Director. Spike Lee. Written by Spike Lee and Kevin Willmot. Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson. Music by Terence Blanchard. Cinematography Matthew Libatique. Edited by Ryan Denmark.
Prevent war remove sex. How does that work when women enjoy it much the same as men do and can be just as distraught if it’s not on the horizon? Based on the 411bc play by Aristophanes it tells the tale of one woman’s mission to end the Peloponnesian War. Lysistrata played by Teyonah Parris who projects a sexualised image, convinces the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands as a means of forcing the men to negotiate a peace. In the blink of an eye this scenario presents in Chicago as a modern day philosophy on manhood in the hood with the female carrying the fall out of violence as most of them choose not to carry a gun being polar opposites. Renaming it as Chi-Raq which is one of the leading gangsters name, that part played by Nick Cannon, is explained in the opening frames which are launched as a set of rap lyrics with smooth multi-faceted lessons on the reality in slanguage spoken by rappers. The old Dr Johnson meaning – to rap – speak violently augmented in a slick roll of red print on black introducng then the figures of deaths in Afganistan, Iraq then America which are in ascending order and deaths by gun crime amount to more than the other two combined over the period up to the present. Chi-Raq is in a feud with Cyclops played by Wesley Snipes. The killings go on through their turf wars.
Spike Lee is on the case of Gun crime being a act of community self annihilation by recreating a closely fixed tragic-comic opera to the cinema screen for consumption by all those wise enough to see the message as relevant to the times and a picture of disconnections between white and black/brown Americans in inner city environments. Taking a play from 411bc is a act of performance totally formulated on a stage with us as the audience and we have a MC – one Samuel L. Jackson as a compete who is an invigilator expressing to the wide audience range anticipated the shape of the drama as it unfolds. He is snappily dressed with a cane who comes on between acts. The fourth wall is like a pro-cesium arch with real backdrops. Spike Lee filters into the set progression reality. The actors themselves are frequently those who suffered and their injuries are explained whereas the dead don’t speak. They are forgotten. Yet into this is reality in the form of memorial with portraits of real live lost shown as a memorial tapestry, a mural of the lost victims. Like any memorial March, say the Bloody Sunday victims these images are not for suppressing but remembering. This is our Selma a roster shows.
Profanity, sexual patois is dispensed like everyday language, it is layered and layered in effective meter as in Classical drama. This is Titus Andronicuos with violence a daily experience. Here it is confined to neighbourhood slaughter off screen with innocent victims – central to the story is the death by a ricochet of Paula a ten year old child. Her loss is a figurehead cause bringing in a local Ministers involvement, Father Mick played by John Cusack as a man on a mission, who instead of explaining the Christian view of suffering having no reason or purpose other than to examine our own life gift. He uses the criminality as a signal to mpower the people and entreat their brotherly/sisterly love. In this there is no cliche. No make love not war, no woman on cry, no peace no love, but the stirring of the women leader Lysistrata who in meetings and rallies has persuaded many to withhold sexual privileges or options in their relationships, whether lovers, husbands or casual acquaintances. It is immediately about the sexual politics prevalent in the age then and now.
The speech and address to the Congregation gathered at the funeral of a child victim, is neither a sermon nor an admonishment. It is a monologue on the ills of society in his outreach and is a plea muted, support of Lysistrata as the focus is on the child and its loss through gun crime. It is a brilliantly delivered tirade and is about the only thing I found merited credit in the film.
Single issue combat
It is not about domestic violence, feminine rights, child sexual abuse, procreation rights which the original play also excludes. The simplicity of the scenario therefore limits the narrative by making it almost comedic and farcical. Never are the roles assessed or the possibility of programmed lives as culture dictates. The sexual behaviors outside this community is not challenged. When child abuse was prevalent in the upper classes and boys, girls were regularly ‘bed warmers’ the destible practices pervaded all strands of society. Herecthe play is focusing on the powerless. Restoring unity among warring factions of society is the aim of Lysistrata.
