Chi-Raq Does A Disservice To The Liberian Sex Strike

December 8, 2015  |  

Source: 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks

If you are boycotting Chi-Raq on principle, I definitely respect that.

But if you are going to critique it, you definitely are going to have to watch it first.

Full disclosure: I too had my issues with Spike Lee’s latest project. First, there is the reality that Lee’s non-documentary works has been somewhat confusing, heavy-handed and disjointed as of late. More specifically Red Hook Summer and Da Blood of Jesus.

I get down with experimental art house. But if it ain’t connecting, it ain’t connecting.

Another reason for my trepidation is the film’s stated plot itself, which centers around Black women orchestrating a sex strike as an answer to inner-city Chicago gun violence.

Yes, I know that it is inspired by the 4th– century Greek comedy Lysistrata. And yes I know that it was also inspired by the Liberia Sex Strike. I saw the movie, remember.

However, when does the knowledge of the inspiration of something, particularly an artful something, shield it from critique?

And more importantly, just because an artist was inspired by an actual event doesn’t mean he or she has given its muse proper tribute or even context.

What I mean is, the Liberia Sex Strike, as it would come to be christened by the Western media, was only one small action in a much more involved non-violent campaign for peace in the West African nation.

The peace movement was founded and lead by a group called the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. And under the leadership of two social workers named Leymah Gbowee and Comfort M. Freeman, thousands of women from across the religious and ethnic tribe spectrum engaged in non-partisan action aimed at ending the four-year civil war that killed in upwards of 200,000 people, displaced millions, raped women and girls and turned boys into child soldiers.

In addition to the highly sensationalized sex strike, the women activists who would dress in all white to symbolize unity also led daily prayer vigils and demonstrations at local fish markets, the presidential offices, and the Guinean and American embassies. Likewise they sent letters, petitions and forced meetings with political leaders as well as the international community. In fact, it would be a series of WLMAP protests outside of both President Charles Taylor and the warlord rebels compounds that would force all sides to peace talks in Ghana.

Through a massive sit-in, the women held the waring men up in a room, denying them both food and water until an agreement was reached. And when those peace talks threatened to sour, it was a WLMAP protests that again kept them at the table. As reported by Tavaana.org:

Unwilling to tolerate another month of dead-end negotiations, 200 women held a sit-in at the peace talks in Ghana, demanding that the parties come to a conclusion. Authorities attempted to arrest them, but to no avail. When negotiators tried to exit, Gbowee and the women threatened to strip off their clothes, an act that would shame male delegates.”

During a 2011 address at the Olso Freedom Forum, Gbowee spoke in her own words about that particular action at the peace talks:

So people ask me what is it about a woman stripping naked that makes people run? Or even make the conscious of a group of men who have paid and drugged boys to rape these same women to wake up. The thing is, when you are raped in conflict; when you are stripped naked in conflict, it is against your will. When a group of women, or when a group of people, get to the place where they decided that ‘I am going to give you the last shred of my dignity, that is something to even wake anyone up. Even the most heartless dictators. The peace agreement was signed three weeks after this action.”

When western media focused solely on the sex strike it did so at the expense of erasing efforts of these activists who used whatever was at their disposal – including their brains, mouths, pens and bodies – to bring peace to Liberia. When we focus solely on the sex strike, we strip those women naked against their will.

And unfortunately, Chi-Raq is guilty of the same transgression.

Without giving too much away, the film relied heavily on selling Black women as sex objects to push the narrative. It was not only at times distracting, but it also acted counter revolutionary to the filmmakers stated aims, which was to use women to empower a community.

In spite of a several strong lead performances, women characters in the film were virtually voiceless and one-dimensional. Oh, they spoke and had lines. But when they spoke, most of their dialog centered around men, their desire for sex with men and the relation of all of that to their autonomy (aka The Pussy). There was no talk or even challenge the misogynist attitudes or even sexual violence, which is often waged at their expense.

Most ironic is the scene of the film when the girlfriend and wives of the two opposing Chicago street gang leaders finally reveal the terms of their protests to their partners. The terse yet rhythmic (most of the film is done in rhyming prose) conversation happens in the kitchen as the women slave away over the stove making their men – and only their men – dinner.

Unlike the women of Liberia, who went as far as deny food and drink to the men for peace, in Lee’s vision of women empowerment women are still beholden to patriarchal ideas of feminine duties and responsibilities including fixing your man a plate. You know, because you can deny men “your power (aka sex)” for the cause of peace, but to deny him a plate of fried chicken and some collards is a bridge to damn far.

Worse, the male-centric dialog and the hyper-sexualized, impromptu dance scenes, which featured  the women in scantly-clad military fatigues engaged in a lot of body gyration and touching, is for no reason at all.

