A blaring siren shatters the dark silence, accompanied by flashing scarlet text: “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY”, quickly followed by the quiet, measured voice of Father Michael Pfleger. Pfleger, the white pastor of the largely black Saint Sabina parish, begins to read off statistics that unfavorably compare gun-related deaths in Chicago to American deaths in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. A rap song begins, its lyrics flashing crimson on the blackened screen: “Y’all mad ‘cause I don’t call it ‘Chicago.’ Well I don’t live in no Chicago, boy I live in Chi-raq.”
I spent two hours convulsing with both laughter and sobs along with the rest of the audience that had gathered at the Chicago Theatre for the world premiere of Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s controversial new film. The movie is an adaptation of Aristophanes’s play Lysistrata, in which the women of Sparta and Athens hold a sex strike in order to force their husbands and lovers to negotiate an end to the Peloponnesian War. Lee described his lofty aspirations for his new project in an interview with Chicago Magazine: “This film is righteous. The No. 1 goal of anybody involved in this film—in front of the camera, behind the camera—was to save lives.” I walked out of the theatre after the premiere overcome with emotion, yet unsure whether the film would spur the Chicago community to action enough to actually reach this goal.
After the film, I emerged onto the Chicago streets reeling with questions: why is Chicago the hotbed of such uniquely unmitigated violence? Would a sex strike actually work? Can this movie save lives, as Spike Lee hopes it will?
One of the most publicized points of contention surrounding the release of Chi-Raq was its title, which reinforces the idea that the streets of Chicago are a tumultuous war zone. The origin of the term is unclear, though one source suggests that it was coined in 2009 by Chicago rapper King Louie. While the statistics of violent crime in Chicago are shocking (Chicago is safer than only 11% of cities in the U.S.), the justification behind the Chicago-Iraq comparison is not entirely clear—depending on how you count, the Windy City may or may not have a death toll comparable to those of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whether or not the title was accurate, it did strike a nerve with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The mayor, speaking of a meeting between himself and Lee, said, “I was clear that I was not happy about the title. I told him also that there are very good people that live in Englewood who are raising their family and there's a lot of positive things that are happening in Englewood mainly driven by the people that make up Englewood.” Lee responded, “[Emanuel’s] whole thing was, the title is going to hurt tourism, the title is going to hurt economic development.” On that note, Lee pointed out that there are no bulletproof double-decker buses rolling through the streets of Terror Town (75th and 79th streets between Yates and Colfax) or the Wild 100s (100th to 130th street). Focusing the public’s attention on the rampant crime in certain Chicago neighborhoods will not, Lee claims, hurt tourism. Indeed, reducing the number of deaths in these areas may be beneficial for tourism in Chicago as a whole.
Chi-Raq follows a rivalry between two fictional gangs and attempts at reconciliation by a fictional mayor, but it is littered with reminders of reality. Lee addresses the problem of gang violence in the context of Englewood specifically, rather than in Chicago as a whole, by drawing distinct lines between the prosperous, bustling boulevards of downtown and the allegedly war-torn streets of the South Side. He has been eminently clear that the film is about Englewood—he filmed primarily in the neighborhood, even using local residents as extras in many scenes. Such geographical specificity points to the fact that communities that are already cut off from the financial and cultural hubs of Chicago are further isolated by gang violence, and Chi-Raq fosters this idea: that the violence in our city is happening over there, not in the Chicago that we, as UChicago students, call home. Drawing chalk lines around Chicago’s hot spots of violent crime may not even be accurate: Mark Konkol claims that “Chi-Raq—if that’s what you want to call the violent bizarro world in Chicago, home to gang shootouts and baby murderers—doesn’t have a specific geography you can single out as one avoidable side of town.” Gang violence stretches far beyond the South Side, with an"active gang war" raging in Rogers Park and gang-mediated drug deals taking their toll on the West Side. Englewood itself is not the neighborhood with the highest violent crime rate in Chicago; that title goes to West Garfield. The prevalence of hard drugs and related gang violence has led to a great many deaths and has compromised the safety of many local families throughout Chicago, not in Englewood alone.
The South Side is still the Chicago region most rife with gang activity, yet the narrative is more complicated than this fact, and the question of how we should approach the issue of violent crime is more complex still. Is it more effective to clearly delineate the problematic areas and hope that the squeaky wheel will get the oil, or should all Chicago residents be personally invested in making the entire city safer? Lee took the former approach, and the execution was effective; I returned to Hyde Park with my head full of sorrowful imaginings of what was occurring only a few blocks away in Englewood, but still secure in my belief that I was safe within the well patrolled borders of my neighborhood.
