On Chiraq.

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My old neighborhood, and the block where my sister was shot 11 years ago.

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.

 

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22 comments

  1. With such a serious topic I was surprised Spike Lee made the movie a comedy.

  2. Erin Beaton · December 8, 2015

    I really appreciate your perspective. I’d probably have a similar reaction, were I in your shoes!

  3. Tonia Giles · December 8, 2015

    this was a great read, thank you!

  4. Share Of Heart · December 8, 2015

    a great post on such a good topics. Thanks from shareofheartblog.wordpress.com

  5. topcelebblog · December 8, 2015

    Spike Lee pushed through with this one

  6. Diamond King · December 8, 2015

    Great review. I wasn’t planning on seeing this & now I really don’t want to.

  7. Pingback: On Chiraq. | Popcorn, Candy, Action
  8. Diamond King · December 8, 2015

    Reblogged this on Popcorn, Candy, Action and commented:
    Read this!

  9. aworthy3 · December 8, 2015

    Well said… Living in the south I forget the police state of regions of the north. I forget how African American in the north are trapped by a society that doesn’t want to see them succeed. Or maybe it’s simply that you all have been forgotten and leader ship to unite n overcome has been silenced… At least in the south the blacks have advocates even if they are silenced before anything hits the main stream media. Locals take care of locals n that’s just how we roll down here. Rarely it has anything to do with color as much as it does about who knows who… Trust me when I say Dixieland mob is just as black as it is white…. Anyway enjoyed your article thanks for calling bullshit on Spike Lee… He’d get his ass handed to him if tried shooting a film about racial issues down here. That I’m sure of.

  10. mrjprice3 · December 9, 2015

    It was a poor attempt to connect a Greek tale with a modern world. The comparisons, while present, are barely paper thin. A closer parallel (and a more recent one) would be “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton. It showcases a clash between two drastically different groups of people, one where the poorer, more desperate of the two, feels there is no other way to change the situation than through violence. Granted, it isn’t as graphic as life today, bu it holds a candle closer to to conversation that needs to be had than what the public is receiving today.

  11. oshrivastava · December 9, 2015

    Reblogged this on oshriradhekrishnabole.

  12. Pingback: I am grateful for: “your endless news cycles and awards spiking the punch” | Tabby Ren Elle
  13. vonsay1 · December 9, 2015

    Spike Lee dropped the ball on this one. I am a south sider myself and I am sad that he didnt use the platform that he had to really bring consciousness to this issue.

  14. Share Of Heart · December 10, 2015

    Thanks for response. Hope will get more inspiration from you on my https://shareofheartblog.wordpress.com/

  15. shortboss · December 10, 2015

    Wow

  16. kerrysmallman · December 10, 2015

    This seems a common tactic for film-makers. It is they who speak for the local communitites, which is a crying shame. I had similar emotions to you when a film was released about my hometown. Although the topic was much lighter – a Rock band – the level of exploitation and cultural appropriation was the same. The film was called Pulp: Life, Death and Supermarkets and I wrote a piece about it here: https://kerrysmallman.wordpress.com/2015/01/30/pulp-life-death-and-supermarkets/

  17. Pingback: On Chiraq. | peelhouseproject
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  19. teeganmastertensmith · December 14, 2015

    I agree with this article 100%

  20. JL · December 14, 2015

    Thank you for this review.

    I am sorry to hear about your sister.

    I used to live in Chicago – though on the Northside and I am not of colour.

    I don”t want to say completely that Spike Lee blames the victims for the violence in Chicago in Chi-Raq, but the film certainly DOES NOT contextualize the violence in any serious way that connects “Englewood” with the rest of the city or the rest of the country.

    Just because the mayor in the film has a bi-racial wife and his life is impacted by her choice to “lock it up,” does not mean that he really understands or cares about city-wide policy and nation-wide responsibility for each of its citizens.
    I mean, the film does “find a way” to get people involved (via their libido), but this mode is exploitative and vulgar.
    I mean, maybe that is one of the points…

    There is personal responsibility and there is personal responsibility.

    But, come on, Spike Lee must be aware of the history of sexuality and black bodies in America.
    I mean, it’s a movie, but come on, there must be a more respectful way to bring together pop culture and old-culture (the play on which the film is based) to look at the impact of violence in Chicago.

    I feel like Lee’s strengths are toward working with abstractions. But in this film, the abstractions are very hard to find.

    I did appreciate the film’s humor, but the film takes the “joke” seriously. Instead of questioning the jokes, it embraces them all the way and this does not accomplish the goals (in my opinion) of tackling critically or with poignancy the issue of gang violence in Chicago. I think it becomes part of the problem.

    Lee’s use of Lysistrata, though creative, is not a wise choice for a subtext in the USA.
    Maybe in a different place or context, but here it just opens a whole new can of worms.

    Anyway, thank you again for your thoughtful comments.
    You helped me get a few more clearly defined thoughts together.

    Jesse

  21. marshonica · December 15, 2015

    ALL of that! Personally, I was shocked at the “School Daze” treatment of the subject. More shocked at the thoughtless placement of (bad) humor throughout. Offended that I was expected to buy Nick Cannon as a gangster (or a rapper). (He couldn’t even fake inhale.) Disgusted by the exploitation of the young women. Disappointed overall. Definitely not his best work.

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