Violence dominates our headlines, from the theaters and cafes of Paris, to the attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics in the U.S. Once more we approach a holiday which commemorates The Prince of Peace, struggling for solutions to reduce all levels of mayhem. This search for answers concerns not only pundits and politicians, but artists. Here the boundaries of life and art converge. Director Spike Lee and screenwriter Kevin Wilmott commit the theme Aristophanes’ 5th century Greek play Lysistrata, to a contemporary treatment in Chi-Raq. In the film, which opens in U.S. theatres this week, the setting is current Chicago, primarily the South Side. In the original story Lysistrata is a woman who strives to end the Peloponnesian War by organizing women to withhold sexual relations from their husbands and lovers in a strike for peace. In Chi-Raq, which largely employs verse to tell its tale, Teyonah Parris portrays Lysistrata, the girlfriend of Chicago hip hop artist and gang leader Chi-Raq (played by Nick Cannon). Her efforts to forge a sex strike movement, are aimed at quelling gang warfare, including the murders and wounding of the non-members and bystanders. Also cast, are Angela Bassett as a respected neighbor, Wesley Snipes as a ganglord, John Cusack as an activist priest, and serving as an oracle, Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson’s character is named “Dolmedes”, an homage to 1970’s comic signifier Rudy Ray Moore’s recording and film character Dolomite. The ensemble also includes Jennifer Hudson and Harry Lennix. Their roles all vary in levels of gravity and farce. The issues tackled, some seldom addressed in feature film, are morbidly serious. Undertaking the matter in verse is all the more ambitious, and perhaps given its currency, necessary for the daylight of emotional distance. Unfortunately for too many, gun violence has become immediate.
Chi-Raq introduces the uninformed to, and reminds all other moviegoers of, the degree of homicide plaguing some of Chicago’s communities. Verse is recited in 21st century parlance, and as the plot evolves, musical numbers and choreography arm a battle of the sexes. Expository information about the principal players emerges throughout. Just as significantly, we learn what social factors helped plunge some sections of the city into zones of high risk and high reward. Parris (Mad Men, Dear White People, tv’s Survivor’s Remorse) , and to lesser extents, Hudson and Cusack, form the moral core of the drama. As Lysistrata, Parris exhibits a range that encompasses coy, strategic, devoted, conflicted, and empowered. Her sometimes ethereal command of the modernized mythical activist buoys the picture. Hudson, Cusack and Bassett deliver compelling turns, searing ethical messages along the way. Sam Jackson injects street philosophy into his sporty troubador.
This is a movie about agency, accountability, and human cost. Current events, controversy, and the resulting publicity thrust the film into limelight dominated by debate. Some may find the topic, treatment style, or locale not to their liking. In terms of creativity and lesson, Chi-Raq edutains. In spaces, it amuses (think School Daze‘s dance sequences). That said, one’s takeaways will depend on through what prism one views the societal challenges displayed, and one’s stance on the role of art to engage. Chi-Raq hits hard enough to start some discussions, and to demand others not be avoided.
Q & A WITH SPIKE LEE AND TEYONAH PARRIS:
Teyonah, what were some of your thoughts on self-inflicted genocide before you were attached to the movie?
PARRIS: What we’re currently talking about, and what is on our minds and hearts with police brutality, these conversations can be had simultaneously. It’s tragic. There’s a lot more at play, there are no jobs, people are trying to feed their families, and they feel there’s no way out, that they can’t change. That’s been on my mind, and when I learned I could use my art to have something to say, I certainly consider it an honor and a privilege.
Thank you. Spike, was the homage to “Dolomite”, written by you, or your co-screenwriter Kevin Wilmott, or both? And what part of the audience do you feel will recognize the reference?
LEE: Dolomite was Kevin. Sam’s character was supposed to be “Dolomite”, but we couldn’t get the clearance. The older audience will get it, but just because people don’t get it, doesn’t mean you don’t put it in.
Teyonah, men collaborated on this screenplay. Because of that, did you ask for any dialogue changes anywhere for gender reasons, even given the restrictions of the format, being in verse?
PARRIS: We had many conversations. There were times when we read, and I asked about dialogue, people asked during each reading. In the culmination scene where Nick (Cannon) and I come together, we watch this woman, and I asked if there was a way to make her less weak. I know it’s been three months, but I wanted her to show strength, even though she still loved him, instead of just being, “Ohhh, I’m a woman.” (waves hand and head backward in exaggerated romantic submission). I wanted her to put up more of a fight. We talked about some ideas to try, instead of the usual.
Lee also said the screenplay circulated for years. When Amazon considered the film, it took a few readings to pitch the project to them, because of the novelty of relating the story in verse.