Enough waiting for you lot of foolish men to do it. We, women, can wait no longer. And if you want to take your turn at shutting up and listening to our good advice, we’ll straighten everything out for you!– Lysistrata by Aristophones
“Americans like war, they like guns.” Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) and Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) sit across from one another at a table, pondering the world around them. Lysistrata has arrived on Miss Helen’s doorstep with her suitcase in search of respite from the violence that overdetermines her life in Chicago. That respite is short-lived, as gunshots from the street send them ducking for cover in Miss Helen’s carefully tended front room. Though very aware of their generational differences – Miss Helen reads books and likes to garden, Lysistrata tweets and likes dancing, especially when her boyfriend, the rap artist Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), is on stage – they’re determined to come up with a response to the violence.
That response shapes all that follows in Chi-Raq. A Spike Lee Joint of exponential dimensions, Chi-Raq draws from current headlines and hip-hop lyrics, Aristophanes’ play (411 BCE), and Lee’s prior films to forge a vibrant, propulsive saga of fury and hope.
Of course, it’s not just Chicagoans or Americans who like war. The movement named and initiated in this fictional Chicago extends instantly worldwide via social media. The women drive the movement by force of will and poetic, gorgeous energy. They gather and debate, they make their demands: they mean to withhold sex from the men until they lay down their arms.
Just so, the women’s scheme begins and ends with their men – not only their partners but also their fathers and sons – lives lost and lives they must save. Even as the men resist, insisting on their need for territory and reputation and delusions of power, their flailing in the face of the sex strike, at once comic and tragic, makes clear the utter insignificance of their priorities.
That flailing is underscored by the chorus embodied by Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson), revisiting his role as Do the Right Thing‘s Mister Senor Love Daddy, speaking on street corners and in the barbershop, wise and observant and urging his listeners to pay attention. It’s also revealed in the men’s many pronouncements and summits, called by gang leaders like Chi-Raq and Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), as well as by Mayor McCloud (D.B. Sweeney), Police Commissioner Blades (Harry Lennix) – who oversees a typically militarized police force, with armored vehicles, SAWT teams, and assault weapons – and the phenomenally ridiculous General King Kong (David Patrick Kelly).
Yet, as much as the men try to keep hold of the narrative, calling each other out or to action and complaining of the women’s “sexual terrorism”, Chi-Raq turns again and again to the women’s efforts, their meetings and strategies, their manipulations of media. Such manipulations comprise daily life, minute by minute. Chi-Raq offers a clever road map concerning the simultaneous urgency and triviality of that life. From its opening scene, when a crowd gathered in a club turns ecstatic when Chi-Raq takes the stage, the event is propelled by social messaging, emblems of which hang on the screen. The end to that particular show is violent, but the shooters don’t only pull out weapons, but also their phones, their threats and retorts to one another hanging on the screen, pulsing and silly, full of hyperbole and braggadocio, posturing in little blurbs even as their bodies lie bloody on the floor.
Lysistrata and her team of burgeoning activities understand this, too, having grown up texting. They know how to use media imagery, they play to television broadcasts and Internet users, they make their case public and gather support for the cause. Sometimes this sharing takes place in the street. Neighbors call out neighbors at the latest crime scene, standing behind police tape, calling on each other to feel responsible in the face of authorities’ indifference. When Lysistrata is moved to seek out Miss Helen, a survivor who lost her husband to street violence, they find that they can share stories and find strength in their community.
So too, Irene (Jennifer Hudson), who loses her daughter early in Chi-Raq, finds some solace in the church. Amidst the mourning and the singing, the choreography and the beauty, Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) offers a remarkably succinct breakdown of the economic and political intersections that produce what he calls “the life of a gun”, its journey from factory to city street. As his congregation sways and sings and prays together, they represent a force that, if moved to action, might be formidable and commanding.
Chi-Raq imagines that movement to action, inspired by Lysistrata. She and her many sisters embrace media and use their spectacular bodies to draw and maintain attention to the cause. As divisive as media can be – and surely the sheer noise of cable television, news broadcasts, and social media can be daunting – their potential to transform their community is equally compelling and dramatic. As they see it, Lysistrata and Miss Helen can change the world.