Chicago is as divided as our nickname, “The Second City,” suggests. One Chicago is a world-class city, home to unique architecture, a bustling financial center and some of the our country’s best public schools. The other Chicago, often referred to as “Chi-Raq,” is home to thousands of dilapidated buildings, communities where upwards of 60% of residents live in poverty, and one of the largest mass school closures in our nation’s history.
Spike Lee’s latest film, Chi-Raq, is Lee’s retelling of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the story of a Greek woman who plots to end the Peloponnesian War by convincing the women of Athens to go on a citywide sex strike. The film replaces ancient Greece with modern-day Chicago and the two warring Greek states are reimagined as two gangs.
Chi-Raq focuses on the other Chicago. I’ve been going back and forth, trying to come to grips regarding my feelings about Chi-Raq. The entire narrative surrounding the film is deeply personal for me. I was born and raised in Englewood, the neighborhood on the southside of Chicago that Spike Lee profiles. From the casting calls at Saint Sabina Church, the drop of Chi-Raq’s trailer (and subsequent backlash from many prominent Chicago natives,) to finally sitting in the cinema last Friday, watching Spike Lee’s interpretation of my home unfold before me. Processing Chi-Raq was complex and emotional, similar to my feelings overall about Englewood and Chicago’s latest moniker, “Chi-Raq.”
There are a myriad of interpretations about Englewood. The Englewood I knew was a community of love and understanding, where folks looked out for each other, and there was a strong sense of family and pride. My great-grandparents bought their home in 1974 and stayed in Englewood for the rest of their lives. As a child, I played outside until the street lights came on. My mother could count on our neighbors to keep an eye on my brother and me if she was ever out of reach. I saw glimpses of that Englewood in Chi-Raq.
However, Spike Lee also highlighted aspects of Englewood that I am not proud of. I’ve seen family members involved with Chicago’s underground economy end up involuntarily retiring via a life-altering altercation with law enforcement or a bullet. My peers attended sub-par schools that have been failing the children of our community for decades. It was painful to have the “dirty laundry” of my community laid bare on screens across the nation. The reality is, Spike Lee is not the first person to air out Chicago’s “dirty laundry”. Turn on any local or national news program to see the violence in Englewood, the corruption in the Chicago Police Department, and the ineffectiveness of our political leaders to enact any change that tangibly benefits low income, communities of color.
Unfortunately, Chi-Raq’s narrative is not unique to Englewood; we have Terror-Town not too far on the eastside of Chicago; Bloodymore, Maryland; Killadelphia, “Normandie and Manslaughter” in South Central, and a host of other characterizations that we give to our own communities. Spike Lee didn’t name our community. The sons and daughters of Chicago did; Chi-Raq is their reality. Reflecting on Lee’s Chi-Raq, my thoughts drift to another film Straight Outta Compton, where Ice Cube’s character states that the music NWA created was a reflection of what the youth experienced in their backyard.
It bothers me that the blame and the onus to transform Chi-Raq into a Chicago that we can all be proud of rests solely on the backs of low-income, communities of color. It is easy for the societal narrative to put a target on the backs of the folks in Englewood so we can ignore the systemic issues occurring on the south side. The violence in the community is a manifestation of capitalism, racism, sexism, the media, post-traumatic slave syndrome, white supremacy, the achievement gap, lack of medical and mental health services, and other intersecting oppressions. Hopefully, Spike Lee’s call to arms, “Wake Up,” which is a common theme throughout many of his films, will continue the conversation and arouse more citizens of Chicago to mend the rift in the Second City.