Spike Lee's new movie Chi-Raq has received a lot of positive reviews. The Washington Post (which is owned by Jeff Bezos, the man who also owns the company, Amazon Studio, that produced the film) called it "a bit of a masterpiece." New York Magazine's Vulture thought it might actually "be the best ever" movie by the director. Even one of the best film critics in the US, the New York Times's Manohla Dargis, described it as an "improbable triumph."
But why are these positive reviews dead wrong, and the strongly negative review in this paper by Ijeoma Oluo absolutely right? The problem is not that the film is a mess (messy films can be great works of art); the main problem is that Chi-Raq is based on Aristophanes' Lysistrata, an ancient Greek play about women who bring peace to their cities by withholding sex from their men.
And the problem has nothing to do with whether it is a bad or good, faithful or unfaithful adaptation of Lysistrata. The play itself is the source of many of the defects that ultimately implode the well-meaning structure of Chi-Raq. What you see though Lee's contemporary setting of Lysistrata (the war between two ancient cities is transposed to a war between two 21st century Chicago gangs) are the flaws of the original. Was it even really that progressive for its time (411 BCE)? What kind of society reduces the power of half of its citizens to their sexual organs? How is this even funny? (Yes, I have never liked the play or the playwright—I especially hate his The Clouds.)
Ijeoma Oluo's review sees the imposition of the "no peace, no pussy" premise on the context of our times as very bad, very wrongheaded; but I would go further and see it as wrongheaded even for the world that Aristophanes lived in (it was, after all, a play written for a male audience). Somethings just don't work for any time in history. Lysistrata might be one of those of things.
But why did Spike Lee think that Lysistrata and its famous sex-strike premise was appropriate to our Black Lives Matter moment? What led him in this direction? Though the film has many good things—it attacks American militarism, its profit-making prison system, its financial system (which, according to Lee, has not failed white Americans so much as black Americans), and the political bullying of the NRA—it's ultimately bad because it associates the sex strike of Lysistrata with the BLM, with the recent cycle of anti-police brutality demonstrations in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere. The women who are have locked up their hot stuff with chastity belts are not only demanding that black men stop shooting each other over bullshit, but, more importantly, that the society begins to value the lives of black people.
This connection is made very clear when the hero of the film, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), and the women she leads storm an US armory, take command of the national microphone (TV, radio, social media), and make demands for social change. If you failed to see in this sequence Marissa Johnson's and Mara Willaford's disruption at Seattle's Westlake Park rally in August or Tia Oso's and Patrice Cullors's disruption of the Netroots Nation in July, then you will certainly fail to understand why the film is so misguided, and why its director deserves nothing but the harshest blasts of criticism.
Black women (straight and queer) have been prominent and visible in the BLM movement in a way they just were not in the Black Power period. The latter movement was hierarchical and very patriarchal. Almost all of its heroes were black men. And when it came to black women in the movement, it was not their brains but their beauty that was frequently praised. There was, true, a good reason for this. American society then, as now, upheld and standardized the beauty of white women and European features; the Black Power patriarchy countered this with the affirmation of the African features of their Nubian queens. Spike Lee is still very much on this tip; his film takes every opportunity to celebrate the full figures of black women (even Angela Bassett's behind is not spared). But what he does is impose this older BP form of female empowerment, which is very limited, onto the new terms of the much more progressive and far less patriarchal BLM. And what results is a complete disaster of a movie. Watching it is like looking at the freaked out instruments of a plane flying over the Bermuda Triangle.
There was no need at all for the black women in Chi-Raq to take their struggle for social justice (ending "systemic oppression, gendered violence, and economic instability"—to use Oluo's words) from the stage or the street into the bedroom for a classic battle of the sexes. This only set the BLM back by 50 years (if not 2600 years). The fact that Lee could not see this, could not see the limits of Lysistrata to represent a new generation of voices (women like Marissa Johnson, Mara Willaford, Tia Oso, Patrice Cullors) in the terms of a male-centric play and political program, means he does not really understand his times and how it has changed from the days of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.
This film is an insult to black women.