Spike Lee’s Chi-raq is based on the COMEDY Lysistrata, a play written by Aristophanes somewhere between 427 and 387 BCE.
As an English major, I am ashamed that I had never even heard of this ancient play. But now I know why: the plot.
As I say above, Lystrata is a comedy. There is a war going on between the city states of Athens and Sparta. Lysistrata, a vixen with a husband, gathers all the wives of husbands on both sides of the war, and they hatch a plan to stop the war: until their husbands end the war, they will refuse to have sex with them. Then the men run around with erections sticking out of their cloaks.
That’s right. Spark Notes uses that very word. Check it out:
A Spartan Herald approaches the Akropolis and he, like Kinesias, suffers an erection. The Spartan describes the desperate situation of his countrymen and pleads for a treaty. Delegations from both states then meet at the Akropolis to discuss peace. At this point, all of the men have full erections.
Describing the very same scene, Wikipedia terms it as a “large burden.”Don’t worry, it still uses that other word:
A Spartan herald then appears with a large burden (an erection) scarcely hidden inside his tunic and he requests to see the ruling council to arrange peace talks. The magistrate, now also sporting a prodigious burden, laughs at the herald’s
embarrassing situation but agrees that peace talks should begin.
And then there’s the venerable NY Times’ version. If there’s a poetic but nebulous way to say something, The New York Times is on it. Here is how they describe that same scene:
…Some of the men end up delivering their lines erect, which the ancient Athenian players expressed by wearing artificial phalluses…
Another English-major confession: I didn’t know that you could use the term “erect” that way. I thought that the men were delivering their lines standing up. Good that their phalluses were artificial.
Skip forward two millennia or so and take a look at Spike Lee’s modern take:
Plot: The girlfriends of the members of two warring gangs tell their boyfriends that they will not have sex with them until they end the gang wars. It takes place in Chicago, where the number of murders per year has skyrocketed. The term “Chi-raq” was coined by young people who live in the ghettos in Chicago to indicate that they feel like they are living in a war zone, like Iraq used to be. Some of the dialog is in verse and some is in song–just like in Lysistrata. There is no mention of erection in connection with Chi-raq. Maybe the men just get hot and bothered, and frustrated, terribly frustrated.
Time for a peek at the reviews and one article of note. Starting with the article:
Article by K.M. McFarland
This is a two-paragraph feature about the ire that Chance the rapper feels towards Spike Lee. Chance lives in Chicago. Lee has never lived there. Chance said that Spike has no business setting the film in Chicago because he has no first-hand knowledge of neither Chicago nor the gangs. This is true. Chance does not like the way that Chicago is portrayed in the movie.
That said, Chicago’s murder stats are frightening, and it has the most gangs of any US City. But Chance is not the only Chicagoan who is pissed off. It is noted in most reviews across the web.
Luckily we have The New York Times to settle the controversy.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Review by Manohla Dargis
Spoilers skimmable? The NY Times thrives on spoilers. I could only read the first and last paragraph and the first sentence of some of the paragraphs in between. But they give fair warning and it is easy to skip over the spoilers.
Bottom line: best Spike Lee joint in years. It has a bit of everything: song, verse, “woman’s parts.” Perhaps the latter replaces the artificial phalluses of yesteryear.
Ever so eloquent, here are the first two sentences of Dargis’ review. I have to go into English major mode, because per usual, we can learn so much about writing from The Times:
The laughs in Spike Lee’s corrosive “Chi-Raq” burn like acid.
(Boom! It’s a decree like no other. It stops us dead in our tracks, giving us just the slightest of moments to allow those words to wash over us, like a wave in the Pacific Ocean does over the rock formations that make it treacherous to swim.)
Moving on, here’s the next sentence:
Urgent, surreal, furious, funny and wildly messy, the movie sounds like an invitation to defeat, but it’s an improbable triumph that finds Mr. Lee doing his best work in years.
Remember this, because the critic below ends his review in the same way Dargos starts hers—with descriptors indicating that the movie is awful, but then coming up for air to tell readers to see it.
Finally, The NYT recognizes that people may object to the setting in Chicago. Dargos deems this to be the “most daring” part of Chi-Raq. But she says that the Chicago in the film is obviously fiction, and it is a metaphor for…..drum roll please…..AMERICA!
This movie stirs up many conflicting opinions in Dargis and many other film critics—you’ll see that in my next review too. I submit that the film critics en masse are a metaphor for the common man and woman; for we all have conflicts within.
The AV Club
Review by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky
Spoilers skimmable? Yes, but you have to be on the alert for them. You can’t get too comfortable.
Bottom line: It is an hour too long, it isn’t funny at all, it lacks “sociological credibility,” there are some scenes that comprise Lee’s typical heavy-handed proselytizing, BUT go see it!
It’s a “patience-testing fumble, but it’s one worth making.”