“Chi-Raq”’s Co-Writer Kevin Willmott on Reimagining the Ancient Greek Play Lysistrata

Dec 4, 2015 | Writing

Chi-Raq, written by Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee, may be one of the most powerful films of the decade. Though a story about a group of women going on a sex strike until their gang-banger men stop killing each other feels fresh and topical, this satire is actually a reimagining of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, who was exploring the same themes of sex and violence in 411 B.C.

Chi-Raq is an unabashedly anti-gun film. The title comes from the heartbreaking statistic that in Chicago, Illinois, the homicide rate has surpassed the death toll of American special forces in Iraq. Chicago is currently more dangerous than Iraq for Americans and the filmmakers are rightfully outraged.

The film takes its structure from Lysistrata: part sex farce, part political satire. It keeps Lysistrata’s stylized, rhyming verse but sets it in modern day with an almost entirely African-American cast.

If you’re thinking this sounds a little like the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, also in rhymed verse with an ethnically diverse cast, think again. Kevin Willmott’s original script for Chi-Raq was written 13 years ago, long before Hamilton was selling out the box office.

But screenwriter, playwright and university professor Willmott admits that the highly stylized dialogue is what scared off any potential producers at first. Though Spike Lee was interested in making the film, it never got off the ground. Some writers would think about cutting the verse to better serve the market place, but not Willmott. After appearing in a production of Lysistrata in college, he said the verse spoke to him as an American-American and reminded him of rap and spoken word. “There have always been rhyming tales in the African-American tradition. All of that has been a part of our literary legacy. Spike may have been the only guy in film in America who understood that. He really got what that was all about and fought to keep it.”

About a year and a half ago, though, when the tensions in South Side Chicago were really making the headlines, Spike called Willmott up and said he wanted to call the film Chi-Raq and try again to get it made.

Despite the film centering on modern-day gangs, both Willmott and Lee wanted to stick to the Greek rules of violence. “The Greeks kind of figured it out way back when. They didn’t commit violence on stage, they always committed it off stage. They always emphasized the effects of violence. When Oedipus puts his eyes out, you don’t see it on stage – he comes out with his eyes poked out. So, it was always about the aftermath of violence for the Greeks and, I think, that’s what we embraced in Chi-Raq as well, what gun shot wounds do to people. We show how it affects people long term with Angela Bassett’s character (Miss Helen). You see that when you lose someone to violence – these things haunt you for the rest of your life.”

Willmott worries that American men have become “normalized” to gun violence. “Men love guns in movies – we do! The worst thing about guns is that they’re so cool. We have to work harder at making them un-cool.”

While he really tried to follow the structure of Lysistrata, Willmott said that when he and Lee rewrote the movie, they had to take out a lot of the humor-filled moments that felt true to Greek satire.

“Some comedic moments had to be removed and some very dramatic moments replaced them. I think it was the right choice because we would have been making light of it. When we set the film in Chicago and called it Chi-Raq, it took on such an immediacy – an emergency kind of quality. You can’t go to Chicago, meet with Father Pflager at Saint Sabina Church, meet the mothers and fathers who lost children and so many victims of violence, and not be changed forever. There was a balancing act where we had to go back and forth between the humor and the drama. That’s kind of the rhythm that was always there, but we accentuated it to make it more urgent given the reality of Chicago.”

One very funny moment that remains in the film is when General King Kong (David Patrick Kelly), wearing nothing but Confederate flag underpants, straddles a Civil-War-era cannon. “It’s kind of an anti-war moment as well. Part of the problem pro-Confederate people have today is that they romanticize war in such a way that it removes the really cruel elements of war. The same thing kind of happens with gang violence. I loved that Spike did not embrace all the Chicago rappers who wanted to bring their authenticity to the film. It would have glorified that reality and that reality should not be romanticized at all.”

For Willmott, the General Kong moment is really funny, but says it shows the larger picture of where violence comes from in this country. “We love guns and war. We’re always at war with somebody. The connection between that, and why we kill each other so much in American life, is definitely there.”

Willmott also shared some advice for writers who may be dealing with difficult or controversial subjects. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t listen to people who tell you not to do it. People always tell me not to do what I try to do. It’s harder, but that’s what’s important about it. People always say, ‘write what you know,’ but there’s also ‘write what you believe in.’”

Chi-Raq was written on Final Draft. It opens in movie theaters Dec. 4.

Shanee Edwards

Screenwriter / Film Critic

Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer.  Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards.