In Spike Lee's latest film satire, Chi-raq, gang warfare engulfs south Chicago. As the women lose their children and men to violence, they decide to withhold their affections to husbands and lovers until gang fighting ends in their neighborhoods.
Known for his controversial films, Lee has taken his latest inspiration from the timeless ancient Greek satire Lysistrata, written 2,500 years ago by comic playwright Aristophanes.
The film's title is a mashup of Chicago and Iraq, referring to two deadly battlefields — one domestic, one foreign.
Between 2001 and 2015, there were 7,356 homicides in Chicago, according to statistics from Lee. That death toll, he said, surpassed the casualties of American Special Forces in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. Over that period, 4,424 troops were killed.
In just the first 10 months of this year, more than 2,500 people had been shot in Chicago; 430 of them died, he said.
In the film, Chi-raq is also the name of Chicago's deadliest gang leader and the lover of beautiful Lysistrata, an outspoken and influential woman, who — tired of death and carnage all around her — demands peace.
When an 11-year-old girl loses her life to a stray bullet while playing outside, Lysistrata calls on all women in the community to use their influence on the men to stop the gang violence. Until peace is restored, they all agree to a sex strike.
Like Aristophanes, Lee explores the power of women to bring an end to violence.
Honoring the rhythmic format of ancient Greek plays, Lee's script is composed in verse. The filmmaker says he felt the rhyming dialogue would appeal to audiences brought up on rap and spoken word performance.
The mix of ancient drama and modern inner-city beat is illustrated in the verse one woman uses to confront a man in the Chi-raq community:
"This ain't no joke. Dude, this is about life and death. About a community that's a wreck. /
And you want to sit here and talk about how women behave? Fool, we try to free these slaves! /
Slaves to the madness, slaves to this violence. And what you just want us to silence? /
We're gonna make sure these fools put down these guns!"
Power of sex strike
According to Lee, a sexual boycott against wars is not just the stuff of comedy; it is a tried-and-true approach.
"A sex strike happened in Liberia, I think in 2004,” he said. “A woman named Leymah Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Prize for using that tactic, a sex strike, to stop the second civil war in Liberia. So, it worked in ancient Greece and it worked in Liberia and there is a woman today who saw the trailer from Chi-raq, and she is starting a sex strike movement in Chicago.”
And while the sex strike by the women of south Chicago is the focal point of Chi-raq, the film is teeming with political and social issues such as poverty, unemployment, racism and the need for gun control in America.
"I think that we have to really put a value back on life," Lee stressed. "Globally. Life is precious. Life is value."
Platitudes and politics
Unfortunately, Chi-raq often devolves into socio-economic and racial platitudes, stretching the two-hour film too thin.
The film criticizes the U.S. for funding wars abroad instead of curtailing violence at home, but the filmmaker rates international terrorism as high.
"I'm not one to wave the flag,” he said. “But you pass a lot of this stuff around. No one, I think, doesn't have some blood on their hands in this world we live in today."
Lee also points to America's responsibilities at home and abroad, saying that it should practice the democratic principles it preaches. He criticizes the GOP, saying "these Republicans don't want to let Muslim Syrian immigrants to this county. I think that's not democratic."
But in Chi-raq, Lee's focal point is the sensitive subject of black-on-black crime in the U.S.
"It is like a war out there," he said. "It is not just Chicago or New York. Baltimore, Maryland, is known as ‘BodyMore, Murderland.’ "
Chi-raq addresses young African-American men, reminding them that in spite of the social, economic and racial injustices they are enduring, they should be accountable to their wives and children to keep the peace.
And if they cannot do it, then, as Chi-raq and the 2,500-year-old Lysistrata point out, women have the power to disarm men's loaded weapons.