Spike Lee’s new film Chi-raq is a film that inspired a slew of criticism before its release, but went almost entirely unnoticed once it actually premiered in theaters. The upset was mostly focused on the city of Chicago, which did not feel they were properly represented by the new moniker laid upon them. The term Chi-raq, a combination of Chicago and Iraq, stemmed from the fact that since 2001 more individuals have died in Chicago than in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
Viewers felt that the topic of black on black violence that in the film stems largely from gang violence sent the wrong message; blaming young black men for being infatuated with guns as if they were alone driving the right to bear arms. While these concerns would make an excellent study in another review, the remark that ultimately drove me to write this article was made by the director himself when he blatantly revealed the impact he believed the film would have, “I think a sex strike could really work on college campus where’s there’s an abundance of sexual harassment and date rapes…that’s college campus university I think that’ll work. Second semester it’s gonna happen. Once people come back from Christmas and some stuff jumps off there’s gonna be sex strikes at universities and colleges across this country. I believe it.”
This is the remark that launched my need to form my own opinion about whether Chi-raq was a film that could contribute to political discourse or if it had entirely missed the mark I believed its trailer had executed so well. Chi-raq is set in the South Side of Chicago, and borrows its plot from Lysistrata, a Greek play by Aristophanes about a woman who gathers feminine support to begin a sex strike in order to cease the Peloponnesian war. The source material is a comedy and although Chi-raq has its moments, the agenda seems quite clear: to make a statement about the impact of gun violence within a community that grapples with who to blame once another life is lost and how society needs to change. Which is why I was surprised when Lee made his remark on sexual assault and harassment on college campuses.
One in five women is sexually assaulted during her studies in the U.S. That doesn’t even come close to the margin of women harassed and threatened while on campus. While 90% of the women will not feel safe coming forward to report their assault, 63.3% of men who admitted to committing rape declared that they had repeated this offence again after recognizing their crime. Men feel that they are entitled to treat women as predators. They inhabit a belief system where they consider a woman’s body and her sexual autonomy their right to either take or discard. The act of rape is an act of control. The sexual violence committed is not consensual and there is no survivor who will tell you that denying access to their bodies made their assaulter second guess their actions.
As Lysistrata recruits women to deny all acts of “access and entrance” to men until they can resolve to put down their guns after a stray bullet kills a young girl on the streets, the film does not shy away from sexual imagery. Some have called it semi-pornographic, the same way viewers believed 50 Shades of Grey was a work of pornography by individuals who clearly do not subscribe to adult channels. Yes, the women are scantily clad, the sex scenes are devoid of romance or intimacy, and the climax of the film literally sees its two main characters in a battle to see who can orgasm first. Chi-raq may be set on the South Side, but it also lives in a universe where saying no means no. It’s a world where no one is convicted of rape crimes or sexual assault because apparently in Chi-raq the men respect the women enough to recognize that their consent in imperative to the act itself. It may work in the context of this film, which never states that this element is anything other than satire, but it sadly is not the world that we live in.
Spike Lee has used the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gwobee to promote this particular agenda as an example. Yes, Gwobee did promote a sex strike to demonstrate to women their power in helping to end the Second Civil Liberian War but it was only one of many initiatives she used in order to gather women together to have their voices heard against the violent politics that surrounded them. The sex strike used by the women was a push to gathered international press to recognize the atrocities occurring in Liberia as a media tactic to start conversation within the public. It wasn’t the single strategy used to change the world. It was the interest the strike sparked to a government and global stage who wanted to know what was going on in Liberia and if such an outrageous idea would actually work. What worked was the diligence of this group to protest incessantly and never give up the hope that they could stop the internal destruction within their society. What worked was the savvy minds that understood they needed to create a conversation off a topic that sells well to the press. In the end they were successful but not simply because they kept their legs closed.
Be prepared that this film has inherent problems in its construction and delivery. It is excessively hetero-normative. The women are objectified sexually, the dialogue at times can be redundant and it certainly does not pass the Bechdel test. Despite these oversights Spike Lee has made a film that is entertaining and satirically intriguing. I don’t believe that college campuses are going to be devoid of sex because the film inspired a movement and I can’t see this one film changing gun laws across the board. If it can’t change the world overnight at the very least it can start conversations about where the film goes wrong along with where it goes right. The message of the film is that we have the power to change the times. That power may not be tied up in our sexuality but it is within ourselves.