Spike Lee’s Didactic Lens of Aristophanes [1]

Citation with persistent identifier:

Stark, Caroline. “Spike Lee’s Didactic Lens of Aristophanes.” CHS Research Bulletin 4, no. 2 (2016). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:StarkC.Spike_Lees_Didactic_Lens_of_Aristophanes.2016


This paper is a counterpart to the paper, “Lysistrata(s): Aristophanes to Spike Lee,” and a sample from a module of the forthcoming Io Project, an online resource for Classics in Africa and the African Diaspora.

1§1 Spike Lee’s film Chi-Raq (2015), co-written with Kevin Willmott, reimagines Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to address gang-related gun violence in urban America.[2]  In place of the Peloponnesian War, the film draws our attention to the crisis in the South Side of Chicago that is claiming more lives of Americans than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In addition to the staggering statistics that open the film, the urgency of the situation crystalizes before our eyes when an innocent seven-year-old girl is killed in the crossfire of two gangs, who wear the colors purple and orange to signify their allegiance to the Spartans and Trojans, respectively.  The leader of the Spartans is the rapper and lover of Lysistrata, Chi-Raq, and the head of the Trojans is a patch-wearing, orange-clad gangster named Cyclops.  After witnessing the inconsolable grief of the girl’s mother and inspired by a real-life sex strike in Liberia, Lysistrata convinces the women from both gangs (and then the world) to refuse sex to their “husbands, lovers, and male acquaintance” (00:31:34-00:31:45) until they hand over their guns and stop the violence.

1§2 Despite humorous moments in the film, Lee and Willmott never stray far from their scathing critique of gun violence in America.  While their satire remains largely “faithful” to the original play of Aristophanes, it resonates as eerily and strikingly modern, given the traumatic episodes of gun violence across America in recent years.[3]  What I would like to argue in what follows is that these creative reworkings not only make the play relevant by recasting it in a contemporary context but also provide a valuable interpretative and didactic lens to re-examine issues and ideas in Aristophanes’ play.[4]  After first analyzing some examples of the close reworking of Aristophanes in the film, I will close by examining the ways in which Lee and Willmott rework the occupation plot in their larger critique of gun violence.  While in the film, as in the play, the sex strike forces both sides to negotiate an end to the crisis, the occupation plot explores the larger causative factors of the war and violence.  Far from merely providing an entertaining critique of power, Lee’s film demonstrates that satire can eloquently and powerfully articulate the need and means for social and political change.

Contemporary Context: Peloponnesian War vs. Gun Violence in Chicago

2§1 Set in the South Side of Chicago on the streets of Englewood, Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott rework Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to scrutinize the problem of gang-related gun violence in urban America.  Satire is tricky business, as Aristophanes knew well, dancing a fine line between drawing attention to issues and risking overstepping to incur the rancor of the very audience you are trying to exhort to action.  Although Lee (both in and outside the film) makes clear that his message is applicable to many major cities, the choice to set the film in Chicago has been a controversial albeit a germane one.  Scholars who work on problems of inner cities argue that Chicago is the “microcosm of all the things that are bearing down on cities.”[5]

2§2 Even before the film was released, Spike Lee was criticized for naming the film Chi-Raq and was pressured by the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, to consider changing it.[6]  Despite external pressures, Lee kept the name and chose to explain his reasons for it through an extra press release and in the very opening scenes of the film.[7] The film opens with the words of the song “Pray 4 My City” by Nick Cannon, who plays the lead character Chi-Raq.  The controversial name of the film is explained in the song and in the opening narration by real-life priest Father Michael Pfleger, who calls attention to the fact that the number of gun-related deaths in Chicago exceeds the number of American soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan over the same period of time (00:00:25-00:05:00).[8]  These sobering statistics lead into the first scene of the film.  In all the controversy over the name, no one seems to credit Lee with the layered allusion to the Peloponnesian War in choosing the name Chi-Raq.[9]

