Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Chiraq ain't Chicago

Spike Lee's new movie is NOT about Chicago.  'Chiraq' is a metaphor for senseless violence and the desperation of the public to stop it.  Chiraq is also Hollywood entertainment and if success is measured in dollars, it's a likely loser.
Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata, the model for this movie, as one of a series of plays about the futility of the Peloponnesian wars.  Those wars devastated and exhausted Athens and Sparta between 431-404 BC.   Lee's comparison of the war-weary Athenian public to inner city African Americans works on a general level.

The message of both Aristophanes and Lee is the same: most wars are about power and masculine pride.  The true cost of such wars are measured in the lives of innocents. These wars can get out of control and the movie is a plea for peace. 

Okay, I buy that. And I liked the idea that a mass movement — in this case of women — is the way to force the warriors to put down their arms. This is also my argument in The In$ane Chicago Way, A World of Gangs, and People & Folks, my books on gangs. 

But there are many problems in the movie that alienated me.  First, as with Aristophanes, the characters in Chiraq are reduced to stereotypes, even cartoons. The gang leaders, for example, have no depth and seem only concerned with sex until Chiraq (the gang leader) is overwhelmed at the end of the movie with images of victims and repents.  The women are nearly all one-dimensional as well,  crude stereotypes of sex-obsessed black women wearing alluring attire. Such shallowness may have been all right in the Athenian theater, but we should expect more in a two-hour movie. What the shorthand of this movie does is reinforce racial stereotypes, not undermine them. 

Second, Lee's location of the movie prompts us to look for insights into Chicago's gangland. Don't. In the very first scenes of the movie,  comparing the deaths in Chicago in 2000-2015 to those in Iraq and Afghanistan, the movie veers away from reality.  The years since 2004 have marked the lowest level of homicide in Chicago since 1967. The violent years — the organized gang wars — were in the years 1989-1999 when Chicago's homicide rate was twice as high as now. Lee's nostalgic references to "back in the day when children weren't shot" forget the gang ordered murder of 11-year-old Yummy Sandifer in 1994, who was featured on the cover of Time and memorialized by Tupac.  We forget how much worse violence was during the gang wars. Once again, Lee reinforces media stereotypes. 

The climax of the movie is the signing of a peace treaty between gang leaders and with the mayor and police chief.  That's not happening today, even if women withhold sex.  There are no Chicago African American gang leaders anymore with the authority to negotiate any broader truce.  Young people don't know their laws and prayers but instead memorize sexist and violent "drill-style rap" lyrics. Today's gang-bangers are not directed from above, but are stimulated to violence by local incidents,  neighborhood feuds, episodic humiliations, petty drug deals, and social media provocations.  An early scene in the movie where a rapper is shot in a concert with provocative rap lyrics tweeted in text on the screen is intended to recall the 2012 Chief Keefe and Li'l Jo Jo beef.  But gang homicide today has dropped dramatically from the 1990s,  not getting worse as Chiraq would have us believe.

The hard reality masked by Lee's stereotypes is that no gang leaders or magic bullets can stop the kind of spontaneous gang violence we are witnessing today. The gang peace conference in 1999 described in In$ane ended in the assassination of a gang leader by his own gang homies as he tried to negotiate peace. The futile tactics of the Chicago Police and CureViolence to threaten or cajole gang leaders don't work because gang leaders aren't in control of any armies.  Rep. Bobby Rush's trip to the federal prison in Florence, Colorado  to meet with Jeff Fort and Larry Hoover was 20 years too late and out of touch with reality. The 1990s gang wars ended for many reasons spelled out in my book. But the principle outcome was the undermining of established gang leaders and fracturing of African American gangs. 

Don't forget I said Lee's movie was NOT about Chicago. But that made one aspect of the movie maddening. One of the lead characters in Chiraq,  who contextualizes the violence and leads the protest march is a white priest played by John Cusack.  He is supposed to represent the real-life Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabinas parish. In a Spike Lee movie, bewilderingly, a white person is the moral leader.  There are many views of Pfleger, but why are there no serious African American community leaders in the movie who talk to gang youth and work for peace?  Why didn't Spike Lee feature Minister Farrakhan or the active NOI gang outreach of Minister Michael D Muhammed?  If the movie is only loosely tied to present day Chicago, why feature a white priest?

I think this is the Hollywood angle of the movie. Chiraq seeks to be a cross-over and such movies need white heroes. I'm not sure it's going to work. My wife and I went to the movie at prime time in an upscale theater near our home.  There were only about two dozen people in the audience and we were the only whites.  What message did placing a white priest as the voice of reason and empathy send?  In Chicago's ghetto,  as well as in other cities,  it is African American community leaders who do the lion's share of the work for peace.   Shame on you, Spike Lee.

I was also unsatisfied with the film's minimizing of the impact of police violence. The movie invoked BlackLivesMatter with a familiar list of names of victims.  The idea that police violence, like the horrific police execution of Laquan McDonald,  has played a major role in stoking the hostility of black youth is totally absent.  As I said in the last line of In$ane, "In Chicago and elsewhere, history shows the gang problem is broader than just a problem of gang members."   This movie lets the cops off the hook.

Spike Lee's movie is about stereotypes. Unfortunately, instead of undermining them, he promotes them.