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

MIKE McGEE | 12/11/2015, 1:35 p.m.
In his latest film, Chi-Raq, which draws from the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, director Spike Lee has managed ...
Scene from the Spike Lee joint, Chi-Raq, starring Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris, Jennifer Hudson, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix, D.B. Sweeney, Angela Bassett, along with John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson. The Dallas Examiner screenshot

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.