Man, Spike Lee might want to stay away from Chicago for awhile.
On Tuesday, the trailer for his much talked-about film Chi-Raq was released online, immediately sparking quite a fervor on Twitter and beyond. While we definitely can’t make brash judgements on the film’s concept as a whole given we've only seen a two minute and 31 second trailer, there are some questionable aspects of this first glimpse of the comedy that seem ill-suited for the subject matter.
First, let’s zoom out for a moment. Spike Lee is a 58-year-old, award-winning director from New York City. He’s made an illustrious career by creating heartfelt, understood pieces of work that are often centered on life in his hometown. Crooklyn looked at a young black girl’s struggle, Do The Right Thing examined race relations within the city and He Got Game took aim at family life among African-Americans in Coney Island. These movies were timeless because they were as real as they were devoid of unnecessary sensationalism. With Chi-Raq though, Lee is an outsider looking in, influenced and informed not by personal experience but instead from second-hand reports, music videos and statistics that create only a small part of the experience of growing up in Chicago.
With that in mind, the trailer for the film lays out the following storyline: a black woman from Chicago comes to the conclusion that the only way to stop the violence is to withhold sex. Yeah...that’s pretty much it. Really? No sex? That’s the plan? I get that the premise might seem so ridiculous that some may say it’s obviously dark comedy, but the issue here is that these are real issues and people. Had the film been set in some far off city, one with a completely generic name, the fact that such a ludicrous idea as sex being central to the violence in a major metropolis might be a little easier to swallow. TIME Magazine is reporting that storyline is “an adaptation of the ancient Greek comedic play Lysistrata, [which] centers on gang violence in Chicago and a group of women’s unique way of combating it. Lysistrata, the protagonist played by Teyonah Parris, induces the women to withhold sex unless their men give up guns." Needless to say, the antiquated premise which Lee drew inspiration from for this film isn't sitting well with those closest to it.
As it stands now, the movie appears to be a huge affront to the sexuality of African-Americans and a poke in the ribs from a geriatric director who knows nothing about Chicago. To put forward a storyline that all violence will end if the women were to simply withhold sex from men completely disregards the larger problems and issues facing the city. The film could have applied pressure to current mayor Rahm Emanuel, former mayor Richard Daley and the machine that has keeps black and brown people under siege in Chicago, it could have highlighted the social ills that the economy has brought to parts of the city, the drastic differences between the north and south sides, and the list goes on. But no. Instead viewers are treated to a bald-headed Nick Cannon rapping and clinking guns with friends like wine glasses. Instead we get an indictment on sexuality. People are actually killing each other and access to vagina doesn't rank on the Top 10 list of reasons why.
The cold, hard truth is that people are killing each other in Chicago because of a series of missteps by city organizers and institutionalized racism that sees the city regularly referred to as the most segregated in the world. The first Mayor Daley built a highway to separate people of color and placed those who were poor in high-rise projects. The second Daley then knocked the towers down and scooped up all the gang leaders, forcing former project residents into already blighted neighborhoods that now had no leadership. The current reality is a situation where gangs differ block to block in neighborhoods like Austin and Englewood, which boast the highest murder rates on the city’s west and south sides. Children getting killed for walking down the wrong street is a far too regular occurence.
These deaths are real and so is the pain. Including photos of people who have died to gun violence in the trailer isn’t enough, casting Jennifer Hudson, who’s own family was killed by gun violence, isn’t enough. Just yesterday, the news reported that 20-year-old Kaylyn Pryor was gunned down in her front yard in a drive-by shooting. At the beginning of the summer my friend Mikal Johnson was shot in the chest while getting out of his car outside his home. These are two examples of the dozens of murders that occured throughout the summer months. It's doubtful a comedy will help to ease the pain.
The film also centers in on the hip-hop community, a community that I personally have spent the last four years of my life a part of and that countless others around the city are involved in regularly. True to the views that many from New York have of Chicago rap, the local scene is shown as only being guns, violence and rap shows. It’s a topic Mick Jenkins touched on yesterday in his interview with Tim Westwood and something that has come up often as the drill scene has waned. Violence has always been a part of the DNA of Chicago, the difference of late is that there was a musical style that was born out of that strife. The reality, however, is that it doesn’t pace the city at large. That big concert scene in the trailer? It was shot at the Double Door in Wicker Park, a more upscale neighborhood on the north side of town. Ask any drill rapper about the last time they played anywhere north of Madison St., which separates the north from the south side in the city, and their answer will probably be "Never."
Instead of a poignant look at the central issues facing the city of Chicago, Lee appears to have pimped a moniker that has been a label for the sheer number of murders on Chicago’s streets and turned it into an updated version of Don’t Be A Menace. At least that’s what we can see so far. Chicagoans are a different breed, prideful and careful not to be taken advantage of. With the slice of the film that he decided to offer up to the world this week, Spike Lee has done himself no favor in winning over the subjects of his latest work.
[by Jake Krez, who is proud to be a Chicagoan. You can follow him on Twitter.]