Spike Lee uses classic to reveal cycle of violence in Chi-Town

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The Dallas Examiner

In his latest film, Chi-Raq, which draws from the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, director Spike Lee has managed to successfully capture a similar innovation for the big screen as the sensation West Side Story created on Broadway in 1957 with its reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the play retooled into a modern musical that dealt with racism, poverty and a rise in post-WWII juvenile delinquency.

Lee and screenplay co-author Kevin Willmott have taken the substantive bones of the historical comedy and revived the body with a smart and topical look at the cinematic Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) who demands an end to gang violence on the South Side of Chicago just as Aristophanes’ original heroine was driven to bring an end to the Peloponnesian War.

The title of the film is a twist on words underscoring that the number of Americans killed in Chicago homicides has surpassed the number of Special Forces soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Chiraq” is a modern home to the bloody streets of one of America’s great cities where young Black males meet death or disfigurement at an extraordinary rate.

The movie presents to viewers a kingdom rife with poverty, racism and the mistrust of its residents toward both street-level gangs and the law enforcement of The Establishment – and all of it a battleground for the warring factions: the Spartans and the Trojans.

After a failed murder attempt upon Lysistrata’s boyfriend – the Spartan leader Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) – led to the maiming of teens from rival gangs and a retaliation killing that took the life of an 11-year-old girl, Parris’ character is guided by Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) to put a stop to the cycle of violence. Through Helen, Lysistrata learns of Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, a true-life uniter of women in Liberia.

Gbowee helped bring about a peaceful end to the Second Liberian Civil War in part to the attention she garnered by urging a sex strike by the women of her country against men as a way to wind down the civilian conflict.

When Lysistrata realizes that a Black woman like herself was able to create a positive change by denying bloodthirsty males what Aristophanes termed “… every depth of love” she moves the women of the rival gangs – and eventually all of the women in the neighborhoods of South Chicago – to withhold their sexuality from their men until they change their fiercer nature.

The screenplay and the tremendous casting in Chiraq are the true standouts of the film. Parris is able to imbue her modern Lysistrata with the traits of sexiness, humor, danger and righteous determination all with equal accomplishment.

The actress balances this while believably reciting dialogue that is written in rhyming verse in practically every scene, just as the original Greek play was presented.

When Aristophanes expresses Lysistrata’s plea for the women of Greece to consider their place in society along that of their warring menfolk, her words – from a Project Gutenberg online edition of the translated script – are emotional and come from the style of classic literature:

Lysistrata:

Are you not sad your children’s fathers

go endlessly off soldiering afar

in this plodding war?

I am willing to wager

There’s not one here whose husband is at home.

When the screenplay references the same passage it becomes contemporary, colloquial and beautifully poetic:

Lysistrata:

Everybody here got a man

Bangin’ and slangin’

Fighting for the flag

Risking that long zip

with a cadaver bag

INDIGO (girlfriend of the leader of the Trojans):

All to the bang-bang.

Parris makes it look easy the entire time she is onscreen even as her words maintain a message that originated in the era of swords and chariots.

Samuel L. Jackson is also cast to perfection as Dolmedes, a one-man chorus who narrates the unfolding tale like a conductor directing a symphony; he turns up the drama in one spot, or coaxes out the undertones of comedy in the other, always keeping the entire thing colorful and engaging. It is a commanding role on par with that of Taye Diggs’s Bandleader in Chicago or Joel Grey’s Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret – films that also pulled pathos and humor from periods of troubling reality.

The film also has names from ancient Greek literature that show up; Elektra, Cyclops, Oedipus and Aesop are just some of the figures from Hellenic antiquity that have a role to play in Lee’s script.

By using these little name-dropping teases, the director has constructed a realm where Chicago represents a view of the world as the Greeks of Aristophanes’ age may have seen it.

Lee takes the idea even further. As Lysistrata’s band of female celibates garner growing attention, the movie portrays similar sex strikes for peace occurring in Japan, Brazil, the Middle East, Australia – every land and society where women have grown weary of the incessant, insistent violence of their men.

With Chiraq, Lee has managed to create something impressive with what may have been difficult and fragmented material for other directors. His latest work offers the audience an interesting, up-to-date version of a mythic account written a few hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ.

Lee presents the story in the same metrical style the Athenians of old would have encountered it but gives the language a new flavor, beat and pointedness with a diverse soundtrack to match.

In the end, the humor of Chiraq may be as old as the Acropolis but the tragedy present within the fable is as current as the headlines printed week after week in newspapers across the nation.

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