2§3 Despite the film’s universal message against gun violence, critics have attacked Lee for setting the film in Chicago and for the presumed authenticity of a portrait of Chicago by an “outsider,” a Brooklyn filmmaker.  As Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott comment in interviews shortly after the release of the film, a nascent version of this film was written thirteen years ago as Gotta Give It Up, but this earlier version, set in unspecified urban America, could not entice production studios.[10]  Only when the film’s contemporary relevance made it possible, heightened by its localization in Chicago, could Willmott and Lee attract the interest of Amazon Studios.  At the time of the film’s opening, Chicago was reeling with scandal– the release of the Laquan McDonald tape, the firing of the police commissioner, and the controversy swirling around Rahm Emanuel over the incident[11] –all of which exacerbated the defensiveness of many native Chicagoans to Lee’s very public and damning portrait of the South Side, in which everyone is implicated, everyone is accountable.[12]  Despite and perhaps in anticipation of such criticism, Willmott and Lee went to great lengths to be as close to the reality of experience as possible.  Not only did they consult with local gang members, families of victims of gun violence, and key activist figures such as Father Pfleger,[13] whose part is played by native Chicagoan John Cusack, but Lee also enlisted in the cast many Chicagoans or those who had lost a loved one to gun violence, most notably Jennifer Hudson, whose own mother, brother, and nephew were murdered in Chicago.[14] Hudson plays Irene, the mother of the girl Patti whose tragic death sets the plot in motion.  In key scenes in the film, Lee even used Chicago mothers holding up pictures of the children they had lost to gun violence (1:19:32-1:20:13, 1:52:10-1:56:25).[15]  This verisimilitude gives the film its unsettling quality, despite its comedic and mock-heroic elements.  What Soyinka (1988: 35) has called the “sinister aspect of satire” — that this could happen — comes full circle in the sobering fact that it is happening.[16] While the film is set in Chicago, its message retains its universal relevance, and the character Miss Helen likens the violence in Chicago to the gun-related violence in other major US cities: “Bodymore, Murderland” (Baltimore, MD), “Killa-delphia, City of Brotherly Murder” (Philadelphia, PA), and “Bucktown” (Brooklyn, NY) (00:21:05-00:22:00).[17] Ultimately, the movie exploits the far-reaching relevance of its message, as Lysistrata’s sex strike to end violence inspires other strikes by women all around the world (1:10:40-1:11:09, 1:33:32-1:34:15).  Brilliantly interweaving current issues and artistic homage, even as certain events were happening during filming,[18] Spike Lee makes pointed references to the shootings in Colorado Springs, Charleston, and Sandy Hook, building a scathing picture of the increasingly blasé attitude in urban areas toward gun violence and the indifference of others who wrongly suppose that the issue does not affect or concern them.[19]

2§4 Through the fantastical intervention of Lysistrata and the women in the current crisis to stop the war/violence and its happy outcome, Aristophanes and Lee create an alternative reality in which real problems are both addressed and resolved.  At the time of the Lenaea in 411 BCE, Athens was at a critical period in the Peloponnesian War.  After the devastating defeat in Sicily in 413 and the subsequent defection of numerous allies, Athens was only beginning to rebuild her naval power and recover some of the ground she had recently lost to Sparta by the end of 412.[20]  In Lysistrata, Aristophanes captures the tension between a rekindled confidence in Athens’ ability to win the war or to secure favorable terms and weariness over the toll the war was taking.  The utopian fantasy, in which the women bring an end to the fighting and establish peace between Athens and Sparta in a restored sense of panhellenic solidarity, satisfies all parties in its wish fulfillment.[21] While Lee adopts Aristophanes’ plot of a sex boycott to achieve a political end, that is, to stop the violence in the South Side, he repeatedly stresses in the film (and in interviews) that now is not the time for wishful thinking but the time to act, and act decisively.  In contrast to Aristophanes, Lee deliberately avoids allowing his audience to escape the emergency of the situation by interweaving into the Aristophanic drama a narrative thread that constantly pierces the fantasy and draws the audience back to reality.  In the creation of Chi-Raq, Lee does not shrink from making his audience feel uncomfortable.  Any humor in the film is a counterpoint to an almost overwhelming sense of tragedy.  While Lee abandons subtlety for clarity of message,[22] Aristophanes’ references to recent events within the play itself might very well have had a similar (though more subtle) effect (173-174, 391-397, 489-492).[23]  Although Aristophanes’ women present a countersociety and an alternative to the current Athenian policy in the Peloponnesian War (Konstan 1995: 49), nevertheless, the fantasy of female government never threatens to become a new reality.  Aristophanes’ women see both their historical (651) and current contribution as helpers (527-528, 1016-1036)–they seek to restore order not to overthrow it. What Aristophanes could project as an unreality, Lee presents as a possible solution — though not a revolution — in his reference not only to historical precedents of women’s movements that have brought about peace, such as the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace led by Leymah Gbowee in 2003 (00:24:15-00:25:00), but also to current movements to address gun violence through targeted interventions by family and community members.[24]


3§1 In many of their creative choices, Lee and Willmott draw upon and blend different traditions and cultures to create a multivalent cultural space for their satire on contemporary American society.  Lee and Willmott capture the performative spirit of Aristophanes’ comedy by writing the script in verse and by using music to sustain the rhythm in the absence of dialogue in a modern Singspiel.  Willmott has remarked that his inspiration for the script came from his own participation in a production of Lysistrata in college and how at the time he was struck at how well the meter and genre suited African-American traditions of spoken word and rap as well as of folk tales.[25]  These elements are used to great effect in the film, particularly in the narrator Dolmedes, drawn from the grandfather of rap, Rudy Ray Moore, and his character as Dolemite. Dolmedes’ crude commentary on the action of the film and the tall tales of his own heroic feats regularly break the fourth wall (00:14:50-00:16:52, 00:32:30-00:33:15, 1:00:15-1:01:15, 1:20:24-1:21:30, 1:24:19-1:26:14, 1:57:32-1:58:58).  At one point, the film actually freezes the action to allow Dolmedes to address the audience (00:06:00-00:06:40).[26]  The rhythmic rhyming in the film is not limited to the narrator or the chorus but continues in the dialogue between characters, aided in large part by the interspersion of well-timed thematic musical interludes within the dialogue that helpfully sustain the beat and continue the movement of rhythm.

