Why Chicago Needs Chi-raq
At the end of Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze, Lawrence Fishburne’s character Dap desperately repeats this plea for the entire student body of fictional Mission College. As Nathan Rabin argues in The Dissolve (god, I miss the Dissolve), this exhortation at the end of School Daze is:
a righteous cry for a complacent, oblivious society to start thinking long and hard about the way we live and the values we teach.
Such is the case with Chi-raq, Spike’s forthcoming film, and as Rabin also argues, all of Spike’s films. And Chicagoans — well, we damn sure need to heed the call.
Between January 1 and October 25 of this year, there were 391 murders in Chicago, up 18 percent from the same period the year before.
As most Chicagoans now know, 9-year old Tyshawn Lee was the victim of a pre-meditated murder this week.
While some stats might suggest a flattening out of the overall violent crime in the city, the aggregate numbers mask the concentrated nature of the problem.
As The Daily Beast points out, the most afflicted neighborhoods in Chicago rival the most dangerous places in the world.
The Daily Beast also points out:
West Garfield Park ranks near the top of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods on the city’s “hardship index,” which is calculated by taking into account those living in crowded housing, and unemployment rates among teens and adults, among other factors.
Putting that stat in more sobering context, here’s a a South Side resident in his own words, as relayed by Vice:
A third member of the crew, a man with a tattooed neck who was dressed in a Captain America t-shirt, explained the attractiveness of warring with your own. You can’t fight City Hall. You can’t fight police. You can’t fight globalization. But you can fight the shadow across the alley. You can fight him for control of low-slung buildings with their windows smashed out. You can fight him for title to the local playground. You can fight him for the drug business of black and white customers alike.
You do him before he does it to you. A Malthusian two-step.
“We don’t want to keep going back and forth killing our youth and our brothers,” Captain America said. “But guess what? Some people got to die for some people to live.”
In the most desperate, impoverished parts of our city where hope is barely a glimmer, violence can become an expression of will. Of self-determination. If you have no agency to control the trajectory of your life, controlling another’s is a viable, though tragically grim, alternative.
As Askart Ali, a community organizer in Chi, flatly states in The Daily Beast piece:
“They don’t appreciate life because they feel like their life not shit,” said the 26-year-old of kids coming up now. “So they got no problem taking your life.”
So against this backdrop, Spike Lee comes to Chicago in the summer of 2015 to film Chi-raq. The body politic of the city rankles. Rabble-rousers in the press rouse their rabbles vigorously.
Then the trailer drops on November 4th.
The frothing politicians & pundits likely don’t even know the origins of the term Chi-raq. Chicago rapper King Louie is widely credited with coining it in 2009 and it picked up steam within the communities it described. Why? Because it gave them a shorthand to describe the escalating violence around them. Spike didn’t invent it. The media didn’t hype it. It’s a word of the people and deeply connected to Drill, a flavor of hip-hop that walks a fine line between describing life in Chi-raq and glorifying it.
It’s a term with a difficult history and a complicated present. But it does authentically describe an experience. You may hate the term, but you can’t argue with the narrative behind it. Hiding it away solves nothing. Confrontation is not the enemy.
What’s happening in Chicago is happening all over this country. I’m writing this while in another regular on those popular “most dangerous city” lists — Detroit. By all accounts, things aren’t much better here.
Just because Spike is from Bed-Stuy doesn’t mean he’s any less equipped to tell a narrative about violence born from poverty & desperation in Chicago. HE MADE FUCKING DO THE RIGHT THING FOR CHRISSAKES.
Art vs. Journalism
As Chicagoans we’re protective. This isn’t something we’re proud of. If our story is going to be told, we want it to be told right. I get that.
But Chi-raq is not journalism. If it’s a presentation of the information, the facts, people want, then read the The Daily Beast, Vice, Gawker or HuffPo takes. They cover this brilliantly.
The reality is that journalism’s goal isn’t to inspire or enflame. It’s not intended to be audacious.
That is the role of art. Films are art. And film art touches us very differently than journalism.
I’ve always felt that movies are an emotional medium — that movies are not the way to make an intellectual argument. If you want to make a political or a philosophical argument, then the ideal medium exists, and that medium is the printed word — a movie is not a logical art form. When we watch a film, the director is essentially standing behind us and saying, “Look here,” and “Look there,” “Hear this,” and “Hear that,” and “Feel this,” and “Feel the way I want you to feel.” And we give up conscious control over our intelligence. We become voyeurs. We become people who are absorbed into the story, if the story is working. And it’s an emotional experience. — Roger Ebert
Spike Lee makes films. His art is specifically designed to prompt strong reactions from his audience. As he states at the beginning of the Chi-raq trailer — THIS IS AN EMERGENCY. He has your attention.
Watching a film is a passive act. When the art presented isn’t notable or simply isn’t good, those 2 hours leave your consciousness as quickly as it entered. But when it’s great, as with all wonderful works of art, what you’ve seen transforms in your mind over time. You actively engage with the visuals, the message, the meaning. In that process, what you witnessed becomes part of the lens through which you view the world.
I believe cinema is uniquely equipped to create these sorts of long-lasting transformations. When Mookie throws the trash can through Sal’s window, the legacy of Do The Right Thing transcends the screen. You take that moment in and wrestle with it. You relate to Mookie’s rage. You’re angry too. But also scared. You feel for Sal. You struggle with how to reconcile these emotions. It’s messy, and it’s precisely this lack of clarity that makes it great. The complexity of real life is laid bare and you are forced to take it in. Hopefully, if the art has done it’s job, when you encounter analogous situations in real life, like what gets reported on your local news, you place that information in front of this new lens. That is the nature & power of allegorical fiction, which is the sort of film Spike Lee makes.
If Chi-raq is great art, then it will play an essential role in how Chicagoans, the nation & the world approach the violence in our streets. It will plant a seed in our minds that forces us, even unwillingly at times, to WAKE UP!
What Rhymefest, Rahm Emmanuel, random Twitter trolls and the lazy, reactionary Chicago media lack is a framework to understand film as art. I suspect they, and many other Chicagoans, expect this to be some sort of seminal treatise of the violence plaguing our city. Like this dude.
But that’s not what this is. Even if Ken Burns produced a 10-hour documentary series, that wouldn’t be enough to create the sort of change we need. Facts inform. Art inspires. And Spike has a big enough platform to inspire a lot of people.
Even if Spike fails it creating great art, the platform alone will create discourse. It forces us to confront our demons. We need that. We need Chi-raq.