It is at once a problematic issue in reconfiguring the premise of the ancient story to a vast group of people in present day Chicago. Firstly the role of females is crudely stereotyped into different characterisations with the leader
Many parallel plays come to mind in respect of war and methods of creating peace. The recent film Napoleon while being a War film illustrated a lesser accepted fact that religion has less to do with wars (Ricky Gervais please note) than constantly trailed out as fact. The Academic record states otherwise. Napoleon the film might even gesture towards being anti-war. The Silver Tassie by Sean O’Casey, (banned by W.B.Yeats as being too anti war and anti-British also) is another. So much for the sentimental poems as sophisms of sense of place. More than any I’ve seen I constantly return to the Ballet/Play I first seen performed by the Batheseba Ballet Company of Israel perform. It first was performed in 1934 and is a solemn link to the past and presses the vision of peacemaking without arms. Powerful as this is similarly powerful.
The use of sexualised imagery is both like a bad rap video exentuating all the hot spots including a rating of women afraid to loose their lovers if they do not fill the stereotypes they occupy. Relationships are not a battleground but a mutual place for love to flourish in a home and rewarding in all parts.
The Spike Lee choice to hype up the sexual ramparts of bling culture, rap culture and neighbour hoods presence and effect is definitely overplayed and it saturates the film with profanity a needless representations of misogyny. Lysistrata is plastered in bling and their are repeated visits where she is visiting every corner of the neighborhood drumming up support. There are stand off replicating city gun stake outside and delivered operatically. These are juvenile in concept and over simplification at which point I began to realise – the people who this film is supposed to be about, and the roll call of ‘one eyed monsters’ – Cyclops is indeed sightless in a jeweled one eyed eye patch and carries it to oversimplified responses when confronted with the dynamic.
The rest of the country is as recent elections have show are a mirror of racial tensions born out of discrimination, oppresiveclaws and poverty which has a large majority livecin below the poverty line in the disenfranchised communities of non-white background with about $12,000 an annual income to live on for most non-white Americans which includes non state health care provision. The point quickly made that the poor are a business generating incomes across the board from, welfare workers, lawyers, schools and healthcare which compare unfavourably with the high tech prisons and state bureaucracies leveraged by the poor.
3 themes present in all seriousness. It’s a serious matter from 411 bc.
The three themes are: peace and unity, power and gender, and politics. Peace and Unity The main theme of Lysistrata is peace and unity. This is the main theme because the goal of the women is to create peace and to restore unity in Greece.
Instead of a group of Old men and Old women choruses we have a nifty police force and military. They are the power base. There is then the Trojans and Spartans with religious oversight stuck in the middle as moralists. The wooden fires of the separate factions is replaced by ear defenders and loud music of indifferent and stereotypical soundings. The Mayor role covers the Commisioners role who is played as an overaxous to please congressman type who is both a fascist and realist.
The opera is rather long and drawn out and strange choices are made by Spike Lee to put up the resolution and gravitas in a conclusion. The absence of a workable conclusion makes it presumably be termed a Comedy and one of 11 surviving plays of Aristophanes.
Giving this time to develop and for it to piece together without demeaning Chi-Raq citizens is a tall order not achieved by Spile Lee. He patronises his possible audiences and maybe communities with the stereotypes of people who actually experience the deaths visited in the city of Chicago. The jigsaw pieces are large and fitted together but it’s all bling and gung-ho and does not do justice to the people who actually are in the community. It uses their experiences and mirrors them back in a disfigured, profane and facile way. Sure it hits hot spots and reconfigures, contextualoses the notion of life there but it is a lost opportunity given the – and the choice of play is merely ironic – might of film and the reach to audiences. It will offend plenty and it will get lots of plaudits but it fits into a category of being too sensationalist and crude representation of very proud people who have come through a lot. Greek wisdom is partial as a projection of a problem not a summation and fresh viewpoint. The overall display pace and look of the film despite some repatativeness os a work finely crafted. It is such a shame the contents are supplanted by mockery and lack of soul, Minister Mick excepted.
There are lots of good performances and one of the standouts is Angela Bassett in the role of Miss Helen who is one of the more articulate joiners and has less ‘rhyming s language to slaughter the ordinal pay with and its audience. There are plenty of interesting provocative one-liners but they are scattered in the middle of a ‘slanguage’ contest for who can be the profanist unfortunately.
1 December 2016
On at Queens Film Theatre Belfast from 2 December through to 8 December 2016.