Comic Invective

4§1 Willmott and Lee cleverly exploit the crude profanity inherent in the genre of ancient comedy, particularly in the character of Dolmedes and in the chorus of old men, referred to in the film as the Knights of Euphrates, to add humor to the film. As Jeffrey Henderson has shown in his Maculate Muse (1975: 93-99), obscenity plays a role in emphasizing important themes of the play:

Sexual language, organs, and action are more in evidence in Lysistrata than in any other play; yet their use is more straightforward and less preposterous in that the reference is nearly always to themes of marriage rather than fornication, rape, homosexual assault or wholesale invective (1975: 94).

4§2 Although Lee and Willmott do not limit themselves in profanity in the same way as Aristophanes, nevertheless their focus throughout the film on the marriages and monogamous relationships at the center of the sex strike reinforces heteronormativity. Departures from this norm are used for comic effect.  Immediately after the women go on strike, the men go to prostitutes and strip clubs for satisfaction or voyeurism, but are thwarted when they find out that these women have joined with their wives and lovers in the strike. To the disbelief of the young Spartans, the madam Big Thelma announces that she is going to the US Virgin Islands, “a place her girls have never seen,” before congratulating herself on remaining outside of the conflict for being a lesbian (00:37:40-00:37:55).   Likewise, when the Trojans go to the strip club, they find the dancers are nowhere to be seen:

4§3 At the meeting of the Knights of Euphrates as the frustration mounts over the supposed “silliness” of their women, one of the knights mentions that phone sex women have gone on strike, and another exclaims that even gay men have joined the strike.  After the startled response of the others, he embarrassingly adds, “how I know that, I don’t know”(1:03:35-1:06:05).[27] Whereas Aristophanes’ fantasy falls apart by not accounting for the inherent inconsistency in a sex boycott at home while the husbands are away at war or for other possible outlets to the men’s sexual frustration,[28] Lee and Willmott use the desperation of the men and their recourse to other outlets to heighten the humor. Noticeably the women in the film do not defect from the strike as in Aristophanes (717-780), even when Rasheeda lets the Knights into the armory.  Instead, the men are subsequently and unanimously rebuffed by the women (1:29:06-1:33:32).  For Lee and Willmott, the comic invective of sexual frustration and desperation is directed almost entirely on the men.

Phallic Symbolism

5§1 The movie makes a smooth transition from protesting war to protesting gun violence by likening the devastation in the wake of both as comparable. As Lysistrata says to Miss Helen, “It’s a war zone out there” (00:21:00-00:22:00).  The opening narrative draws direct parallels by comparing the body count of gang violence in Chicago to the number of American soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The movie elicits the audience’s sympathy by focusing on the loss of innocents in the violence, or to continue the war analogy, the “collateral damage,” which is only explained to Lysistrata as “Little girl, Patti…wrong place, wrong time” (00:17:00-00:17:05).

5§2 Nor does the movie suffer thematically from the war-gun elision; in fact, it works brilliantly in Lee’s biting satire as phallic guns replace the erect phalluses of Aristophanes’ characters in the same caricatural manner. In the bedroom scene at the beginning of the movie, Chi-Raq has to show off and play with his gun before Lysistrata convinces him to put it away, to which he replies: “Out of sight.  I got another pistol that’s gonna make everything a’ight” (00:10:55-00:11:25). The connection then between life and death, sex and guns is even more pointed and adds to the rationale of Lysistrata’s sex-strike as the solution to the gun violence–one gun or the other but not both. The phallic jokes continue to almost excessive extremes, from the tank outside the armory labeled “penis envy” to the most ludicrous scene of the movie, when a blindfolded General King Kong mounts a civil war canon in his confederate flag underwear (00:56:30-00:59:30).[29]  Aristophanes also draws the parallel between weapons and phalluses for the purposes of humor.  At the height of the sex strike, a herald from Sparta comes to Athens to seek terms of peace, and the character Cinesias thinks that he is hiding a spear under his cloak.  The embarrassment of the herald and his repeated attempt to hide his erection from Cinesias amplify the humor of the scene (982-992).


6§1 Although Lee and Willmott acknowledge the film’s indebtedness to Aristophanes early in the film (00:06:00-00:06:40), the actual correspondence to the play does not happen until Lysistrata gathers the Spartan women to go to the house of Indigo, the girlfriend of the Trojan leader, Cyclops (00:27:05-00:32:30).  The oath to withhold sex in the film and in the extended scene closely follows Aristophanes’ text, yet Lee and Willmott make significant omissions and cuts to the scene that reflect modern society and attempt to portray powerful, modern women.  The reluctant character of Calonice, who swears the oath for all the women present in Aristophanes, corresponds to Rasheeda in the film.  Compare the following passage from the film, including brackets on the lines cut in the final edits (Women Take the Oath), with that of Aristophanes and Henderson’s translation (2000).  The lines in Aristophanes that were not adapted in the film are underlined:


LYSISTRATA: Repeat after me.  I will deny all rights of access or entrance

WOMEN: I will deny all rights of access or entrance

LYSISTRATA: from every husband, lover, or male acquaintance

WOMEN: from every husband, lover, or male acquaintance

LYSISTRATA: who comes in my direction in erection.

