make the life-affirming decision to leave the gang life behind them.
Lee has faced several waves of criticism since announcing Chi-Raq as the next Spike Lee joint. Some have accused him of exploiting the pain and tears of Chicago’s South Side while others consider his use of satire an insult considering the grave nature of his film’s subject matter. If you ask Lee, he’ll tell you that he’s merely trying to shed some light on Chi-Raq, which can hopefully also illuminate what’s occurring in Killadelphia (West Philadelphia), Bodymore Murderland (Baltimore, Maryland), and other urban areas devastated by gang violence. “We as a people can’t talk only about Black Lives Matter, I Can’t Breathe, Don’t Shoot, and then not talk about this self-inflicted genocide we’re doing to ourselves,” Lee explains. “For me, it goes hand in hand. Only by talking about both and addressing both can we bring change.” Whether or not Chi-Raq helps to facilitate that conversation remains to be seen.