Spike Lee’s goals in creating this film were to raise awareness of the problem of violence in the South Side and, of course, to save lives. The first he does extremely effectively: I can attest that Chi-Raq seriously tugs on the viewer’s heartstrings. As for the second, Lee could certainly spur action and activism and thus indirectly save lives. He presented two tools that could be used to work toward peace: the first was a sex strike; the second was gun control. In spite of the movement’s roots in Greek lore, an interview with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show suggests that Lee believes that a sex strike could be effective, and indeed there is a contemporary case of a group of Liberian women using a sex strike to hasten the end of the second Liberian civil war. In the interview on The Late Show, Lee predicted that there would soon be sex strikes on college campuses across the country to fight against sexual assault. One Chicago woman has in fact started a sex strike in response to seeing the trailer for Chi-Raq, but it has gained little momentum—the massive gaps and subtle tensions in wealth, lifestyle, geography, values, politics, and race unfortunately make it unlikely that enough women would join a Chicago-wide sex strike to significantly reduce gang violence.
One aspect of Lee’s take on crime in Chicago was eminently clear: Chi-Raq was blatantly pro-gun control—this is the film’s manifesto and the most feasible course of action it suggests to save lives. An event central to the movie’s plot is the murder of a young girl by a stray bullet during a gang hit. During the child’s funeral, Father Mike Corridan (portrayed by John Cusack, and strongly based on Father Michael Pfleger) announces that he will tell the story of a life: the life of a gun. The real-life phenomenon of gun violence is why the funeral scene is the most powerful and relevant moment of the film: Father Corridan’s fervent call for stricter gun laws is a concrete, substantive plan of action that would reduce the incidents of gun violence in the South Side, in Chicago, and in the nation as a whole.
Gun control is the surest way to reduce the death rate in Chi-Raq, to begin to transform it back into Chicago. Enacting strict national gun control regulations could never fully extinguish gang activity, but it would certainly reduce the number of deaths that result from this lifestyle. Residents of Indiana can legally purchase guns, including semi-automatic weapons, essentially cash-and-carry from private collectors at gun shows without background checks. All a gun smuggler needs is a fake Indiana driver’s license to return to Chicago with a car full of semi-automatics with 30-round magazines to distribute to the city’s gangbangers. In the hands of gang members, these guns lead to the deaths of hundreds of bystanders in Chicago, as well as those of gang members themselves. In 2014, Chicago police removed 6,813 guns from the street, more than the number confiscated in either Los Angeles or New York. Superintendent Garry McCarthy of the Chicago Police Department explicitly linked the prevalence of guns in Chicago’s streets to the city’s murder rate, saying "In a city where every year more than 80 percent of murders involve gunfire, the best way is to enact laws, keep illegal guns out of our communities in the first place.” Additionally, a variety of academic research projects have found that across both nations and US states, greater access to firearms is correlated with a higher homicide rate. This evidence is pointing in a clear direction: if we are to decrease the number of violent deaths in Chicago, we must dramatically reduce the number of guns that are allowed to circulate throughout our city.
The fundamental problem we, as a nation, face is the sickening proliferation of guns in the United States. Though the premise of Chi-Raq is a sex strike, the goal of the strike is, as Lysistrata says, to “make sure them fools put down those guns.” The beautifully filmed and exquisitely painful funeral scene serves as a poignant call for stricter gun control laws and is the most substantive and applicable takeaway from the film. If Chi-Raq is going to save lives, it will be through its fervent support of stricter national gun laws—the removal of guns from the streets of Chicago is the best way to dramatically decrease gun violence in our city.
I went into Chi-Raq expecting a gritty, down-to-earth, documentary-style film. Instead, I got an artistic explosion of spoken-word poetry, colorful characters, even more colorful costumes, and enough humor and heartbreak to spread out over three movies. Nonetheless, Chi-Raq was eminently successful in raising consciousness. The image of Irene, Jennifer Hudson’s character, washing the blood of her child from an abandoned Englewood alleyway will not soon escape my mind. I will always wonder about the significance of the sirens I hear as I fall asleep at night, and this awareness is a small step toward change. However, the most significant contribution Chi-Raq made to solving the problem of gang violence was its powerful advocacy of stricter gun control measures. While spreading awareness of the issue has the potential to spark change, the voice of one of the most prolific filmmakers of the modern era speaking out for the restriction of deadly weapons is the element of Chi-Raq that is most likely to affect actual change and save lives.
The image featured in this article was taken by MrHarman. The original image can be found here.
Kaeli Subberwal is a fourth-year majoring in political science and minoring in physics. She has spent her summers working in local journalism at the Summit Daily News and national journalism at HuffPost, and doing archival research through the College Summer Institute in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. In her free time, Kaeli enjoys reading, hiking in the Rocky Mountains, and doing crossword puzzles instead of studying.