WOMEN: who comes in my direction in erection.

LYSISTRATA: Uh, come on, say it.

RASHEEDA: Girl, I can’t do this. No!

LYSISTRATA: If he should force me to lay on that conjugal couch,

WOMEN: If he should force me to lay on that conjugal couch,

LYSISTRATA: I will refuse his stroke and not give up that nappy pouch.

WOMEN: I will refuse his stroke and not give up that nappy pouch.

[LYSISTRATA: I will not lift my house shoes to touch thy thatch,

WOMEN: I will not lift my house shoes to touch thy thatch,

LYSISTRATA: Or submit hangdog and part with the snatch.

WOMEN: Or submit hangdog and part with the snatch.

LYSISTRATA: Upon this oath, I drink this glorious red wine,

WOMEN: Upon this oath, I drink this glorious red wine,

LYSISTRATA: No touchy, no feely, on my behind.

WOMEN: No touchy, no feely, on my behind.] (00:31:15-00:32:24)


LYSISTRATA: …οὐκ ἔστιν οὐδεὶς οὔτε μοιχὸς οὔτ᾽ ἀνήρ–

CALONICE: οὐκ ἔστιν οὐδεὶς οὔτε μοιχὸς οὔτ᾽ ἀνήρ

LYSISTRATA: ὅστις πρὸς ἐμὲ πρόσεισιν ἐστυκώς. λέγε.

CALONICE: ὅστις πρὸς ἐμὲ πρόσεισιν ἐστυκώς. παπαῖ,

ὑπολύεταί μου τὰ γόνατ᾽, ὦ Λυσιστράτη.

LYSISTRATA: οἴκοι δ᾽ἀταυρώτη διάξω τὸν βίον

CALONICE: οἴκοι δ᾽ἀταυρώτη διάξω τὸν βίον

LYSISTRATA: κροκωτοφοροῦσα καὶ κεκαλλωπισμένη

CALONICE: κροκωτοφοροῦσα καὶ κεκαλλωπισμένη

LYSISTRATA: ὅπως ἂν ἁνὴρ ἐπιτυφῇ μάλιστά μου

CALONICE: ὅπως ἂν ἁνὴρ ἐπιτυφῇ μάλιστά μου

LYSISTRATA: κοὐδέποθ᾽ ἑκοῦσα τἀνδρὶ τὠμῷ πείσομαι.

CALONICE: κοὐδέποθ᾽ ἑκοῦσα τἀνδρὶ τὠμῷ πείσομαι.

LYSISTRATA: ἐὰν δέ μ᾽ ἄκουσαν βιάζηται βίᾳ–

CALONICE: ἐὰν δέ μ᾽ ἄκουσαν βιάζηται βίᾳ–

LYSISTRATA: κακῶς παρέξω κοὐχὶ προσκινήσομαι.

CALONICE: κακῶς παρέξω κοὐχὶ προσκινήσομαι.

LYSISTRATA: οὐ πρὸς τὸν ὄροφον ἀνατενῶ τὼ Περσικά.

CALONICE: οὐ πρὸς τὸν ὄροφον ἀνατενῶ τὼ Περσικά.

LYSISTRATA: οὐ στήσομαι λέαιν᾽ ἐπὶ τυροκνήστιδος.

CALONICE: οὐ στήσομαι λέαιν᾽ ἐπὶ τυροκνήστιδος.

LYSISTRATA: ταῦτ᾽ ἐμπεδοῦσα μὲν πίοιμ᾽ ἐντευθενί–

CALONICE: ταῦτ᾽ ἐμπεδοῦσα μὲν πίοιμ᾽ ἐντευθενί–

LYSISTRATA: εἰ δὲ παραβαίην, ὕδατος ἐμπλῇθ᾽ ἡ κύλιξ.

CALONICE: εἰ δὲ παραβαίην, ὕδατος ἐμπλῇθ᾽ ἡ κύλιξ.

LYSISTRATA: συνεπόμνυθ᾽ ὑμεῖς ταῦτα πᾶσαι;

ALL: νὴ Δία  (Aristophanes Lysistrata 212-237).


LYSISTRATA: …No man of any kind, lover or husband–

CALONICE: No man of any kind, lover or husband

LYSISTRATA: shall approach me with a hard-on.  Speak up!

CALONICE: shall approach me with a hard-on.  Oh god, my knees are

buckling, Lysistrata!

LYSISTRATA: At home in celibacy shall I pass my life–

CALONICE: At home in celibacy shall I pass my life–

LYSISTRATA: wearing a saffron dress and all dolled up–

CALONICE: wearing a saffron dress and all dolled up–

LYSISTRATA: so that my husband will get as hot as a volcano for me–

CALONICE: so that my husband will get as hot as a volcano for me–

LYSISTRATA: but never willingly shall I surrender to my husband.

CALONICE: but never willingly shall I surrender to my husband.

LYSISTRATA: If he should use force to force me against my will–

CALONICE: If he should use force to force me against my will–

LYSISTRATA: I will submit coldly and not move my hips.

