If you want to understand urban gun violence, see Chi-raq
Spike Lee’s new movie gives a blistering yet accurate picture of what it’s like to live in poor neighborhoods in a big city — the guns, the gangs, the violence, the killings, the lack of jobs and opportunities. It also offers some ideas about what can be done about it.
Sure, the film is over the top, the language is beyond brutal, and there’s gratuitous sex. This is, after all, a “Spike Lee joint” and not a Sunday school picnic. But behind the violence is a satire that speaks to what America’s cities — the residents, the leaders who run them, the state and national politicians who should be addressing urban ills, and the white suburbanites who pretend that problems don’t exist — are suffering from, with some blueprints about addressing those ills.
Chi-raq is a hip-hop version of Aristophanes‘ Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play that shows women finally getting men to abandon war by withholding sex. It’s set on Chicago’s South Side and is cleverly written in rhymed verse, echoing both the rhythm of the Greek comedy and that of rap music. The women in the movie start a worldwide movement when they tell their men that they’re holding out until the men give up their guns. “No peace, no pussy” is the non-subtle message, with no attempt to sugar-coat the constant sexual references and jokes. The no-peace-no-pussy effort is led by the film’s Lysistrata, played by actress Teyonah Parris, who is described as being so hot that she would be sought by both George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson. Yeah, the movie is laugh-out-loud funny that way.
At the heart of the movie is the neighborhood, based on Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood on the South Side. The Chicago Tribune is one of several groups that keep ongoing track of crime statistics in Chicago’s neighborhoods, and the figures from Englewood and its surrounding areas are staggering. Yet the more important statistics are these: Unemployment in Englewood is 21.3 percent. Per-capita income is under $12,000. More than 42 percent of the people in Englewood live below the poverty line.
Nor does the film shy away from another issue hitting Chicago hard — police misconduct and the relationship of the police to the community. Much of the movie feels ripped from the headlines, with references to many of the black men and teenagers shot and killed in recent years.
In one of the film’s more stirring moments, actor John Cusack, playing a priest modeled after the Rev. Michael Pfleger in nearby St. Sabina Church, delivers a homily against guns during the funeral of a young girl killed by gun violence. Throughout the movie, the priest challenges Lysistrata and her gang of sex holdouts about the bigger need to change the community, to get rid of the guns, to bring jobs back, to improve education. The character’s name is Father Mike Corridan, but any Chicagoan looking at Cusack will see Father Pfleger, who has spent his ministry battling South Side violence.
We have a friend who has lived in several South Side neighborhoods, starting in the Robert Taylor Homes, the now-demolished public housing project along Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway. He’s always told us that the two businesses that do best on the South Side are liquor stores and funeral homes. When the film panned through neighborhoods — it was shot in Englewood, and many of the film’s extras came from there — it showed plenty of both.
I’m not naive enough to think that one movie is going to inspire business and political leaders, especially the dysfunctional Illinois state government, led by an intractable Republican governor, to wake up. Chi-raq is not going to inspire manufacturers to build factories to create more jobs on the South Side, when those same companies abandoned the area decades ago. It’s not going to make the city’s leaders build an “Emmett Till Trauma Center” like they did in the movie, in a reference to the infamous brutal murder of a Chicago teen in Mississippi for supposedly whistling at a white woman.
But what will it take to pass universal background checks, supported by 90 percent of Americans, so guns bought at a gun show in Indiana don’t get passed to a gang member in Englewood? What will it take for stricter enforcement of straw gun purchasing laws, where an acquaintance of a felon buys a gun and passes it to him? What will it take to ban high-capacity magazines, which have no purpose but to kill more people quickly, like just happened in San Bernardino, Calif.?
As I write this, I see there were eight people shot, two fatally, in the last 24 hours on the South Side. The country is still reeling from the mass terrorist shootings in both Colorado Springs and San Bernardino, so I guess it has become too easy to brush aside gun violence in poor neighborhoods.
It shouldn’t be that way. Not in “Chi-raq, Drillinois,” and not anywhere.