Saturday 5 March 2016

Aristophanes in Illinois: Spike Lee's CHI-RAQ

Lee, Willmott  & John Cusack (who plays radical priest Father Mike)
What do South and West Chicago today and Athens in spring 411 BCE have in common? Film Director Spike Lee thinks there are vivid parallels. He’s made a film updating Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to CHI-RAQ, ‘Chi-[cago/I]raq’, the killing fields where teenage members of African American gangs run riot with firearms. I met Mr Lee this week, just after his non-appearance at the whiter-than-white Oscars, during a public screening and discussion masterminded by Professor Sara Monoson, Head of Political Science at Northwestern University north of Chicago.

Just about to kick off with Sara Monoson
Eighteen months before the first production of Lysistrata, the Athenians failed to conquer Sicily and suffered their worst ever fatalities there, losing many thousands. Athens was crammed with widows and grieving mothers; Aristophanes' comedy imagines the Athenian women organising a sex-strike alongside the women of the ‘enemy’ city, Sparta, and a takeover of the Acropolis, until the men on each side agree to lay down their arms and make peace.

In the calendar year 2015, there were 5011 shooting victims in Chicago. There have already been over 500 in the first two months of 2016. Poor black neighbourhoods are crammed with widows and grieving mothers: Lee and his screenwriter Kevin Wilmott imagine the women of two gangs (Spartans and Trojans) denying their men sex and occupying the state armoury. CHI-RAQ ends with an armistice and promises of full employment and local investment. 

The new film is magnificently Aristophanic in that it is both a political satire and musical theatre (Lysistrata’s lover is a rapper). There are colourful dance sequences by the 60-strong female army, absurdist episodes featuring enormous cannons and sex toys, and punchy versified dialogue in sometimes (to me) near-incomprehensible but clearly bracing slang. It is rib-achingly funny and sexually uninhibited. The cast are very beautiful and visual puns or surprises pop up round every corner. But its message is deadly serious and has proved controversial ever since the Mayor of Chicago tried to get the title changed, so concerned was he about the frightening picture of Chicago street life a name including the four letters IRAQ paints.

But the eye-opener for me on Wednesday night was the passionate intensity of the questions put by the (largely student) audience to Lee, and the forcefulness of his responses. The film is undoubtedly courageous in facing up to the black-on-black nature of the violence, and the problematic hyper-masculinity endorsed by some street gangs.  But there were plenty of black feminists attacking Lee, with open disrespect, for his sexualisation of African American women; he had a stock of rude quips in response. One carping voice asked Lee to justify the praise he has received from some white people for the film; the convoluted point seemed to be that if he had succeeded in getting his message across to The Enemy, he must be some kind of race traitor.

Girls and Girls go out to Play
None of this debate was edifying: I had walked straight into the heart not of the politics of the deprived black gangland underclass but the racial, gender and identity politics, the maelstrom of the ideological wars being waged on privileged American campuses. But it was educative, and increased my admiration for Mr Lee’s work. He may be irritable and egotistical but he does put his head above the parapet and address an extreme contemporary emergency through his unprecedented re-energising of an ancient play. 

He is committed to doing something constructive about the plight of young, under-educated gang members, often from broken families and with criminal records by the age of 10. He brought two with him. They are now adult and campaigning for decent schools on the south side and reform of the gun laws. They both spoke with devastating conviction and palpable personal pain. I am sure that Aristophanes would have been proud of the entire project.  

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