Chi-raq is an upcoming film highlighting the dire situations of gang violence in Chicago’s Southside. Scheduled to a limited premiere on December 4th, 2015, the film features acting heavyweights like Wesley Snipes, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Cusack in order to bring awareness to the violence and destruction that gang life leads to in the hoods of Chicago.
The film is directed a Spike Lee, an artist who is known universally for tackling controversial issues regarding dire economic situations, gentrification, modern urban life, and race. Beginning in the late 1980s with his first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It, Lee has a knack for making the general audience feel uncomfortable with his films’ contents and bringing ugly and hard facts to the eyes of modern society. Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Love & Basketball, and School Daze are some of Lee’s most famous works and each tackle different perspectives on the African American community as a whole.
In terms of his upcoming film, Chi-raq, Spike Lee takes a rather different approach to bringing his subject to life. Instead of grounding his film into a reality like with his past films, Chi-raq is an adaptation of Lysistrata, an ancient Greek comedy written by Aristophanes. In the original story, Greece is wracked with the destruction of the Peloponnesian War, with Athens and her allies fighting against Sparta and her allies. The women of Greece agree to withhold sexual activity from their partners in order to force their men to come to the negotiating table and hammer out a treaty. Lee transposes this Greek comedy and replicates it using Chicago as its backdrop. Instead of two warring factions, the opposing sides are seen in the gun violence that plagues the inner-city, known colloquially as Chi-raq.
Chi-raq is a portmanteau of Chicago and Iraq, a term that finds its roots in a commonly held statistic that a person is more likely to be killed by guns in Chicago than in Iraq. Chicago rappers coined the term, in an effort to appear tough and hard. More people have been killed in Chicago than in Afghanistan and Iraq, combined. In fact, through the first 6 months of 2015 more than 200 people have already been lost due to guns, with more than 1000 shootings occurring. As a black male, you are six times more likely to be killed than a white male. Shootings have gone up 20% in the past year, with no signs of slowing down. The unemployment rate for black teenagers in Chicago is 92%. Expanding outwards, one in four black people in Chicago are currently out of work. Looking towards the future and what it holds, it is not much better. The Southside’s schools (or what is left of them) are underperforming. The city recently closed almost fifty schools, with the buildings sitting empty and derelict.
What Spike Lee is doing with his film has not entirely been seen as a positive though. Many social media activists as well as prominent Chicagoans do not agree with the way in which Lee portrays their city. Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, in particular has been outspoken in his criticisms of Chi-raq. The main reason for his disapproval is the film’s title. In his own words, Emanuel says, “He said that while the movie is about the neighborhood of Englewood, I was clear that I was not happy about the title. I told him also that there are very good people that live in Englewood who are raising their family and there’s a lot of positive things that are happening in Englewood mainly driven by the people that make up Englewood.”
Another prominent Chicagoan and Alderman of the city, Will Burns, does not want Chicago’s taxpayers to have to burden the cost of shooting a movie that in the long-run cost the city millions in tourism and hospitality. He states, “We as taxpayers should not giving him money to name the movie Chiraq that makes it harder to bring economic development and other jobs and the benefits that folks want on the south and west sides in the city”. He brings up valid points. As the term “Chiraq” becomes more ingrained within the Chicago community, it becomes harder for businesses to attract and retain development economically. It can enforce negative stereotypes already commonly held by the rest of the US that contribute to the belief that Chicago is no longer a safe place.
Others are angrier at what they see as a trivialization of a serious problem brewing in Chicago. A concerned resident stated that “I just think [the film is] going to glorify the killing. They don’t care about the killings or our kids. They get glory about watching the pain of the parents”. This type of concern is common among residents of Chicago’s Southside. They have witnessed firsthand the brutality of the killings along with the commercialization of it with Chicago’s drill-style rappers profiting off songs that boast of drive-by shootings and murders. If Spike Lee hopes to provide any real impact with his film, it is the victims of Chicago’s horrible crime spree that will have the real say in the matter.