Spike Lee’s latest film, Chi-Raq, has been at the center of controversy from the first moment the public was made aware of its title and premise up to the critically well received film’s opening this past weekend. The modern-day take on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which all of Chicago’s women take a vow of celibacy in hopes of bringing the city peace, is meant to be satire. In reality, it’s more of a half-serious look at a vitally serious issue: gun violence in Chicago. And that’s part of the problem with the film.
As a proud product of Chicago’s South Side, where Chi-Raq is based, I can attest that the concern is much more than just a city being forced to look at its own reflection. People are worried that, by taking a satirical approach, Lee may have missed the opportunity to provide genuine, constructive criticism and realistic solutions. Even fifth graders, the same children Lee claims he’s trying to help, came out with op-eds to express their frustrations at potentially being misrepresented.
Understandably, those loyal to Lee had faith in his abilities. He has an established legacy of taking issues that primarily affect the black community and serving them up in a way that may be hard to swallow at first, but which still resonate. One could argue that he’s earned the benefit of the doubt. However, once the trailer dropped this past November, that way of thinking became harder to sustain for some, myself included.
An initial worry of mine, and others, was that Lee was just another outsider pointing a finger at Chicago’s problems. Ironically enough, the same rappers that helped promote the “Chi-raq” image through their music criticized the trailer for a lack of authenticity. Chief Keef, the arguable poster child of Chicago’s drill music scene, tweeted, “Damn Spikey….. Chiraq isn’t defined enough on that movie! It should be showing what’s really going on.” Others felt that satire shouldn’t have even been the chosen method of telling this story, such as longtime WGN film critic and Chicago local, Dean Richards, who said the film didn’t add anything new to the conversation surrounding Chicago’s violence.
Chance the Rapper, Chicago Magazine’s Chicagoan of the Year and all-around lauded son of the Second City, is the latest name on the growing list of locals, including Rhymefest, upset by the film and its perceived message. It’s not clear whether or not he’s seen it yet, or ever plans to, but, in a recent series of tweets, the rapper proclaimed he’s the “one from Chicago” to announce the local lack of support. While this may not be completely accurate – Rhymefest’s criticism even predates the release – it’s still a powerful statement.
If hearing from local rappers and film critics isn’t enough to make it clear that this film was an issue for many Chicagoans, try asking parents that have lost children here. “I just think [the film is] going to glorify the killing,” Delphine Cherry told The Guardian this summer. “They don’t care about the killings or our kids. They get glory about watching the pain of the parents.”