Spike Lee’s ‘Chi-raq’ film elicits mixed reactions

A poster for Spike Lee’s upcoming joint, Chi-Raq. The controversial movie, a modern day take on the Greek comedy Lysistrata, aims to put a spotlight on the violence plaguing Chicago’s South and West sides. (Photo courtesy of EDWARD BLAKE)
A poster for Spike Lee’s upcoming joint, Chi-Raq. The controversial movie, a modern day take on the Greek comedy Lysistrata, aims to put a spotlight on the violence plaguing Chicago’s South and West sides. (Photo courtesy of EDWARD BLAKE)

“Welcome to Chi-Raq: land of pain, misery and strife.”

These are some of the first words uttered in the trailer for Spike Lee’s newest film, “Chi-Raq.” The film spotlights gang violence and high homicide rates on the South Side of Chicago.

The release of the movie trailer comes after the shooting of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee last week, whose father had ties to gangs in Chicago.

Michael Bennett, an associate professor of sociology, said he hopes the film will shed light on the issue of gang violence.

“Young Tyshawn is the tragic human face on this gun violence,” he said. “It could be seen as punctuation mark, a real-life example of the Chi-Raq storyline.”

Francesca Stewart, a graduate student who lives in South Shore, said the trailer release coinciding with Tyshawn Lee’s death will show others the tragic reality of many on the South Side.

“It’s really an issue and now kids are going to be affected,” she said. “That little boy went to school and did not know he was going to be shot. That little boy probably didn’t know his dad was in a gang and now he’s dead.”

Stewart said the depiction of gangs in the film is a reflection of the seriousness of gang violence.

“Chicago is kind of a segregated city – you have most of the poor, black community living on the South Side,” she said. “When you place a bunch of poor, uneducated people in one area what else do they have to do but go against each other?”

The plot of “Chi-Raq” focuses on women in the South Side taking a stand by choosing to withhold sex from men in an attempt to stop the violence.

Stewart said her initial reaction was anger at the representation of black women in the trailer.

“I’m getting sick and tired of women always coming down to sex,” she said. “We’re always sexualized, and that’s not all women. But I think that’s one stereotype that will never go away.”

But Francesca Royster, a professor of English who focuses on the depiction of black women in film and literature, said Lee is borrowing from classical plays, such as “Antigone,” and South African activist strategies.

“So it’s not just for the spectacle or the humor of it, but trying to think about the way that women’s power is sometimes reduced to sexuality,” she said. “I always appreciate Spike for his satirical edge. Sometimes he depends a little too much on women as eye candy, but perhaps the way that is explicit to the storyline might make up for it.”

The film’s title, “Chi-Raq,” a combination of Chicago and Iraq, has also caused an uproar in the city.

According to a Chicago Tribune article in April 2015, many city council members, citizens and Mayor Rahm Emanuel requested the film change its name, even going as far as to threaten the tax credits the film received from the city.

Bennett said he understands why Lee chose to make this association between Chicago and Iraq.

“The film’s title appears to offer some apt comparisons,” he said. “The Iraq War and its impact on human lives was entirely unnecessary as is the gun violence in Chicago and other cities.”

Stewart, on the other hand, said the film’s title just perpetuates society’s assumptions about what it’s like to live in Chicago.

“I was a little scared before I moved here, but you can’t let one bad area define Chicago,” she said. “Nobody calls Los Angeles something like that and you can’t even wear certain colors walking down the streets.”

Originally from Philadelphia, Stewart said her friends and family expressed a lot of concern when she chose to come to Chicago.

“When I tell people I live on the South Side, people say things like ‘you better be safe’ or ‘things just tend to happen there,’” she said. “I feel like I have to be safe and precautious at all times.”

Lee’s previous projects, including 1989’s “Do the Right Thing” and 1990’s “Mo’ Better Blues,” have served as a social commentary on hot-button issues such as race relations, urban crime and poverty.

Stewart, who has been a fan of Lee’s her entire life, said she is disappointed in his decision to make the movie.

“His movies have always been about social injustices for black people,” she said. “The topic is too touchy for him to not be from the city and making it.”

Although Bennett said he is not sure the seriousness of gang violence can be captured on screen, he believes it is an issue that affects all of us.

“The film’s treatment of gangs and gun violence cannot truly express the tragic proportions of this phenomenon as it is being and has been experienced by all who have been victims – direct victims as well as indirect victims,” he said. “That includes anyone anywhere who values human life.”

Royster agreed with Bennett and said there’s too much to consider when trying to fully capture the South Side experience in Chicago.

“It’s difficult to get a sense of the variety and the complexity of Chicago’s south side from the clip – the complexity of the community, and the ways that there are many classes and races and religious practices all very proximate to each other,” she said.

Stewart believes the movie will not hold much power in creating social change on the topic of gang violence.

“It doesn’t portray the accurate picture of what’s going on, and it’s not giving you the reality of the situation,” she said. “It will be another one of those movies people will see but nobody will do anything about the problem. It won’t make you want to change anything.”

Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” will be released in theatres on Dec. 4 and later on Amazon’s streaming service.