What George Santayana wrote in “The Life of Reason” was: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Conversely those who remember the past are able to take it, polish it, repackage it, and carry a message to the future.
This is what Spike Lee has done with his latest movie, “Chi-Raq,” which I watched Sunday night at the Santa Monica Place ArcLight. He took the age-old story of Lysistrata, wherein a strong female lead decides to bring an end to the Peloponnesian war by way of a sex strike, and updated the story into a contemporary statement on the self-destruction that is occurring in Chicago and inner cities across America.
In the original Lysistrata two warring nations are brought to the peace table, not by force, rather by the power of women to make men stop and listen through the withholding of sex. The women on both sides of the war, have had enough of loss, and when they decide to demand that it end, they force their respective men to reach an agreement.
Lee’s updated version takes place in Chicago, and claims that there were more American deaths than Iraq and Afghanistan together. I haven’t checked the facts, but the point is that in any case, too many Americans are dying on American soil by Americans. The modern Lysistrata has an awakening when yet another death occurs needlessly, and she decides to take action.
This is a moving rendition of the original by Aristophanes. Lee paints with a palette of his usual brilliant characterizations. Samuel L. Jackson plays Dolmedes, the story’s guide who keeps us on track. Nick Cannon is the lead and in an excellent performance plays a man who grew up fatherless, only to repeat the sins of his father.
Teyonah Parris is Lee’s Lysistrata and she demonstrates an acting skill that keeps you engaged and wanting more. Angela Bassett is the soul of this movie, she is the conscience that lights the way for the leadership of Lysistrata’s action that brings about the movie’s ultimate resolution.
As I sat in the theater, with the current news cycle still reverberating about the San Bernardino killings and the past summer of death; as the increasing chorus of calls for gun control echoed in my mind, I was struck by how timely this movie is, and how sad it was that there were 11 people in the audience.
Spike Lee has been a lightning rod for controversy essentially from his first movie, “She’s Gotta Have It,” which I thought was brilliant. His career is marked with headlines calling him genius and pariah. He is outspoken and insightful. He doesn’t use mealy mouthed, PC talk, to try and appease people to change. His is a direct, seemingly unedited version of his thoughts, which have a sincere and cutting honesty. This latest movie is perhaps his most potent critique of contemporary mores. By adapting a classic story and weaving in the realities of what today’s life is like, he has managed to remember the past, and show the present, for a better future.
In the movie a 7-year-old girl is killed. Her mother, played by Jennifer Hudson brings a bucket and a brush to clean up the spilled blood. It is an intensely moving scene that brings home the horror of death. I could not help but think that the tears she was shedding on screen were based on her real life experiences of gun violence and loss. Her mother Darnell, and brother Jason, were shot and killed at their home in Chicago on October 24, 2008. Her nephew Julian Hudson-King, aged seven, was kidnapped and later found on October 27, dead due to multiple gun shot wounds.
In the current calls for gun control, greater registration background checks, and lists of people who are not allowed to own guns, comes a movie that presents an alternative solution. A solution that begins with a call for the violence to stop. We have to start there, but then we have to do something different.
I don’t know if the women of the America would ban together to stop the violence like this. I know that the women of Liberia made an impact when Leymah Gbowee organized a sex strike in her country. She won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. It was by bringing people together, Christian and Muslim, who wanted change that made the difference. We can do it here if we want to.
We can change the world. We can put an end to this killing madness. It will just take new variations of an age-old story.
David Pisarra is a Los Angeles divorce and child custody lawyer specializing in fathers’ and men’s rights with the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He welcomes your questions and comments. He can be reached at email@example.com or 310-664-9969. You can follow him on Twitter @davidpisarra.