CALONICE: I will submit coldly and not move my hips.

LYSISTRATA: I will not raise my Persian slippers toward the ceiling.

CALONICE: I will not raise my Persian slippers toward the ceiling.

LYSISTRATA: I won’t crouch down like the lioness on a cheesegrater.

CALONICE: I won’t crouch down like the lioness on a cheesegrater.

LYSISTRATA: If I live up to these vows, may I drink from this cup.

CALONICE: If I live up to these vows, may I drink from this cup.

LYSISTRATA: But if I break them, may the cup be full of water.

CALONICE: But if I break them, may the cup be full of water.

LYSISTRATA: So swear you one and all?

ALL: So swear we all!  (tr. Henderson 2000)

6§2 Beyond merely “translating” the text or modernizing the language, Lee and Willmott carefully rework Aristophanes’ text in this scene to present the women as powerful players instead of the frivolous, bibulous, and sex-obsessed women of Aristophanes.  In swearing off sex with men, the revised oath acknowledges the women’s prerogative to have casual sexual encounters in the phrase, “male acquaintance” in addition to long-term relationships implied by the phrase “husbands or lovers.”  The women in the scene are portrayed as in control of their sexual conduct, instead of sexual objects or passive partners. Although the deleted scene, “Teasing the Men,” includes instructions to the women how to dress up in order to arouse the men,[30] the references in Aristophanes’ oath to the women remaining chaste at home, all dolled up for their husbands’ pleasure are cut entirely. In the final edits of the scene, the references to passive sexual positions are likewise cut (Women Take the Oath).[31] Upon close scrutiny of these scenes it becomes evident that, despite some early criticism of Lee’s portrayal of women in the film,[32] he and Willmott remove much of the misogyny in the source play without sacrificing the comic element in the war of the sexes (e.g. 11-12, 31, 42-48, 137-139).[33]

Gender Conflict and the Disruption of Political Order

7§1 In the film as in the play, the war of the sexes rages as the traditionally female and male spheres of the home and city (oikos and polis) are in conflict due to the sex strike and the occupation of the armory/Acropolis.  Lee and Willmott attempt to reconcile the entanglement of the strike and occupation plot in Aristophanes[34] by subsuming the occupation plot in the strike plot.  In the film, the young women seize control of the armory by mounting a “sex attack” on the men by seducing them and expelling them from the armory blindfolded and in their underwear (00:54:45-01:00:00).  The occupation of the armory is part of the young women’s strategy of refusing domestic duties to the men by creating an alternative living space and of creating a symbolic collective chastity belt for the women within the armory’s fortifications.  In contrast, the occupation of the Acropolis in Aristophanes becomes that place for the young women by default.[35]  In Aristophanes, the Acropolis holds both symbolic importance as the center of the religious and political life of the city and strategic significance as the locus of the treasury and, therefore, of the funds to finance the Peloponnesian War.  In addition to the sex strike, a key part of Lysistrata’s strategy in Aristophanes is the seizure of the treasury in the Acropolis by the old women to halt the flow of funds from the city to the war effort (173-179).  The premise for the older women being on the Acropolis and in a position to seize control of the treasury relies on their important role in the religious life of the city: the old women are there to perform a sacrifice (177-179). The women’s occupation of the Acropolis is interpreted by the men as a subversive act (273/4-285, 616-635, 664-679), which leads to the men’s alarm and effort to regain control of it.  Lee and Willmott have no such equivalent in Chicago, as the political, religious, and economic center of the city is not in one location, nor is the cessation of the gun violence in the city easily obtained by the control of one factor (not even the guns themselves).  As a result, for Lee and Willmott, the armory acts as the physical location for the confrontation between the sexes and the site of the “mirror” government.[36]  While Lysistrata and the women demand a cessation of violence, the surrendering of guns, economic opportunity, and health services as the incipient remedy to the problem of gang-related gun violence in return for ending the boycott and relinquishing the armory, the larger causative factors and long term solutions of the gun violence are articulated through the voices and actions of the supporting characters, Miss Helen and Father Mike.

7§2 As in the play, the men in the film mount an “offensive” against the occupation.  The men clearly overreact by sending in military troops and armed police to surround the armory, despite the fact that the women are unarmed and had already released the hostages.


7§3 Just as Aristophanes’ old men try to set fire to the Acropolis by carrying big logs and lit torches up the hill in order to “penetrate” the Acropolis, the women’s collective chastity belt (254-318), the men in the film plan a similar “sex attack” with music rather than phallic weapons.  The humorous “battle” that ensues is “Operation Hot and Bothered,” a failed attempt by the men to take the armory and vanquish the women by blasting the Chi-Lites’ “Oh, girl” (1972) through loud speakers. The plan backfires as it only escalates the crisis rather than alleviates it.  Whereas the men in Aristophanes are humiliated by being doused with water and thus “extinguished” (400-402), the men in the film are humiliated by being “turnt out” — in other words, they are so aroused by the music that they are incapacitated (1:21:30-1:24:18).[37]

