What ‘Chi-raq’ misses about ‘Lysistrata’ and satire



*This post contains plot spoilers, but you should read it anyway*

Spike Lee’s latest joint, Chi-raq, is an adaptation of “Lysistrata,” a Greek comedy play by Aristophanes. The film, about girlfriends and wives of warring gangs in Chicago who stage a sex strike until their men agree to put down their weapons, has garnered mostly positive reviews from critics as a form of entertainment, but harsh criticism from anyone who has bothered to look even slightly closer at the content of the film. The film garners the former reaction because it has some very powerful moments (despite the open-mic-level rhyming dialogue) and makes an effort to shed light on the effect of violence on the inner city. It garners the latter because the film is an overly sexualized burlesque of Chicago with little semblance of the real Chicago, and, despite its efforts to make a point, is ultimately bogged down by incomplete “satirical” arguments made weak by an adaptation that missed the purpose of the Greek story and tried to make of it something that the original play was not—a satire.

Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” first produced in 411 BC, is not technically a satire. The genre of literature known as satire did not appear until the Roman period a few centuries later with the poetry of Lucilius. (I’ve written on the history of satire here.) So, any notion of the satirical aspects of the play should be taken with a grain of salt. Instead, the play should be seen as a comedy first (the sexual plot an opportunity for comic action and bawdy humor), and a vehicle for subversion second. This is not to say that the play does not have what we now consider to be a satirical temper, but it does mean that we should not project meanings and morals onto the play that are not necessarily present. The play does not stray far enough from bawdy humor to offer the type of social critique seen in Roman satire, nor does it go so far as to suggest that the sex strike alone is a viable option for achieving peace. Instead, the sexual aspect of the plot often seems to be only an excuse to make sexual innuendos. This comedic purpose is made clear by the fact that the second half of the play would have been played out by a stage full of men wearing huge phallic attachments, struggling to hide erections under their cloaks. And although the play is thought to be empowering to women, both men and women are sexualized and objectified throughout the play, their bodies used as props to serve the comedy. (At the end of the play, at Lysistrata’s bidding, the Athenians and Spartans choose what lands they will take in the treaty by pointing out which parts of a naked woman they prefer, complete with references to hills, bushes, and a gulf.) Also, all women would have been played by men, so any female empowerment is second hand. Despite this, or perhaps because of it (writing exclusively for male actors would have allowed Aristophanes the freedom to empower female characters beyond their established societal roles), Aristophanes’ play gives more power to its women than Spike Lee’s Chi-raq.

“Lysistrata” takes place during the Peloponnesian War between the Spartans and Athenians (changed to the Spartan and Trojan gangs for the film). It follows women from both sides of the fight, led by the Athenian Lysistrata, as they declare a sex strike to get the attention of their warring men, then use that attention to petition for peace and a treaty. More importantly, and this is one of Chi-raq‘s major misses, the women take over the Acropolis, where all funds for military spending were held, thus disrupting military operations. This is important for the success of their boycott, because they know that sex alone will not stop all men from fighting. The sex boycott is only the first stage of their protest. It is the initial call to arms, not the weapon itself. In the film, the women take over a National Guard training center, which has no effect whatsoever on gang warfare and seems out of place in a film that is supposed to satirize inner city violence. It is the product of an unimaginative adaptation by the screenwriters. In the play, the women take over a military stronghold, so the writers of the film have their women do the same in order to copy the plot, but they fail to realize the importance of the Acropolis in the play, and although they use the similar setting, they lose its purpose in establishing the power of the protest. In the play, the women hijack the Acropolis to force the men to speak, in the film, the women use the National Guard fortress to guard their own bodies. This is because the film characters see the sex strike as their most powerful weapon. Aristophanes’ characters only use it as catalyst for conversation, not for change.

In the film, sex is the only weapon the women have against the men, and as a result, the film becomes a contest of who can hold out the longest. It becomes a struggle between man and woman, as opposed to woman taking control and forcing man and man to face each other. It is because of this that the women in the film use the National Guard fortress as their way of guarding themselves against the men, instead of being their way of stopping the men from further war. Even the way they seize the fortress is sexual. In the play, the women take over the Acropolis by force, but in the film, Lysistrata uses her sexuality to seduce the General and tie him up. In the play, the Athenians and Spartans become so horny, that they come together in front of the Acropolis to find their women, but the strong and resilient Lysistrata presents to them the real reasons why they should petition for peace, then takes the form of the goddess Athena and negotiates the treaty. In the film, Lee’s heroine is never given that platform. Instead, she has a weird, climactic wrestling-styled scene with Spartan leader Chi-raq on a big brass bed in the middle of the National Guard hangar, in which she gives in to urges as easily as he does before the lights go out and any conversation about violence and peace is reduced to moans of pleasure. When the lights come up, the Trojan leader Cyclops stands beside the bed. Now a changed man who sees the futility of violence, he is given the opportunity to speak the peaceful moral of the film and present conciliatory words to his opponent. Meanwhile, the heroine Lysistrata is silent, lying beneath the sheets and behind her man, watching as the men complete negotiations on their own without her intercession.

This disconnect between the way the film and play utilize sex comes from the fact that, as I said above, the sex plot in the play was used for comedy, not satire. In order for satirical fiction to work as a vehicle for social change, it must present an absurd or extreme or mythical version of the social reality it wishes to change, then portray it in such a way that the extreme version exposes the audience to the absurdity inherent in that original reality. This is made most clear in caricatures, in which extremes are used to represent a politician’s worst characteristics, forcing the audience to react to those characteristics. Another example is dystopian fiction, in which the folly of the present is made to look perilous by a bleak vision of the future. In Lysistrata, the heroine seeks normal peace from a normal war, and it is only the means by which she petitions for peace that are extreme. This could be seen as a satire against the difficulty of peace talks if, and only if, the means to peace are achieved by the sex plot alone. In that case, the play could be seen as critiquing warring leaders by suggesting things are so bad that a lack of sex is the only way they could possibly achieve peace. Except in the play, peace talks are achieved only after the women disrupt the means by which war is conducted. They end the war by temporarily causing a cease fire, then negotiating. That is not absurd or extreme at all; that is exactly how treaties develop. In other words, this play presents a comedic way to a natural end. Chi-raq, on the other hand, relies on the absurdity of the sex plot as a path to peace. This also could be seen as that possible satire that critiques warring leaders by suggesting things are so bad something as absurd as a lack of sex is the only way they could possibly achieve peace. However, Spike Lee actually believes that sex strikes are a viable path to peace. The film even features clips of Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, who used sex strikes to help end the Second Liberian Civil War. If this is not an absurd suggestion for him, then the sex plot of the film is not meant to be absurd, and if the sex plot is meant to be honest, the film becomes a situational comedy about a tragic situation in Chicago that, apparently, can best be stopped by sexual healing.

So, the plot itself is not satirical, but some of the dialogue, and a few moments in the film, are. But that is not enough to make the film work as a social critique. There are some very biting lines, as is typical of a Spike Lee joint, about the variance in lifestyle for people in the inner city. “When they kill white folks and things don’t change,/ saving black lives is way out of range.” This line speaks a simple truth about both gun violence in America, and the disheartening reality of systemic racism. If Sandy Hook can’t change gun laws, how can we expect legislators to pay attention to violence on the South Side of Chicago? The problem with this film, though, is that it doesn’t go beyond this vague line to ask anything of the system or legislators, either. By placing blame on horny young men, and placing the onus of healing on sexualized women, Chi-raq only perpetuates the problem, and fails to offer anything close to satire of any meaning or consequence.

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