A year or so ago I woke up to a whole bunch of stuff on my Facebook feed about how Jon Stewart had picked a fight with the entire city of Chicago. I DVR The Daily Show and watch it the next day, so I had not yet seen the episode. So when I sat down to watch it I was fully prepared to see Jon Stewart do something to really insult the city of Chicago. What I saw was this.
That clip is still completely hilarious. For the context, which is kinda cut off at the beginning, Chicago pizza had just been declared the best pizza in the country in one of those stupid internet things that rates shit just as a way to get your aunt to take five minutes out of her usual rants about Obummer and share it on Facebook. Y’know, clickbait.
Chicago and New York have always had a bit of a rivalry. Chicago has always been on the downside of said rivalry. It’s why one of Chicago’s many, many nicknames is “The Second City.” As far as influence and power go, Chicago has always been considered a stepping stone to the real bright lights of New York City. It’s gotten so ingrown that a few years back Chicago finally put the finishing touches on a long project to bring the city a top-quality theater district and what did it call said district? “Broadway in Chicago.”
It’s basically Little Brother Syndrome by now. Anything Chicago does gets overshadowed by a reflexive look towards New York, either to stick out our collective tongues or see if someone from New York is throwing shade. Then Chicago postures towards New York like so many Jeb Bushes talking tough about how we’d really turn the thumb screws on ol’ Vladdy Putin.
So that brings us to Tuesday’s “big,” um, “news.” Famed New York New Yorker of New Yorkness Spike Lee dropped the first trailer from his latest joint, Chi-raq. I briefly talked about this yesterday, but for those who haven’t seen the trailer, which is probably basically everyone who doesn’t live in Chicago, doesn’t have Facebook friends in Chicago, and isn’t Spike Lee’s mom, here it is:
I will admit that I was fully prepared to be pissed about the whole thing. Which is weird, because the first time I heard anything about it was when I was clicking the link from a Facebook post. I remained ready to be pissed until about 48 seconds in when Sam L. Jackson, as the narrator, says the magic words: “They called her Lysistrata.” My immediate response was, “Oh, okay, then. We’re doing Lysistrata.”
For those who are not familiar (which is a group that apparently includes literally everyone else in the city of Chicago and its media), Lysistrata is a famous Greek comedy written by Aristophanes. In it the women of Athens decide to put an end to the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex until the men stop fighting. Hilarity ensues.
Aristophanes first wrote the play in 411 BCE, which was 23 years after the start of the Peloponnesian War and 7 years before its end. There’s also very little evidence to indicate that Aristophanes was actually writing about war, the general badness of war, or the possibility that women withholding sex could actually end war. It was a farce written to comedically explore gender roles in Athens at the time. That’s it. Period.
The backlash against Chi-raq in the Chicago news and social media was real on Wednesday. I, sadly, did not keep track of the links, but I saw one article that used that most tired vehicle of printing other peoples’ tweets to express its point and reprinted at least one that referred to it as “Shakespeare.” Another, which I think was an opinion piece in the Sun-Times, referred to Lysistrata as a figure from “Greek mythology.”
Both of these things are extremely wrong and indicate that the person writing them didn’t do the bare minimum level of research, like, say, entering “Lysistrata” in the search bar on Wikipedia.
There was another article that went into great detail about how Chi-raq was insulting to the concept of black sexuality and race relations. Most of the articles that I saw were all about how insulting it is to both the city of Chicago and the black folks within to suggest that the solution to the gang violence in Chicago is for all the women to withhold sex. Each and every single one of these objections receive the same response. Well, yeah. Duh. It’s a modern retelling of Lysistrata.
I’m not a big conspiracy theorist, but in this case I find it necessary to consider the cast of characters, because there might be an ulterior motive here. For one, although Chicago itself is an amazing city Chicagoans have this tendency to be thin-skinned and provincial whenever outsiders, especially New Yorkers, say anything negative about the city. Spike Lee has all but disappeared from the social zeitgeist, but for anyone who was alive during the ’90s he’s synonymous with both black popular culture and New York City. In Chicago itself the “Chiraq” moniker is not exactly considered to be a compliment and there aren’t too many who actually use it.
