Eleven years ago–seven years after the murder of our brother–our sister nearly became a Chicago homicide statistic.
She was out with friends at a neighborhood restaurant when someone in her crew got in an argument with someone else. That someone else left the restaurant, returned with a gun, and attempted to murder everyone within 200 feet. The bullet shattered her femur. She had extensive physical therapy. Her mother, desperate to escape the violence, moved her to Milwaukee several months later.
The day after the shooting, my sister made it to Page 3 of the Chicago Tribune. She was the unidentified 14 year-old girl. Not much else was written about it. My sister was lucky, if you could call it that. We don’t know what happened to the gunman. It’s possible a more sinister fate may have befallen him, and person responsible for murdering our brother.
By now, you’ve read dozens of reviews and hot takes about Spike Lee’s latest film. Some mainstream critics have praised it, going as far as to say that Spike has given Chicago the “raucous, despairing, yet faintly hopeful tribute it deserves.”
It’s important to point out here that most of the people raving about Chiraq are not from here or have barely traveled south of Roosevelt Street.
Despite my reservations about the film, I walked over to the neighborhood theater to see it. For 118 minutes I rolled my eyes, exchanged exasperated looks with my husband, and shifted uncomfortably in my seat. The laughs were few and far between. The audible groans weren’t. I left the theater wondering if Lee realized his movie contradicted nearly everything he’s said on his press tour.
It isn’t entirely awful. It is a clumsy attempt by an obnoxious outsider to make sense of something we have struggled to understand for years. But it is not earnest. It is not heartfelt. It is hamfisted. It is exploitive. Most of all, it is dishonest. And it’s the dishonesty that really bothers me. When Lee tells an interviewer that “we [black people] must be vocal on both sides” he erases the work of people who have been here. It is a slap in the face to every person who has lit a candle for a slain child. It is an insult to every person who has marched through their neighborhood to keep the peace.
And he knows it. You can see it in the scenes between Angela Bassett’s Miss Helen and Teyonah Paris’ Lysistrata, where Miss Helen masterfully explains how a combination of urban renewal and City Hall apathy can create a climate in which twenty people are shot in one weekend. You can see it in Father Corridan’s emotional eulogy, in which he, too, emphasizes the political apathy both locally and nationally. You see it as extras with cardboard signs crowd around a grieving Jennifer Hudson as she implores the public to put down the guns and help find her daughter’s killer. Perhaps, had Lee chosen these bits for the trailer instead of subjecting us to Paris instructing her fellow female warriors to Bundy Bounce their way to peace while Cannon gracelessly attempts to ride a beat, the movie wouldn’t have caused such a stir. But Lee loves controversy, and never misses an opportunity to start some shit, even if it detracts from his work.
The movie ends just as awkwardly as it began, with warring factions calling a truce after falling to the power of the vajayjay and being rewarded with jobs and a brand new trauma center, the things the aforementioned People Who Have Been Here have fought to receive for years. It is a message steeped in politics of respectability. It is a tired song, with an even more tired refrain, and you are not better for hearing it. You are not better for watching it. You do not leave the auditorium inspired by what you’ve seen. You leave it frustrated. Bewildered. Waylaid. As we exited a theater one white woman said it was one of the best Spike Lee movies she’s seen; it is clear her bar is somewhere below the seventh circle of Hell.
But once she said it, I understood why so many folks–ones not of color–loved it so much. It absolves them of responsibility, placing the bulk of the blame squarely on the shoulders of those suffering the most. They don’t have to examine their complicity in a system designed to destroy black and brown people. With this film, Lee has given them permission to let themselves off the hook while wagging their fingers at our dysfunction. It is the film’s sole accomplishment.
When Britteney Kapri broke down her issues with the film last month, it was a perfect articulation of everything most of us were thinking. “I don’t hate you,” she writes toward the end. “I just don’t trust you with my grief.” She shouldn’t. None of us should. This is one love letter Spike really could’ve kept to himself.