7§4 While the sex deprivation increases the irrational aggression of the older men, it has the opposite effect on the young men.  For the young gang members, the lack of sex leads to a decrease in their desire to engage in violence and leaves them impotent.  Despite both leaders setting high cash incentives for their members to kill their rivals, none of the young men have a desire to do anything: as Beso explains to an irate Cyclops, “Can’t get nobody to pull the trigger” (1:26:14-1:29:05). Despite berating their men and hurling insults for their apathy, both Chi-Raq and Cyclops find resistance within their own gangs.  The effect of the sex strike is that the gang members turn their attention towards their home life (or lack thereof) and begin to reflect on the reasons for their involvement in the gang: “I got a baby on the way…I wanna see my shorty grow up and not crying over my open grave” (1:26:14-1:28:30).  To Chi-Raq’s turn towards self-destruction, Spinner attempts to reason with him:

Man, you gotta, we gotta wake up man.  Look at me, man.  Fucking tired of this shit.  Gave my whole life to this shit, and I ain’t got nothing in return.  This shit here, this Trojan-Spartan shit, Man, we gotta–we gotta slow this shit down, man.  My son got shot.  He in a wheelchair now.  Quadriplegic.  Cat just stood over him, capped him.  Fourteen times.  For what?  Man, this ain’t living.  This ain’t life.  Chi, we gotta do something different, bro.  We gotta do something different.  I don’t wake up every day to get high, to cry, to go to funerals.  Ain’t you tired of this shit, man?  Don’t you wanna do something different? (00:51:35- 00:52:26).

7§5 They lose the allure of the “life” when they realize that the probable cost of life and limb ends up far outweighing any possible incentives or benefits.

7§6 The ongoing combat between both generations of men and women provides much of the comedy of the film, particularly in the unflattering portraits of the men in power in the figures of the Mayor, General King Kong, and the Knights of Euphrates. Besides appearing sexist, if not outright misogynistic,[38] the older men also abdicate responsibility for their role in the situation and see the sex-strike as inconveniencing and punishing them for the actions of the young men.  Old Duke complains to the reporter:

I ain’t in no gang.  You telling me you gonna stop giving my girl from giving me what I need because your man is the leader of the gang and he out there shootin’ and killin’ people?  I don’t understand that.  I ain’t a part of that party (1:06:35-1:06:47).

7§7 Only when Lysistrata confronts Old Duke does he realize his ignorance in comparison to the women: “What is the true meaning of life?” to which Lysistrata responds half-pityingly, “You don’t know?”  Watch the following clip:

7§8 In contrast, the collective action and unified voice of the women present an alternative to the immature actions or inaction of the men.  In seizing the armory and forcing the men to act, Lysistrata and the women do not offer permanent revolution but rather a restoration of order that culminates in the “peace accord” (1:49:20-1:57:32).

7§9 The film takes a more serious turn than the play’s wish-fulfillment of reconciliation in acknowledging that a true resolution of the conflict is more than a temporary cessation of violence, the surrendering of guns, or the carving up of territory.  Rather the film argues that this gun violence is the product of larger social and political issues that the entire community (that is, all of Chicago, US, and even the world) needs to address.  In addition to Dolmedes, Miss Helen and Father Mike are frequently the mouthpieces for Lee’s larger political agenda by interjecting into the satire the voice of truth throughout the film.  In the longest scene of the film that breaks from the action and comedy of Aristophanes’ play, Father Mike delivers a eulogy “on the life of a gun” at the funeral of Patti that serves as a rhetorical tour de force of how a ready source of guns and the lack of economic opportunity through legitimate means encourage the youth to turn to the underground economy (00:40:25-00:48:45).  These narrative asides consistently reaffirm the central political message of the film and remind the audience that despite the overarching fantasy that drives the plot, the underlying message is urgent and serious.  As counselors to Lysistrata, Miss Helen and Father Mike, and their respective domains, the book store and St. Sabina, represent both different and complementary solutions to the violence through education and Christian charity, respectively.  Both Miss Helen and Father Mike advise Lysistrata on her demands for jobs and health resources, but they also explain to her the larger factors that do not have an easy short-term solution, like ignorance and hate (00:21:05-00:24:11, 00:53:05-00:54:40, deleted scenes: “Women Bring the Wisdom” and “Lysistrata Meets with Fadda Mike and Kandy”). Miss Helen plays a pivotal role in convincing Lysistrata to act and suggesting the sex boycott as the means by which she can force the men to negotiate.[39]  In contrast to Lysistrata, who is an orphan with no family, Miss Helen, as a mother who lost her own child to gun violence, has dedicated her life to saving her community by educating others (00:20:00-00:21:05).  Likewise, Father Mike has dedicated his life to the church and community of St. Sabina by advocating a peaceful resolution to the violence through individual and collective accountability.  Both Miss Helen and Father Mike offer the strength of alternative communities to those of the Spartan and Trojan gangs, that is, the family/neighborhood and the church.  While acknowledging the larger intractable problems of racism, poverty, drugs, police brutality, political corruption, and economic disparity that contribute to the gun violence, the response advocated by Miss Helen and Father Mike is not one of hate and reciprocal violence, but love and peace, or in the words of Dolmedes at the close of the film, “The only real security is love y’all.  L-O-V-E” (1:57:32-1:58:58).[40]


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[1] A version of this paper was presented at the Center for Hellenic Studies and Bryn Mawr College.  I would like to thank the audiences and especially the director, staff, and fellows at the CHS for their support.  I also would like to thank Dr. Johnson Olusegun Ige for his comments and suggestions.  Any mistakes that remain are entirely my own.

