The average bear might recognize the following names of classic Greek playwrights: Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of extant writings from that time. To put things into perspective just count the number of screenwriters and playwrights that exist today and you can see how history has erased the multitude of ancient scribes now known only to scholars.
In 411 BCE Aristophanes wrote a blistering satire titled Lysistrata. The titular character advocates that women withhold sex from men in their typically male dominated society to end the then decades long Peloponnesian War. We all know how that turned out. Certainly it’s eye opening to realize that sexual mores and differences in class structure and equality are all issues that have been tossed around in popular entertainment for millennia.
Flash forward to the present and witness the substantial adaptation of Lysistrata to the current situation in Chicago by acclaimed writer/director Spike Lee. On a year-to-year basis since the turn of the century more deaths by murder have occurred in Chicago than to American troops in Afghanistan or Iraq. Thus the title of Lee’s new joint Chi-Raq.
Lee reunites many of the actors that have populated his movies in the past: Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson (steals every scene he’s in as the narrator Dolmedes), David Patrick Kelly, Wesley Snipes, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Roger Guenveur Smith, and Harry Lennix. Whitlock does his slow burn “Shhhiiiiittttt” that he totally owned as the detective in Lee’s 25th Hour, while Kelly is given a nod to his most famous line (from The Warriors) when a group of men start chanting “Bitches and ho’s, come out to play.”
Newcomers to the Lee cinematic universe include John Cusack, D. B. Sweeney, Dave Chappelle, Jennifer Hudson, Nick Cannon (in the title role of Chi-Raq), and Teyohah Parris (Dear White People) as Lysistrata.
There are moments in Chi-Raq that are as mesmerizing and galvanizing as anything you could hope to see in a film. There are also sequences where you are aware you are watching a theatrical production perhaps to the overall detriment of the film. One thing is certain: Chi-Raq totally delivers its message with a knockout punch.
Chi-Raq, opening wide this weekend, is produced by Amazon Studios but will appear only in theaters in advance of its internet streaming premiere.
— Michael Bergeron