“No peace, no pussy”: why Spike Lee's take on Aristophanes succeeds

Lee's film, in which the women of Chicago decide to go on a sex strike, is often muddled – but never dull.

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No one could ever accuse Spike Lee of dodging a fight, but there was a time when he was known for his films as well. Nowadays he gets attention only if he stokes controversy, whether righteous (he was among the celebrities who boycotted the Oscars this year when it overlooked black talent) or irresponsible (he tweeted what he believed wrongly to be the home address of George Zimmerman, the man acquitted of second-degree murder after shooting the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin). But it would be a shame if audiences got the idea that he had lost his flair. Though he received stick from some Chicago residents over the title of Chi-Raq, intended to reflect the high rates of gun crime in that US city, the movie, if often muddled, is rarely dull.

Then again, no film that transposes Aristophanes’s Lysistrata to South Side Chicago has any business being boring. That play depicts women withholding sex from Athenian men in an attempt to end the Peloponnesian War. (Lee made his name with She’s Gotta Have It but this is more like He Ain’t Gonna Get It.) Chi-Raq isn’t the first mainstream US movie to be based on ancient Greek literature: Walter Hill’s 1979 thriller The Warriors was inspired by Xenophon’s Anabasis, and Lee tips his hat to that film here with a scene in which its best-known line (“Warriors, come out to play-ee-yay”) is paraphrased. He and Kevin Willmott wrote the screenplay in verse. Or, as the nattily dressed narrator Dolmedes (Samuel L Jackson) puts it in one of his addresses to the camera: “In the style of his time/’Stophanes made dat shit rhyme.” This is not as irritating as it sounds, with the possible exception of the line: “It don’t get no gooder/You’re sweeter than granulated sugar.”

The Trojans, whose purple-and-violet gang colours extend to their graffiti and the marbled surfaces in their homes, are at war with the Spartans, who are kitted out in zingy orange. The Spartans’ leader, Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), wears a sequinned orange eyepatch. The women have no room in their fruit bowls for apples.

When a child is killed by a stray bullet, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), the girlfriend of the Trojan gang leader Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), proposes to her Spartan counterparts a sex strike. “No peace, no pussy” is their battle cry. The men respond with “Do your duty, drop the booty”.

One risk is that the larkiness can jar with more sombre scenes in which the parents of real gun-crime victims brandish photographs of their dead children. Yet there is no disputing the potency of the hoarse, booming sermon given by the neighbourhood pastor. It is one of the oddities of Chi-Raq that the strongest rhetoric on the persecution of African Americans (who are passed from “third-rate schools to first-rate prisons”) is delivered in an all-black church by a white actor, John Cusack.

What is doubtful, at first, is whether Lee can remember how a film hangs together. It seems inconceivable that the director who created in Malcolm X one of the most explosive openings in all cinema – real-life footage of the beating of Rodney King intercut with a burning US flag – would consider it wise to begin with a five-minute overture during which hip-hop lyrics unspool on an empty screen, followed by a summary of statistics about the death toll in Chicago. The film takes some time to recover from this assault on its momentum.

That it does is thanks in no small part to Parris, whose magnetism would be evident even without her many close-ups or the satisfying tracking shot in which her high heels clip-clop perfectly in sync with the beat on the soundtrack. Lee’s films have not always been friendly to women (Jungle Fever and even She’s Gotta Have It contained problematic moments), so it is encouraging to see the sisters afforded some agency here, even if they are denied the chance to announce their strike to the men. The bawdy, revue-style humour is only fitfully funny, but it is amusing to see city officials trying to weaken the women’s resolve by blasting out sultry soul music, much as delicious roast chicken is placed outside the prison cells of hunger strikers.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage