DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Spike Lee's new movie, "Chi-Raq," is an adaptation of the ancient Greek comedy "Lysistrata." The female title character, whose name means army disbander, convinces the women of Greece to withhold sex as a way to get their men to stop fighting the Peloponnesian War. Lee's version is set in the present on the South Side of Chicago. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The great classic plays aren't dead plays. A change in emphasis or setting, and they bloom anew, as suited to our times as the first day they were staged. With "Chi-Raq," Spike Lee rekindles the flames of Aristophanes's antiwar satire in verse, "Lysistrata." He shifts the battlefield from distant Troy to the streets of Chicago, where young black males kill young black males, although the fallen include bystanders, some children. The title is a combination of Chicago and Iraq, that is, a war zone. "Chi-Raq" is also the nickname of a rap star, played by Nick Cannon, who happens to be the boyfriend of a bombshell by the name of Lysistrata, played by Teyonah Parris, with all cylinders blasting, swinging her hips and button-holing the camera. Is this really the actress who played Dawn Chambers, Don Draper's African-American secretary on "Mad Men," who kept most of her thoughts and private life to herself? After an introduction from Samuel L. Jackson as a Greek chorus who strolls through the film in natty three-piece suits, "Chi-Raq" segues to a club and a rap number filled with violent imagery, followed by a shootout that leaves two dead. Not long after, a mother, played by Jennifer Hudson, discovers the body of her 11-year-old daughter in the street accidentally killed in a drive-by shooting. Lysistrata has an epiphany. She rounds up other girlfriends of gang members, including rival gangs, for a sit-down.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHI-RAQ")
TEYONAH PARRIS: (As Lysistrata) I'm down for the cause. But how? We force our men to negotiate peace by exercising [expletive] self-control and total abstinence from knocking the boots.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) I mean, you really think something like that could bring peace?
PARRIS: (As Lysistrata) Y'all know the power we have over them withholding just a day. A week? Imagine a month. A year. Oh, they going to bring the peace.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Suppose - suppose that the men just dump us?
PARRIS: (As Lysistrata) If we all hold out, who can they go to?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (As characters) The (unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) Them hos over there.
PARRIS: (As Lysistrata) Well, we will enlist them too. We want our men alive. We want our babies to thrive. We going to have to organize.
EDELSTEIN: Lysistrata's chant, repeated roughly 600 times in the course of "Chi-Raq," is no peace, no – well, it's too profane for radio. The women's action leads to stylized musical numbers, vaudevillian skits and scenes of bureaucrats sputtering wildly after 75 women take possession of an armory with hostages. Lee takes a broad, slapdash approach, but that's what works for Aristophanes, whose slangy, gloriously smutty comedies don't play well cleaned up. This adaptation, which he wrote with Kevin Willmott and makes verse out of street language, has a lot of groaners but more than enough punch. The thing is, Lee's movies - his joints, as he calls them – can be over full of messages. He's less interested in behavior and more in sign posts, with every shot a kind of Brechtian placard. But that's exactly what "Lysistrata" calls for. "Chi-Raq" has everything great agitprop needs, including a centerpiece sermon over the coffin of that little girl, delivered by John Cusack, his character modeled on Catholic priest and activist Michael Pfleger. The priest holds up a gun for the stunned congregation of mourners, saying it came from an Indiana gun show where its buyers could bypass Chicago's strict laws. He says our politicians are, quote, "in the pocket of the National Rifle Association," and speaks of young black males going from third-rate schools to first rate high-tech prisons. He also blames a community in which not one witness to the shooting will come forward. That's the realism part of "Chi-Raq," which includes scenes of real shooting victims talking to the camera, real mothers holding blown-up photos of real lost children and a sober, angry turn by Angela Bassett as a grieving neighbor of Lysistrata. But even the broader performances, by Nick Cannon and Wesley Snipes as Cyclops, a one-eyed member of the Trojans gang, and D.B. Sweeney as the mayor, don't wink at the audience. This is comedy, not camp. It's serious business. I spent time in my 20s traveling around Europe, seeing political theater, cabarets, melodramas, some staged in pubs at lunchtime, some in union halls. It wasn't all good, but it was urgent and alive. "Chi-Raq" made me every bit as exhilarated, and Lee hasn't just let his movie do the railing, he's been leading marches in Chicago and New York. He has made a message movie that's sexy, brash and potent, a powerful weapon in its own right.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On Monday's FRESH AIR, novelist Rick Moody. He and his wife were having an unpleasant stay at a hotel…
RICK MOODY: And at some point, Laurel, my wife, said, we should review this hotel.
BIANCULLI: That became the inspiration for his new book, "Hotels Of America," told in short, online reviews by a man who's proud to be one of the top reviewers on rateyourlodging.com. Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.