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Aristophanes In Chicago: Spike Lee's Ancient Inspiration, On Film


Gun violence is the backdrop of Spike Lee's new film, "Chi-Raq," that opens in theaters this weekend. The film takes place in Chicago, which is still grappling with the death of Laquan McDonald. But the film takes an unexpected twist drawing a lesson from an ancient Greek play to stop modern-day violence. For NPR's Code Switch unit, Natalie Moore of member station WBEZ reports.

NATALIE MOORE, BYLINE: The tagline for "Chi-Raq" is no peace, no piece - get it? Here's the movie's character Lysistrata, played by Teyonah Parris, breaking it down to a stadium full of women.


TEYONAH PARRIS: (As Lysistrata) Repeat after me. I will deny all rights of access or entrance.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: I will deny all rights of access or entrance.

SAMUEL L. JACKSON: (As Dolmedes) Lysistrata had them all take a solemn oath.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Lock it up, lock it up.

MOORE: Around 413 B.C., Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote the satire "Lysistrata" in the middle of the long Peloponnesian War. The title character persuades women to withhold all sex from their men until the war stops. Spike Lee's character does the same to try to stop the body count in Chicago. Artistic director of the city's Court Theatre, Charles Newell, knows the story well.

CHARLES NEWELL: In Athens, it was at a theater that seated between 20 and 24,000 people. In other words, the whole city came to see this event. It was a one-time performance only in the celebration of Dionysus, which of course Dionysus is also, amongst other things, the God of theater and the god of wine. So there was a lot of celebration and a lot of wine drunk.

MOORE: Newell notes that over the centuries, many artists have adapted this durable story in which misogyny competes with women's power. He's excited that Spike Lee has taken it on. But the movie's focus on black women is complicated, says Salamishah Tillet, a feminist scholar who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

SALAMISHAH TILLET: Given how vulnerable black women are to experiencing forms of sexual violence and coercion, there's no room for that kind of vulnerability in the film. These are women who are completely in control of their sexuality on one hand.

MOORE: And at the same time, must resort to a strategy of a sex strike to be political actors.

TILLET: In a place like Chicago, which is ironic 'cause I think black women are very strong political voices in many different areas of social change.

MOORE: Indeed one Chicago woman is suggesting that life imitate art. In a response to the violence that inspired the name of the film, a mas hup of Chicago and Iraq, self-styled activist April Lawson has called for a sex strike.

APRIL LAWSON: I saw the movie - the trailer for "Chi-Raq." Before I could even get finished with the entire trailer, I was like, oh, yeah. That's what we really need to do. We really need to do that. That's real life for us.

MOORE: Through social media and word of mouth, Lawson's gotten fewer than 100 women to sign on so far. Give it time, she says.

LAWSON: I would like to see this done in stages. First, the women taking a stand and keeping the high standards and then the men going, you know what? I support you with that. And to further that support, what I'd like to do is monitor blocks or whatever that takes - but it ending up in an actual treaty and how they are going to then execute it and continue to protect their children and protect and honor their women.

MOORE: There are some people who would say women can protect women. What do you think about the moms in Inglewood who said we're just going to handle this on our own? We're going to walk the blocks...

LAWSON: Yeah...

MOORE: And we're going to decrease...

LAWSON: ...That's necessary too. And I've said that, you know, we need - we need to all do this together.

MOORE: Filmmaker Lee says this story is not just a satire but a tactic, even though women who've tried it over the centuries have achieved mixed results. For NPR News, I'm Natalie Moore in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Natalie Moore is WBEZ's South Side Reporter where she covers segregation and inequality.