A modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, set against the backdrop of gang violence in Chicago.
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Teyonnah Parris, Nick Cannon, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, John Cusack, Wesley Snipes, D.B. Sweeney, Samuel L. Jackson
Rated: R (strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use)
By Cole Schneider
Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote comedies that weren’t just funny, they shook the world to its core. His contemporary, Plato, blamed the power of his play, “The Clouds”, for Socrates’ death penalty. This was a man writing high-satire in a way that Athens would respond with swift political action. He wrote “Lysistrata” with the intention of ending the Peloponnesian War. It worked.
In cynical America, weary from political promises, gun violence, and economic unbalance, the closest thing we have to Aristophanes might be Spike Lee. Here is a man with an unabashed agenda who sees the pain of the country around him and still hopes for better days. He’s a filmmaker who speaks his messages with blunt unpretentiousness, a broad comic sensibility, and a fierce righteousness. He’s an angry romantic and there may be nothing more brave today.
“Chi-Raq” takes “Lysistrata”–a comedy following one woman’s quest to end the Peloponnesian War by persuading women to withhold sexual privileges until men called a truce–and places it in modern Chicago, amongst two warring gangs as a musical. Lee never intends to make a movie with subtlety–one scene is a literal sermon–but its surreal, hyper-stylish atmosphere is matched by Aristophanes’ ridiculous plot and bouncy poetry.
“Chi-Raq” ranks among the all-time great entertaining political messages. Has there ever been a film with such determined political motivation that’s half as fun to sit through? We may indeed have to go back to Aristophanes to find politics and entertainment mixed with this kind of gusto. “Chi-Raq” won’t be credited 2,500 years later with ending a race war or halting gun violence, but it may have the capacity to trade a few caskets for several laughs. I’ll join Lee in that prayer.
5 out of 5 Stars
By Matt Greene
I hated Chi-Raq. Not because it’s a bad or boring film; in fact, it’s easily in the discussion as one of the greatest of 2015. Hysterically funny and piercingly powerful, Lee’s propulsive style violently spits out its anti-violence message with the vigor of a young person and wisdom of veteran. What I hated is, even through its beautifully extreme style, its modern relevance is so shockingly timely it inspires like a documentary. But Chi-Raq is not a documentary, or even a true story (in the strictest sense); it’s simply a hypnotically entertaining, dramatically moving, and socially penetrating narrative for modern times.
Remember Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play that your 9th grade English teacher probably made you read, insisting it was hilarious? Chi-Raq, a modern re-telling that changes the language and setting but little else, may prove your teacher right. In Lee’s adaptation, Lysistrata, the main squeeze of one of Chicago’s (aka Chi-Raq’s) chief gang members and rappers, leads the local women on a sex strike until the killing in their city ends. This is intentionally apropos to what we see in the news every night, yet Lee directs with such beautiful theatricality and hilarious wit, it entertains more like a Busby Berkeley musical than a social statement.
This masterful mashup of incisive art and flamboyant infotainment straddles the line between sadly familiar reality and absurd fiction with tons of brainy energy. The script and direction are full of chorus-delivered poetic dialogue, giant fourth-wall breaking performances, and dance-like choreography, making this a movie unlike any you’ll see this year or most others. If you consider yourself a thoughtful adult, get thyself to a cinema for Chi-Raq.
4.5 out of 5 Stars