[2] Chi-Raq (2015) Directed by Spike Lee [Film]. USA: Amazon Studios.  For convenience, Lee as both co-writer and director will be credited hereafter with “authorship” when context implies both Lee and Willmott or when specific attribution is unclear.

[3] As a satire, the film aims to draw attention to what it perceives as a critical issue. While certain cities, like Chicago, have seen a recent uptick in homicides over the past year and an escalating trend in 2016 (327 homicides as of June 30, up 33% from the same time last year), the number is significantly less than in 1992 at 939 (compared to 473 in 2015); see Robertson 2016.  See also the ongoing count and map of homicides in Chicago by the Chicago Tribune: http://crime.chicagotribune.com/chicago/homicides.

[4] Although there is some discussion over the appropriate term to describe this complex phenomena of multi-directional appropriation, criticism, and insight in the new ‘cultural space’ of a creative reworking, e.g., whether envisioned as an ‘Atlantic triangle’ (Greenwood 2004) or diaspora (Hardwick 2007), Classical Reception scholars agree that these interpretative communities offer, among other things, valuable insights into the “source text,” see especially Martindale 1993: 35-54, Hardwick 2003: 4, Wetmore 2003: 15, Greenwood 2004, Martindale 2006: 1-13, Hardwick 2007: 46, Day 2008: 6, Paul 2008, and Hardwick 2010. By analyzing the complex influences and references noted by Lee and Willmott within and outside the film, this essay explores the wider ‘processes’ of receptions (Paul 2010) as well as the dynamic triangular relationship between source text, creative reworking, and audiences’ receptions (Hall 2010).

[5] Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist, in Osnos 2016: 41.  According to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, “Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. accounted for more than half (244) of the national increase in murders” (Grawert and Cullen 2016: 1).

[6] Critics acknowledge that Lee did not invent the name, being first used by Chicago Police superintendent Jody Weis in 2010 and later popularized in a song by Kanye West in 2013; see Goudie 2015.  Rahm Emanuel held a press conference to express his displeasure about Lee’s working title for his film; see Byrne 2015.  For neighborhood reaction before the film’s release, see Watson and Konkol 2015.  Spike Lee responded to his critics in an in-depth interview; see Smith 2015.

[7] Lee defended the name and first trailer in several media outlets, before he ultimately released a second trailer and statement to address the controversy, some of which also appears in “The Making of Chi-Raq” Featurette; see Brennan and Thompson 2015.

[8] Although the numbers in the following reports do not tally exactly with those in the film, they are fairly close (Murders in Chicago: 7,403 vs. film’s 7,356; Soldiers’ deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan up to Dec. 22 of 2014: 6,764 vs. film’s 6,773).  For murder statistics in Chicago, see the 2011 murder report by Chicago Police Department (http://home.chicagopolice.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/2011-Murder-Report.pdf), the city data chart to 2014 (http://www.city-data.com/crime/crime-Chicago-Illinois.html), and the 2015 and ongoing 2016 count by the Chicago Tribune (http://crime.chicagotribune.com/chicago/homicides).  For the number of soldiers who have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom to December 2014, see DeBruyne and Leland 2015: 13, 17.

[9] The analogy between the gang war in Chicago and the Peloponnesian War in Greece also corresponds to the message to end violence within a community, e.g. the black-on-black/American-American violence in Chicago and the Spartan-Athenian conflict in Greece.  In Aristophanes, Lysistrata argues for panhellenic unity (1128-1134).  While Lee’s Lysistrata makes certain references to racial conflict throughout the film, especially in the discussion of the Charleston massacre, the film argues for a more inclusive responsibility in the words of Father Mike, “Can your plan save us from us?” (00:53:05-00:54:40).

[10] See the interview by Writers Guild of America, East December 2015 and O’ Falt 2015.

[11] The dashcam video footage was ordered released by November 25, 2015, and it was released on November 24.  The Chicago Tribune has set up an entire page connecting all the stories related to the incident; see “Laquan McDonald” Chicago Tribune (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/laquanmcdonald/).

[12] Lee’s critique extends responsibility for the violence far beyond the borders of the local community, so the defensiveness is largely misguided.  See, e.g. Moore 2016.

[13] See especially Osnos 2016 and Smith 2015.

[14] See Hudson’s remarks in “The Making of Chi-Raq” Featurette and Messer 2015.

[15] See Anderson 2015.  These women are part of an organization called “Purpose Over Pain”; see https://purpose-overpain.squarespace.com/.

[16] See Davey 2016 and Davey and Smith 2016.

[17] According to the Brennan report, “Crime in 2015,” the murder rate per 100,000 for Baltimore was 55.2; for Philadelphia was 16.8; for New York was 4.1; and for Chicago 17. The Brennan report stipulates that the weak economies (high poverty and unemployment) in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. could play a factor in the increase of violence in those cities (Grawert and Cullen 2016: 3-4).

