‘You go and do it.’ - Chi-Raq Programme Note


‘You go and do it.’[1]

Chi-Raq is Spike Lee’s 26th joint – 25th, technically, since he elected to withdraw that laurel from his embattled production of Old Boy (2013) – and has earned some of his best reviews of the last 20 years. Something in the combination of its formal audacity and the timeliness of its subject matter seems to have reinvigorated Lee as a filmmaker of critical purpose. The choice of a 2,400-year-old comedy, first performed in classical Athens, as the basis for a film of vital contemporary relevance isn’t as leftfield as it perhaps appears. In fact, Chi-Raq is rather less far-fetched conceptually as some of the director’s other recent work and in a sense the selection is as traditional as it is radical. Above all, the serio-comic treatment is a carefully considered strategy rather than misjudged flippancy.

Chi-Raq is Lee’s first collaboration with co-writer Kevin Willmott, who initially proposed Aristophanes’ Lysistrata as the basis for a contemporary satire. Willmott and Lee first met when the former was a graduate student at New York University. Following production of Willmott’s mockumentary CSA: The Confederate States of America (Kevin Willmott, 2004) – tagline: ‘What if the South had won the war?’ – to which Lee later lent a ‘presented by’ credit, the two kept in contact. Willmott, who had starred in a production of Lysistrata at college, presented Lee with a script entitled Got To Give It Up, which they shopped around to studios and almost made, with Jennifer Lopez in the lead role. The project ultimately failed to gain a green light and was shelved for over a decade before current events led Lee to dust it off.

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Anyone questioning the incongruous levity with which Chi-Raq approaches the subject matter should consider that the sex strike proposed in Aristophanes’ 411BC play has subsequently seen many real-world analogues. Anyone googling, as counseled by Chi-Raq’s Miss Helen Worthy (Angela Bassett), will find plenty of examples, beginning with that featured in the film - Leymah Gbowee and her Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. That action, intermittent over a few months, ‘had little or no practical effect,’ according to Gbowee herself, ‘but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention.’[2] Regardless of the efficacy of the sex strike in isolation, it was a key component of a campaign that did effectively end 14 years of civil warfare in Liberia. In pre-colonial Nigeria, a council of the women of the Igbo people ensured the discipline of their men through strike action, withholding sex when necessary, among all expected duties and services. Since the turn of the millennium, women of Kenya, Italy, the Philippines, Togo and South Sudan have conducted non-violent campaigns of abstention to various ends. 

Aristophanes’ play itself continues to draw contemporary audiences. A 1946 production in New York even featured an all-black cast, though it was reportedly ill received [3]. Lysistrata Jones, transposing the action to the lower-stakes world of college basketball, fared a little better on Broadway in 2011. Lysistrata has, considers Willmott, particular resonance in African-American culture. ‘There have always been rhyming tales in the African-American tradition. All of that has been a part of our literary legacy. Spike may have been the only guy in film in America who understood that. He really got what that was all about and fought to keep it.’[4]

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Following the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and many other people of colour, Lee began to post their portraits on Instagram. When the director noted a disproportionate response from residents of Chicago, he was inspired to focus on the city and doubly alarmed by what he found. ‘How is it possible that New York City has three times the population of Chicago,’ the director asked, ‘yet Chicago has more homicides than New York City?’[5] Lee contacted Willmott to see if his Got To Give It Up script was still available, and if so, propose they ‘set it in Chicago and call it Chi-Raq.’[6] The writer, similarly exercised, signed up immediately. ‘In the bigger picture,’ Willmott has explained, ‘Chicago is just America. America loves to kill people. America loves to murder people and you just have to say it like that. That’s what we do here, we kill people. And we make it easy for people to kill people. Guns are readily available for anybody.’[7]

The two set to work, updating the script in collaboration to make it relevant to the Chicago setting. Willmott’s original script – all in verse, satirical but more comedic and faithful, in that sense, to the original play – was amended to account for the renewed sense of purpose. They went to Chicago to conduct additional research, interviewing mothers of the victims of gang violence and incorporating new characters – primarily John Cusack’s Father Corridan, based on Father Michael Pfleger of Chicago’s St Sabina’s Church – to better deliver their message.

Willmott is straightforward in defending Lee’s sledgehammer approach in delivering that message (not many movies, after all, open with the repeated exhortation ‘This Is An Emergency’). ‘When you are honest about American life, subtle doesn’t work for us, we’re too stupid for subtle,’ Willmott argues. ‘Sophisticated people think they get it and say, "Oh, this is great," but that is such a small percentage of the people out there that we want to reach with the film. The sophisticated people aren’t the ones we want to reach with the film. I mean, the sophisticated people aren’t the victims of what’s going on.’[8] Willmott and Lee’s strategy was not only to draw attention to the crisis of gun violence in Chicago – simply, after all, the most afflicted city in a nationwide epidemic – but to speak directly, as Lysistrata attempts to do, to those engaged in it. ‘The movie is not about the problem,’ Willmott asserts. ‘The movie is about the solution.’[9]

Sean Welsh
December 2016

www.physicalimpossibility.com

[1] Miss Helen Worthy (Angela Basset) in Chi-Raq (Spike Lee, 2015)

[2] Leymah Gbowee, as quoted in Carol Mithers’ Mighty Be Our Powers (New York: Beast Books, 2011, p 147)

[3] ‘Three stars…could not sparkle enough to save the wretched production of the Greek classic.’ A History of African American Theatre, Errol G Hill, James V Hatch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, p532)

[4] Kevin Willmott, as interviewed by Shanee Edwards for Finalcut.com (http://www.finaldraft.com/discover/articles/blog/chi-raqs-co-writer-kevin-willmott-on-reimagining-the-ancient-greek-play-lys accessed 30/11/2016)

[5] Spike Lee, Chi-Raq production notes (http://www.cinemareview.com/production.asp?prodid=20316 accessed 30/11/2016)

[6] Spike Lee, quoted by Kevin Willmott in Chris O'Falt’s

‘How Chi-Raq Screenwriter Kevin Willmott Tackled the Epidemic of Gun Violence in Spike Lee’s Latest’ (http://www.indiewire.com/2015/12/how-chi-raq-screenwriter-kevin-willmott-tackled-the-epidemic-of-gun-violence-in-spike-lees-latest-48586/ accessed 30/11/2016)

[7] Kevin Willmott, O’Falt, ibid.

[8] Kevin Willmott, O’Falt, ibid.

[9] Kevin Willmott, as interviewed by Jon Niccum for The Kansas City Star (http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article32535564.html accessed 30/11/2016)


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