You expect depth in a Spike Lee movie, but in “Chi-Raq,” Lee’s latest directorial offering, Lee has teamed with Kevin Willmott (“C.S.A: The Confederate States of America”) to give us verse that rips through the fabric of social niceties and gives us a city that has had more casualties than the current military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. “Chi-Raq” derives its plot for the Aristophanes’ 411 BCE classic comedy “Lysistrata” and its name from slang used to refer to the violent South Side area of Chicago. While this is an intriguing take on a classic Greek tragedy, “Chi-Raq” also should make us ask questions about race and representation.
Chi-Raq is a portmanteau that takes the first syllable of the city name Chicago and combines with it with the last syllable of Iraq to illustrate the level of violence and high crime in the South Side that includes Englewood. )If your from Los Angeles, you might feel a slight twinge of mistaken identity. We have Inglewood and it is also not in a particularly nice part of town.) In the movie, “Chi-Raq” is also the rapper moniker taken by the leader of a Spartan gang, Demtrius Dupree. His girlfriend is Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), but she questions the violence of his lifestyle, particularly after a night of lovemaking ends with the rival gang, the Trojans, setting fire to her apartment.
Now homeless, Lysistrata moves in with peace activist Miss Helen (Angela Bassett). Helen’s daughter was an innocent bystander who caught a fatal bullet years before. Helen lines her walls with books. She is angry, but she doesn’t believe violence is the way to resolve the problems between the Spartans and the Trojans. With Miss Helen as an advisor and moved the recent death of another young girl, 11-year-old Patti, on the streets, Lysistrata tries to form an alliance with the women of the Trojans. The Trojans are led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), a man who sports a blinged-out eye patch.
Patti’s grieving mother, Irene (Jennifer Hudson), pleads for witnesses to come forward, but the community is united in their silence. A reward offered by anti-gun peace activist minister Mike Corridan’s church doesn’t encourage anyone to come forward. Lysistrata gets the Spartan and Trojan women to refuse to have sex with their men until there is peace. She then takes over an armory by seducing one of the top officials in what is perhaps a misjudged sequence.
As you might expect from Spike Lee, “Chi-Raq” has plenty of curse words and an lewd suggestive phrases in the verse form dialogue. The naughtiness is in keeping with the original text for “Lysistrata.” How can one talk about sex without some sly references to the act? Aristophanes’ text includes a reference to a specific sexual position although whether that’s a real position or an imaginary one (or one made up and then made into one) isn’t clear. In the original play, the women do take control, but not of an armory but rather of the state treasury in the Acropolis.
With any classic Greek play, there’s a Greek chorus. In the case of “Lysistrata” it is a chorus of Old Men juxtaposed against a chorus of Old Women. The battle of the sexes exists in the narrative features. Spike Lee chooses instead to have a male narrator, Samuel L. Jackson as Dolmedes (which will make foodies think of Dolmades). Dolmedes acknowledges the source material and the reason for continuing in verse form. The dialogue is sometimes unspoken, using social media comments that flash on the screen during a rap performance.
Gun violence and gang violence is an important topic, but Lee and Willmott also plunge into another historical problem: the American Civil War. At the armory, the leader who is seduced is revealed to be a covert supporter of the lost Confederate cause, at least, that’s what his boxer shorts tell us as he straddles an old cannon. Yes. A cannon. Phallic visual jokes abound and this isn’t the only one. Racism and hidden racism is also a modern day concern, but here it presents a tangent that draws away from the focus of black-on-black violence. You get what you expect from this Spike Lee movie: profanity, angry rage against the systems that keep black people down, sexy women and men and great music.
Los Angelenos will find some parallels with every mention of Englewood, but also calls for action. Los Angeles was the scene of the Watts Riots in 1965. More recently there were the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, but during the Los Angeles Riots there was considerable unrest in areas that were predominately Latino neighborhoods. South Central, one of the hardest hit areas, was about 45 percent Latino and 48 percent black. According to a 1993 report by the Latinos Futures Research Group, one third of the deaths during the riots were identified as Latinos and half of the arrests were of Latinos. The Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots predates the Watts Riots by two decades 1943.
Although Los Angeles is also home to Hollywood, the supposed center of the U.S. movie-making industry, it doesn’t represent Los Angeles or California well in the output of movies. Los Angeles is 47.5 percent Latino and only 9.8 percent black or African American. Of the 41.3 percent white population, only 29.4 percent are non-Latino white. Pasadena is 55.8 percent white, but 33.7 percent Latino and only 10.7 percent black. In the U.S. the 2010 Census shows that 16.4 percent are Latino and only 12.2 percent are non-Latino black.
For Los Angeles and even the U.S., the concerns should include Latinos. Black-on-black violence is an important issues. For South Central, the issue might be black-versus-Latino. For other areas, it might be Latino-versus-Latino.
A Los Angeles-born playwright, Luis Alfaro, wrote a Latino version of the Greek tragedy by Sophocles, “Oedipus Rex,” as “Oedipus El Rey” in 2010. It was also produced and staged in the Los Angeles area at Boston Court. In 2005, Alfaro’s Latino take on Sophocles’ “Electra,” brought the story to the barrios of Los Angeles in “Electricidad” at the Mark Taper Forum. More recently, Alfaro’s take on the “Medea” was at the Getty Villa Outdoor Theater this last summer as “Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles.”
“Electricidad” was about love during a time of gang violence in modern times. “Oedipus El Rey” is about an ex-con living in Los Angeles and his ill-fated love for Jocasta. “Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles” dealt with issues of immigration and legal and illegal status. These plays could easily transfer to a feature movie and just by the numbers of the Los Angeles and the U.S. current populations, Latino stories and Latino lives should be better explored in features films. Los Angeles and Hollywood should be taking the stories of Los Angelenos and bringing them to the big screen and begin focusing on the growing population of Latinos.
“Chi-Raq” is currently in theaters as well as available to stream online through Amazon Video for $9.99 or free with Amazon Prime.