In one particularly confusing sequence, the main character, named Lysistrata, and her sex-strikers take command of a military base by seductively teasing a high-ranking White official in Confederate flag underwear (representative of White supremacy) with the promise of sex.

It was a dangerously sick narrative, which might play well into the pornographic fantasies of heterosexual men, but it also disregards the fine line in consciousness we Black women have to walk to not be judged as Jezebels and Sapphires. Likewise, it is a narrative that disregards the ways in which rape and sex has historically been used as weapons by our oppressors against Black women. As there was no sex appeal strong enough that freed our ancestors (and womankind) from the slave labor of the plantation, no more than there is for us free Black descendants who are routinely accused of being prostitutes to this day.

At times it is hard to tell if the film, or its gender politics, were even meant to be taken serious. The film, which centers around several heavy topics, was at times whimsical and downright silly. Likewise, the acting was exaggerated, the characters were cartoonish (in particular Wesley Snipes whose comedic timing was superb), and the moralism in some scenes were heavy-handed in its blatancy.

As I watched the film, I began to wonder if Lee was attempting to pull off a bigger guise here? What I mean is that for a man who has been pretty vocal about the representations of Blacks in film in television and who has publicly taken issue with the system that only allows certain people to tell certain  stories, I wondered if Lee had intentionally took a has out of their playbook to make a point? And perhaps this entire film was Lee’s attempt at a wink and nod at our acceptance of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained or one of Tyler Perry’s productions.

In the interest of giving an iconic Black director the benefit of the doubt, I would need to watch the film again.

However it only takes one viewing to see that if Lee was hoping to breathe life into an often misrepresented story of women activists in Liberia, he really missed the mark.

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  • Matt

    I’d like to point out that the movie is a modern day interperation of a play.

  • pragmatic maxim

    People are dismissing this film before it can even get in theaters good …yet everyone broke their necks to go see Straight Outta Compton and called it an inspirational story. What’s wrong with this picture Black people?

  • ♎Lauren♎

    I’ll wait until it comes on Netflix

  • Transbutter

    I’ve heard so much negative about this film. I think I just need to see it for myself. I was disappointed in red hook summer. I started to watch the film and midway through moved on to another film on Netflix. Spike Lee hasn’t been right since Malcolm X. I’m beginning to think his views are not aligned with his actions. Lee says one thing but does another. If he hadn’t made Malcolm X I would dismiss him.

  • LogicalLeopard

    WOW. There’s a lot here. Uhm, lets start with this sentence: “However it only takes one viewing to see that if Lee was hoping to breathe life into an often misrepresented story of women activists in Liberia, he really missed the mark.” Well, lets go back up to the whole thing about Lysistrata? Isn’t that the main thing this movie is based on? If so, then he didn’t miss the mark, that’s not the mark he was shooting for. The article says, “in Lee’s vision of women empowerment women are still beholden to patriarchal ideas of feminine duties and responsibilities including fixing your man a plate.” Well, that would be appropriate if it’s based on Lysistrata, because that is the world those women were living in, more or less.
    Lysistrata was kind of a randy comedy, as I understand, and if this movie is like it, you’ll see the same sort of foolishness. We often look for Spike Lee to send poignant messages about black life. So maybe, this one isn’t along those lines. Maybe this one is more artistic. I completely get that the movie may not showcase the power that women have, dumbing it down into nothing but what is in their pants. I completely get that this isn’t a very good message to send to people, especially black women and black men. However, you have to consider the source. And if the source is Lysistrata, then…..

    • LogicalLeopard

      Note: I have never seen Lysistrata or Chi-Raq. In college, I had to see a play for a theater class called Women of Troy, which I thought was Lysistrata. So I went there, thought it was going to be some sort of a funny romp, when Women of Troy was nothing but……..it was hoooooorrrible. There was crying, singing, crying, then someone got happy, and I think a kid got thrown from the battlements. Mercifully, the whole thing was over in maybe an hour and a half. Kids, don’t make the same mistake I did. Never see Women of Troy.

  • Terietta M. Ingram

    I think the author’s criticism is true, but I dont think that takes away from the movie. YEs the women were scantly clad absolutely but a lot of it was their choice. I think he encompassed several different conversation into this movie, so the women withholding sex is a catalyst for change. I feel like women’s sexuality is definitely the focus but its the women’s choice. We (women of the more feminist nature) preach about how women should be able to dress how they want and here they do. We see women, looking fly among other women. Not so much for a man (unless it is to make them do what they want). So basicallly I disagree and I will buy it on Amazon. I also understand I dont come from these neighborhoods so I am not sure if he accurately capture that life.