As such, the notion of Spike Lee releasing a farcical film set in the worst parts of Chicago using a name that the majority of Chicagoans will find offensive and insulting seems like something that’s designed specifically to set off an Internet shit storm. In the world of Internet shit storms there’s truly no such thing as bad publicity and it’s all, every last drop, completely free. So follow the money and ask, “Who benefits from putting out a movie guaranteed to stir up an Internet shit storm?”
Boom. I just blew your fucking mind.
Chi-raq itself follows a grand tradition of taking ancient plays that have withstood the test of time and recasting them in a modern setting the audience will understand. I recently saw a BBC broadcast of Patrick Stewart as MacBeth in a re-casting of that play set in some sort of post-WWII Eastern European nation or something similar. It was quite good. That’s not the re-placing of a play by the Bard that comes immediately to mind when it comes to Chi-raq, though.
No, what comes to mind there is Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet. I have watched the Chi-raq trailer about a dozen times now. I have read a whole lot of articles about how offensive Chi-raq is to Chicago or black folks or black folks in Chicago, but I haven’t seen one that can get past the meta-narrative of the film itself to get to the obvious. Chi-raq looks like a terrible movie. Like, seriously. It looks awful.
See, I don’t trust Spike Lee to handle classical Greek theater. It’s obvious from the trailer that all the pieces are there. He’s competent enough to do that much, but it’s also obvious that he’s not competent enough to do it without making sure we all know how fucking clever he is for doing Lysistrata set in the modern day. Also it looks like he’s gone to great pains to make everything rhyme.
Also, I’m about 95% sure that Lysistrata doesn’t have a narrator. It seems like Sam Jackson’s character in the trailer is a narrator in the film. He’s referred to at the very beginning as “Dolomedes,” who is a character who does not exist in Lysistrata and is probably more of a throwback to the blaxploitation film Dolemite. Since I find it hard to believe that Jackson is only going to be in the trailer what this says is that Spike Lee doesn’t trust his audience to get something as simple as women withholding sex to stop a war. The inclusion of the narrator character is a red flag that says that Spike Lee wants us to know how much smarter he is than we are so he’s going to explain everything to us just in case we miss the implications.
In short, Chi-raq looks like a hot mess. I don’t intend to watch it.
The best way to avoid Little Brother Syndrome is to stop reacting like a little brother. The thing about Chicago style deep dish is that it’s amazing. It’s also pizza. So if Jon Steward calls it a casserole in his exaggerated New Yawk accent it’s okay to laugh while picking up the phone to call Lou Malnati’s. Because Jon Stewart doesn’t get to define pizza and also HE’S A FUCKING COMEDIAN DOING A BIT. How do I know? Because he stopped in the middle of his own shtick and started laughing.
That’s probably not a real thing. But it felt like something that needed to be proper nouned and put into the DSM.
Seriously. I didn’t even know he was still making anything and I sure as hell didn’t know he was still making movies. I think the last time he was relevant he was making commercials for the fucking NBA with an Alonso Mourning marionette or whatever those commercials were.
Please note how often in these stories the concept of learning about things on Facebook comes up. It’s almost like there’s a thread that can be followed there or something.
I would, in fact, say that it’s basically impossible to believe that Aristophanes actually thought it was a possibility. Campaigns lasted for months, women had little to no power, and Greek men were free to screw anyone they wanted to. Remember, the Greeks are also famed for their promiscuous homosexuality.
I actually went up to my bookshelves to see if I have a copy of Lysistrata in my possession to confirm my suspicions. It seems that I don’t. I do, however, have a lot of Sophocles and about four different copies of the Oedipus Cycle. Because you never can tell when you’re going to need to write a compare and contrast of multiple English translations of a single Greek drama.