[18] “The script evolved when we got to Chicago. There were a couple of scenes where they weren’t even written when we started to shoot. We wanted to remain contemporary. That act of terrorism, when Dylann Storm killed those people in Charleston, South Carolina was not in the script. South Carolina wrote that scene during shooting. We wanted to include that” (Spike Lee in WGAE interview, December 2015).

[19] As such, the film makes a pointed attempt to avoid what FBI Director James B. Comey has called a “drive-around problem,” i.e. that many Americans can be oblivious to the problems happening in certain parts of the city; see Berman 2016.

[20] Thucydides Peloponnesian War 7-8, especially 8.1-60. For a detailed discussion of the events of 411 BCE and its relevance for the play, see Henderson 1987: xv-xxv.

[21] The fantasy includes a deliberate and selective account of historical events, e.g. at the Reconciliation, Lysistrata references Athens and Sparta’s respective aid to each other without mentioning the subsequent fallout (1137-1146, 1149-1156).

[22] As Willmott explains, “When you are honest about American life, subtle doesn’t work for us, we’re too stupid for subtle” in O’ Falt 2015.

[23] The controversial reception of Chi-Raq may shed light on the heated debate about the relationship between Aristophanes and Athenian political discourse.  For an outline of the arguments, see Heath 1997: 230-249.

[24] In multiple scenes Father Mike and Irene actively engage with the community to stop the violence after the death of Patti, including organizing a protest and a march against gun violence (1:19:00-1:19:15, 1:19:32-1:20:13), imitating the real-life work of organizations in Chicago, like Purpose over Pain. In an op-ed of the Chicago Sun Times May 6, 2016, Superintendent Eddie Johnson of the Chicago Police attributes most of the violence to a small percentage of the population of repeat offenders: “By our count, about 1,300 individuals — or less than one percent of the city’s population — are responsible for the vast majority of violence we’ve seen in recent months.” This data has also led to targeted interventions to reduce gang and drug-related violence in inner cities, like David M. Kennedy’s Operation Ceasefire, begun in 1996 in Boston, which brings police, prosecutors, clergy, community members, and those believed responsible for the violence in face-to-face meetings or Gary Slutkin’s program of a similar name CeaseFire (now Cure Violence), begun in 2000 in Chicago, which focuses on community pressure with no involvement of law enforcement.

[25] See above n.10.

[26] Lee used this technique in his film Do the Right Thing (1989).  Although this technique had its origins in theater, it has been popularized in cinema by directors such as Federico Fellini, Woody Allen, and John Hughes.

[27] See also the extended scene “Knights of Euphrates.”

[28] Cf. the possible allusion to prostitutes after Cinesias is rejected by Myrrhine (957-958).

[29] See Sigmund Freud (1990: 155-161).  The scene with General King Kong is both a reworking of the Cinesias and Myrrhine episode (870-951) in its “sex attack” motif and the humiliation of the magistrate (387-607, especially 599-607).

[30] “We will powder, paint, and perfume ourselves, then wear those teddies, and garters, and those red-bottomed heels” (Teasing the Men).

[31] These lines are retained in the reprise of the oath at the armory (1:08:10-1:09:22).  Although Prince has argued that the “lioness on a cheesegrater” refers to an active sexual position, it is unclear if Lee and Willmott regard it in that way in their “translation”; see Prince 2009: 169-170. In these edits, Lee and Willmott could be alluding to the passage in Aristophanes in which the women are only convinced to stay within the Acropolis when Lysistrata tells them the oracle of Zeus, which is interpreted to mean that the women will be the dominant sexual partner (770-773).

[32] See e.g. Owens 2015 and Mock 2015.

[33] For an in-depth analysis of the portrayal of women and Lysistrata, see my companion article, “Lysistrata(s): Aristophanes to Spike Lee.”

[34] Scholars have argued that the strike plot drops from the action of the play after the swearing of the oath until Lysistrata appears on stage to despair of the women’s desire to defect (708-780); See especially Vaio 1973: 371.

[35] After the women swear to stay home in order to tease their men (212-237), they immediately join the old women in the Acropolis (240-253).

[36] “By representing them as engaging in a political action against the war, Aristophanes conjures up the image of women as a countersociety, a kind of mirror world of masculine civic space” (Konstan 1995: 49).

[37] See also the deleted scene “General Kong Turnt Out.”  In the song’s debilitating effect on the men, perhaps Lee and Willmott allude to the Siren’s music from Homer’s Odyssey 12.39-46.

[38] See especially the extended scene of “Knights of Euphrates,” in which the men close the meeting by shouting, “Misogyny today, misogyny tomorrow, misogyny for goddamn ever!”

[39] See also the deleted scene “Women Bring the Wisdom.”

[40] In his closing remarks, Dolmedes revisits Father Mike’s closing chant at the end of his eulogy to Patti, “Love wins!” (00:48:25-00:48:40), which also echoes the response by the parents of the children murdered at Sandy Hook, (http://anagraceproject.org/).