  • Andre Spivey

    The Liberian strike didn’t work nor did it in Columbia, Venezuela, etc…

    • Raze

      At least the people who were involved in the Liberian strike tried to do something.

      • Andre Spivey

        Yep at least they tried.

  • SayWhat?

    Chicago deserves better. Another bad Spike Lee movie (Malcolm X was his opus) offering a sex strike as a (fictionalized) solution is just ridiculous. And once again the onus is put on black women. The only thing that is going to stop black men from killing each other is black men deciding to stop killing each other. I’m disappointed Spike didn’t use his platform and talent to make a NOLA style documentary on Chicago to rip the cover off this issue.

    • Neva

      Exactly. Black women abstaining will not stop the murder rate because it has NOTHING to do with us! The truth is the animals doing the killing are just ignorant savages that need to be publicly stoned. What black women in Chicago need to do is avoid the black savages, get an education, and move out of the hood. Most black communities especially in Chicago are hostile environments to black women and girls. Screw a strike black women need to LEAVE. Black women are unfairly blamed for black men’s dysfunction and it makes me angry. #Ugh #NotToday

      • Raze

        You can run from here to the end of the world, it won’t solve the damn problem. Women should be more cautious about who they have children with, but in the end, the men need to be more consious of how their actions destroy their own communities.

        • Neva

          I agree with you. It’s embarrassing how many black women have a lazy attitude when it comes to breeding, and black men have all but lost their minds. Black men have committed genocide against their own people. The cycle of dysfunction continues.

          • TulipTop

            What about the “breeding” attitude of the black men who are impregnating black women? It takes two to tangle to create a child.

        • TulipTop

          More conscious of how their actions destroy the community? Oh, I think the savages destroying the community in Chicago are quite aware and conscious of their actions. How about we call black men to just a tad bit more than being “more conscious?” How about we TELL (not ask) them to STOP destroying our community. And that’s not just in Chicago. That’s nationwide. We’ve had enough. Women being more cautious about who they have children with is not going to “solve the damn” problem either. A black woman in Chicago can have a child by a Ph.D. or a janitor. It makes no difference to the bullets the male thugs are spraying out like Skittles.

        • I_am_a_Gladiator/Scandalista

          But I wonder…..instead of a sex strike, what if all the women up and moved away out of the hood of Chicago and left the men to themselves. What would happen

          • Raze

            The men committing all these senseless murders are dealers and gang members. With women out of the way, they can easily do all their murdering and thieving without having to worry about going home for dinner or threatening the members of the other gang’s mother/ wife/ partner/ children.

      • pragmatic maxim

        It’s a movie. It’s fiction….you know, like….FOR ENTERTAINMENT. Thought provoking fictional entertainment. His vision…get over it!

        • TulipTop

          Get over it? How old are you? The situation in Chicago is not entertaining to all of the people dying there and living in misery. Thought provoking? Hardly. It’s just another bad Spike Lee joint.

          • pragmatic maxim

            It’s his artistic vision. GET OVER IT

            …I’m from Chicago by the way, and I was robbed at gunpoint less than 10 minutes away from President Obama’s house. Told to get on my knees at 2 o’clock in the morning and had a gun put to my forehead.

            Like I said…its a two hour film for christsake. Get over it

    • pragmatic maxim

      How many fictionalized narative films DON’T have premises that are ridiculous?…or whimsical?…or impossible? Why are you determined to crucify this Black man on some ‘he say she say’? Have you seen the film OR a preview for it?
      Are you even from Chicago?

      • TulipTop

        I’m assuming you’re directing this emotional, childish barrage of questions to me. From the bottom:
        -It’s none of your business where I’m from.
        -Yes, I have seen the film.
        -Offering one’s opinion on a movie isn’t “crucifying” the movie’s maker. It’s simply one giving their opinion. Film critics and the public do it all the time. If you disagree with my opinion, or any opinion expressed here, that’s fine. However, your method of communicating your disagreement is childish at best and I really cannot take you seriously. “He say, she say?” I have no idea of what you’re talking about.
        -Many films based on real-life events are NOT based upon whimsy, impossibility, or ridiculousness. Sadly, this one is.

        I don’t like the film. I’m sorry that hurt your feelings. 🙁 Feel better.

        • pragmatic maxim

          My writing style…which is a form of my expression…you label as childish and emotional? I think it’s more like being passionate. Just like you probably think your comments are poised and rational…whereas I see them as the rantings of a woman who is obviously frigid and who has hoisted herself upon an incredibly high horse inside her ivory tower.

          I feel like a million by the way.

