Spike Lee’s “Chiraq” spotlights Chicago gun violence

Spike Lee’s latest film, Chiraq is already being considered a contender for the Oscars, but that’s not the only reason people are talking about the famed director’s latest project. The  release of the film’s trailer last Tuesday has put the controversial movie back in the forefront due to its subject matter and title.

Chiraq is described as exploring the epidemic of gun violence on the South Side of Chicago, and black-on-black violence in the Englewood neighborhood of the city. The title of the film is a term coined originally by local Chicago rapper, King Louie, back in 2009 that was a play on words, comparing the crime rate in the city  to the war zones of the Middle Eastern nation.

Critics of the film and its title have gone on record as saying it puts the windy city in a negative light, and could be a detriment to building tourism. One of the leading critics of the project, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has been noted as saying, “I was clear that I was not happy about the title. I told him [Lee] also that there are very good people that live in Englewood who are raising their families and there’s a lot of positive things that are happening in Englewood mainly driven by the people that make up Englewood.”

Alderman of Chicago’s Fourth Ward, William Burns, went on record as saying, “I have no issue with filmmakers wanting to make movies about the city of Chicago… What I do have issue with is using a title for a movie that offends many people on the South Side, makes it harder to bring economic development to those neighborhoods and to give someone a tax subsidy to do it.” Burns is referring to the tax incentive that offers producers a credit of 30 percent of expenditures. It was brought about as an attempt to spur growth, job opportunities, and stimulate diversity in hiring within Chicago.

Burns explained, “The tax credit is about jobs and bringing productions to the city, but look, if we give incentives to a corporation … we frequently have requirements… With the title, ‘Chiraq’ that’s branding whole parts of the city. For people who live on the South and West Sides who pay their taxes, are active in block clubs and work to make their neighborhoods better, it’s a slap in the face. South Siders and West Siders already walk around with a massive chip on their shoulders. There’s a sense the media only comes to cover dead bodies and not the positive things that happen every day. And why is this guy from New York coming to do a movie about Chicago?”   

During an interview for Chicago Magazine, Lee fired back against his critics, in particular Mayor Emanuel, by saying, “His whole thing was, the title is going to hurt tourism, the title is going to hurt economic development. But what tourism is he talking about? While we were shooting the film, you had the NFL draft here. Quarter million people in Grant Park … So this part of the city is booming. But there are no bulletproof double-decker buses going through the Wild Hundreds [the gang-infested area from 100th to 130th Streets] or through Terror Town [a two-by-four-block patch of South Shore]. What economic development is going on in the South Side?”

As of June of this year the number of people shot in Chicago has surpassed 1,000. To put it into perspective, over this year’s Memorial Day weekend, at least fifty-six people were shot in Chicago, twelve of those incidents proving fatal. Arthur Lurigio, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago, was quoted by the Chicago Tribune as saying, “Where there’s shootings, there’s a sense of a neighborhood that is continuing to decline. That’s in disarray. As long as we continue to invest in the riverfront and downtown, which we will, and we continue to disinvest or allow disinvestment from those communities, there will be shootings today, tomorrow.” The city’s police department has also reported a rise in homicides, with over 161 this year alone. This is in comparison to the 137 last year.  

The trailer for Lee’s Chiraq seems to show the moving story of gun-related crime in Englewood from a variety of character angles, along with having a “Lysistrata”-inspired plot line involving the women characters withholding sex from their partners as a campaign to get them to stop the violence.

The film has a star-studded cast, including John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Nick Cannon, Angela Bassett, Dave Chappelle, and Jennifer Hudson. Cusack joined Lee in a press conference in Chicago some months ago to combat the controversy surrounding the movie. Cusack, who grew up in Chicago, said at the conference, “I love my city of Chicago and I would never do anything to hurt it.” At the same press conference Lee concluded, “Wait until the movie comes out. You don’t like it, you don’t like it, but see it first.”

Chiraq opens in theaters nationwide December 4.


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.