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Est. April 5, 2002
December 10, 2015 - Issue 633

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Is Chicago Chi-Raq?

"By neglecting to include a storyline that illuminates
root causes or draws parallels between this country’s
racial and ethnic inequalities and the state of
emergency we find in our cities, Lee leaves the
audience to draw its own conclusions."

We finally went to check out Spike Lee’s latest offering, Chi-Raq - the only film on my “2015 must see” list. Based on the ancient Greek play Lysistrata, Lee’s story is situated on the south side of modern-day Chicago where two fictional warring gangs are wreaking havoc in the lives of the community. The story’s premise is that the senseless killing of a child sparks the neighborhood’s women into action. Like Lysistrata, the women organize and pledge to withhold sex until their men agree to put down their guns.

The title sparked controversy because it brings attention to the real or perceived parallels between Iraq and Chicago. According to Spike Lee, before the film was released, Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked Lee to give it another name, saying he thought the negative image would impact commerce and tourism in the Windy City. Lee insisted on keeping the name that many South Side locals use.

Based on police cam evidence that continues to be released, residents on the South Side have expressed concerns that Chicago’s law enforcement is used as an occupying force – one whose mission is far removed from protecting and serving.  Chicago’s South Side,  the backdrop of movie provides Lee with a heckuva lot of issues—gun violence, certainly, but that’s merely the tip of the iceberg that is the plethora of societal ills that find expression in the ’hood.

My interest was piqued when I saw Chi-Raq’s official trailer. It offered hints that Lee might address some of the underlying causes of the social problems that plague the urban cores of our cities. The trailer suggested that the sex strike premise might be used to fill seats while the film itself would incorporate storylines exploring deeper issues. I hoped that Lee’s intent was to entertain while educating. If I was right, Lee’s movie could deepen the national conversation sparked by the current #BlackLivesMatter movement, which builds on movements dating back decades.

When the opening scene splashed across the wide screen, I knew entertainment seekers wouldn’t be disappointed. Like every other Spike Lee movie, the visuals are compelling, artistic, and captivating. I have no doubt that as the final credits roll and viewers leave the theaters, many will be pleased. But for me, the film fell short.

In a nutshell, Chi-Raq is yet another film that puts the life-shattering consequences of unaddressed social ills on display apparently for no other reason than to entertain. By neglecting to include a storyline that illuminates root causes or draws parallels between this country’s racial and ethnic inequalities and the state of emergency we find in our cities, Lee leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions. Yes, the film includes discussions of other inner city woes—out-of-control unemployment, lack of education funding, overincarceration, and absent healthcare, for example—but those scenes seem tacked on, not integral to the main entertainment line.

Speaking of the portrayal of blacks in modern day films, noted author and professor bell hooks recently remarked that she was not happy with Twelve Years A Slave. hooks said, “As a black woman, when I see images like myself, abused, beaten, raped, tortured… I don’t feel entertained… If I never see another naked, enslaved, raped black woman onscreen as long as I live, I’ll be happy.”

Like bell hooks, I don’t find misogyny entertaining. The commodifying of the female body sickens me. If I never see another gang-banging, hypermasculine, womanizing black man screwing a sister on screen, I’ll be happy. If I never see another black mother crying her eyes out because her child has been senselessly gunned down, I’ll be happy. If I don’t see another young brother gunned down over misplaced gang allegiance, I’ll be happy.

All I ask is if these stories must be told, tell it all. These conditions don’t exist in a vacuum. The Chicago Reader ran a story that said, “People all over Chicago smoke pot—but almost everyone busted for it is black”. Policies that go unchecked or are covered up produce disparate outcomes with the south side invariably getting the short end of the stick.

After seeing the film, I had a discussion with a black sister who had also seen it. She enjoyed the movie. When I told her that I had issues with several aspects of the story, especially the violence and misogyny, she responded, “Well, he only told what is really going on.”

I believe that her reaction will be common and is the main reason I have issues with the movie. I don’t argue that the lives portrayed in Chi-Raq aren’t being lived. My issue is that we consistently neglect to place these stories in a social context.

Until we couple these stories with stories that explore the root causes and offer real solutions, they don’t serve us. Without cogent explanations, we’ll continue to live in a society that lacks meaningful public discourse on the state of our cities. We simply make bad matters worse by subscribing to this type of “entertainment”—entertainment that does nothing more than normalize the insanity, and worse, solidify the notion that black life itself is pathological. Editorial Board member and Columnist, Sharon Kyle, JD, is the Co-Founder and Publisher of the LA Progressive an online social justice magazine. With her husband Dick, she publishes several other print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues. In addition to her work with the LA Progressive, Ms. Kyle holds a Juris Doctorate, is an adjunct professor at Peoples College of Law in Los Angeles, and sits on the board of the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Chapter and the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party. Click here to contact the LA Progressive and Ms. Kyle.

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