  • pragmatic maxim

    Mr Lee is one of the greatest auteurs in contemporary American Cinema and has never gotten the credit he deserves from critics nor moviegoers alike. This is HIS artistic vision of what his film should be and shouldn’t be expected to compromise his artistic integrity to suit anyone else’s feelings…. nor tastes… besides his own. Furthermore…he’s always been ahead of his time. The same people who talk about how brilliant ‘Bamboozled’ is now are the same ones who panned it when it was first released.

  • all I can say is white liberals has made black Americans confused and delusional!

  • Van

    The Liberian sex strike is not relevant, not to Spike or the vast majority of people that use this site. Enough with the whining. Don’t like it? Don’t watch it.

    • Simone

      Why isn’t it relevant?

    • Raze

      If it’s an important aspect of the movie, the it IS relevant to Spike Lee.

  • LAWAT

    Here’s what I know about those who are KILLING each other in our COMMUNITY

    The LAST thing they are worried about is a PUZZY strike!!!!

    Sidebar: for someone who talk about the BULL in Hollywood…Mr.Lee sure enjoyed that TOKEN OSCAR…SMH

    • J.C.

      ^^ YES TO THIS!!!!!!! I though the same damn thing when he received that honorary Academy Award! He was as happy as a toothless kid receiving money from the toothfairy. What makes it strange is for years he has criticized the Oscars and urged black entertainers to not place their worth or value in receiving one. In fact, he reiterated that point this past year when SELMA got snubbed for a few of the major categories at the Oscars.

      • pragmatic maxim

        Should he have taken it and smahed it against the podium?
        Spit in the face of the presenter and then walked off of the stage?

        I kinda thought that was the statement Jay Z was making about the Grammy awards and award shows in general those years when he drank champagne out of one of his Grammy awards and the following year said it was a new sippy cup for his daughter, however everyone else bashed him for being disrespectful.

        • J.C.

          Of course he shouldn’t have done that but he’s expressed conflicted messages about the topic. In retrospect, it makes his whole stance seem like only if he didn’t have an Oscar, they were unfair. They’re still unfair. Why not stick to your guns and accept the award like a proud director that was overlooked for several major films? Instead, he cooned and baffoned while accepting like he’d been secretly waiting on one despite his message to the public.

          • pragmatic maxim

            Sadly….your statement is a testament to how we so viciously like to judge one another and harshly scrutinize each other’s every action.
            I’ve never in my life seen Spike Lee (of all people) ‘coon and baffoon’. Human nature dictates that we ALL have conflicting emotions….at least somewhat. It’s the Yin and the Yang. It’s why a person can say ‘money doesn’t determine my happiness’ and then smile broadly when they find a $100 dollar bill lying on the sidewalk.

          • pragmatic maxim

            Sadly….your statement is a testament to how we so viciously like to judge one another and harshly scrutinize each other’s every action.
            I’ve never in my life seen Spike Lee (of all people) ‘coøn and baffoon’. Furthermore, human nature dictates that we ALL have conflicting emotions….at least somewhat. It’s the Yin and the Yang. It’s why a person can say ‘money doesn’t determine my happiness’ and then smile broadly when they find a $100 dollar bill lying in front of their feet while walking down the sidewalk.

    • pragmatic maxim

      But then…who knows? If something like that could be, and was, seriously implemented I’d say it would have the potential to move mountains.

      • LAWAT

        I’m down with anything to STOP THE SENSELESS KILLING!!!!…PUZZY strike…BOOB strike…Dome strike…HEY ya never know

        • pragmatic maxim

          Afterall….we all know what the driving force behind most men’s achievements have always been throughout history if you were to really break it down

          • LAWAT

            Yes…
            MEN will go to WAR for a WOMAN…

            But these are MALES…

            they are not MEN nor WARRIORS

            • pragmatic maxim

              They’ve never been made to be. The man/warrior has never been awakened so his existance is doubted. He’s just dormant

    • guest

      Absolutely, I would have loved to see him say thanks but no thanks to the Oscar. It just proves what a fraud he really is.

      • pragmatic maxim

        Fraud…really? That’s such a harsh judgement—-and unsubstantiated

  • Annamuffin

    All I can say is spike lee threw a lot of unwarranted criticism at Dajngo, when he didn’t even watch the movie. Which was actually one Tarantino’s best action films… I guess what goes around comes around….

  • Amber

    I haven’t seen the movie yet so I can’t critique Lee’s art. Thank you for your review and maybe I’ll watch it one day. Also, thank you for the historical perspective I was saying a couple weeks ago that people tended to misrepresent the Liberian sex strikes and put too much importance on the strike and not looking at the situation in its entire context.