“They die every day in my city,” is a line from the opening track to Spike Lee’s new film Chi-Raq, released in cinemas last Friday.
Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott’s inspiration is the satirical anti-war play Lysistrata by ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes. Lysistrata stops a war by organising a sex strike which leads to the powerful men around her giving up their weapons.
The film addresses “black on black violence” in neighbourhoods where it is easier to get a gun than a computer and looks at the exclusion of poor people from education.
Lee’s Lysistrata is reminded of this by a neighbour who quotes Malcolm X saying, “The best way to hide things from Negros is to put it in a book.”
The statistics of black people murdered in Chicago from 2001 to 2015 equate to the number of deaths of Americans in the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For the black people in the south side of Chicago it is like living in a war zone.
The main characters are warring members of the Trojans and Spartans, rival gangs. Local people get caught in the middle because “they can’t trust the police and are afraid of the gangs”.
Lysistrata’s boyfriend is Chi-Raq, a revered rapper and the Trojans’ leader. Her sex strike idea is a response to the rival gang setting her flat on fire, and being challenged by the mother of a child killed in crossfire.
Using women as the drivers of the narrative is refreshing.
And the organising groups, protests and occupations point to the Black Lives Matter movement led by women activists and mothers of those killed.
The film transfers the form of the Greek play using rap and spoken word imaginatively with hard hitting music from black artists such as Jennifer Hudson, R Kelly and Nick Cannon.
Lysistrata, played by Teyonah Parris, is sexually powerful, tough and steadfast in her role as the leader of the sex strike.
Gang members use wheelchairs as a result of being shot, challenging the racist stereotype of the powerful, sexually virile black man.
The film speaks directly to black and white communities about the devastation caused by the proliferation of guns in the US.
Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) points the finger at the profits made by the gun industry, while unemployment rates in Chicago’s south side are four times the national average of 5 percent.
Poverty, alienation and economic exclusion are clearly implicated as the basis of the killings.
Spike Lee may be challenging the way black women are depicted within rap music and gangster films as sexually available. He also
questions the use of guns as an affirmation of masculinity.
But with the frequent references from men and women to a woman’s “booty” it is not always clear if he parodies this stereotype or accepts it.
The soundtrack and the new and established black talent makes
Chi-Raq an entertaining, though superficial, tale of bringing peace to the ghetto.