40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks
A scene from Spike Lee's Chi-Raq. If black life in Chicago must be compared to a war zone, let's at least point to the right war.
Here's a novel idea for Spike Lee, and even for Mayor Rahm Emanuel: instead of urging black women to withhold sex to stem violence in their communities, maybe we’d all be better off if elected officials of color (and their allies) stonewalled the City Council and state legislature until the disproportionately white, rich, and powerful enact policy changes that help curb police brutality and engender greater economic opportunities for at-risk populations in Chicago and the state of Illinois.
In other words: No peace, no patronage.
But that's not what's proposed in Lee’s Chi-Raq
, even if Chicagoans were originally led to believe he’d take a more traditional, documentarian approach to the film.
As Lee made the initial press rounds, Emanuel, flanked by black City Council members, trumpeted his concerns about portraying the south and west sides in a "negative" light.
Emanuel's grievances, however, didn't zero in on whether or not Lee’s work would accurately depict long-standing maladies for black Chicagoans. He wasn't interested in how the film could potentially attract much-needed national attention to the plight of black Americans living in Chicago; nor did he take care to exercise diplomacy and provide Lee with the resources necessary to take on the issue effectively, so as to encourage the media and entertainment industry to bring their projects—and jobs—to an otherwise depleted local economy. (In fact, it was allegedly quite the opposite, with rumblings about attempts to block tax incentives normally granted to large film-production projects.)
Indeed, in true Rahm fashion, he was purportedly concerned about Chicago's public image, but it was just another song to himself. Mayor Emanuel's approach, or rather spin, exploited the long-held concerns of residents in neighborhoods often profiled by local news as bad, sketchy, and dangerous—profiles that largely ignore the good that goes on in the hood.
Lee never sought to make Chicago look bad per se, but to depict the harsh experiences that have, sadly, become business as usual for black people in Chicago.
Chicagoans living in “Chi-Raq” know these truths to be self-evident in the inequitable property tax funding structure for public schools, which stunts access to opportunities early in life for the black and brown students who make up the vast majority of the system’s students. They see it in the capital investments that flow nonstop towards the north side, while major thoroughfares on the west side remain riddled with potholes. They experience it in the overpolicing, profiling, and criminalization of their friends and family, people who would otherwise benefit from social programs and resources meant to uplift, had they not been subjected to the budget cuts of well-paid, one-percenter politicians.
When these conditions color the life chances of black communities, it's no wonder that so-called "black-on-black crime" sometimes takes hold. It's not about black people not caring about one another; it's about individual and group (read: gang) calculations for survival amidst abject scarcity.
Yet Lee takes the old-school respectability route in his press junkets, further pushing the "black-on-black" narrative that’s become a derailing folly for the likes of Fox News and Breitbart, even though most violent crimes happen between members of the same racial groups—including white people.
Lee's approach may not sit well with some audiences; Chi-Raq
reinterprets the Greek play Lysistrata
, in which women withhold sex to achieve a transformative social and political agenda. The film could imply that solving gun violence is a black woman's burden, which is especially problematic given the history of black women exercising immense leadership in the arena of civil rights, only to experience marginalization from both white men and women and black men, who often take center stage in discussions.
To be clear: it's not, nor will it ever be, solely the responsibility of black women to shoulder the burden of effecting change in their communities—and certainly not through a so-called sex strike. And given that it’s largely been queer black women spearheading many major elements of the movement so far, including #BlackLivesMatter, there’s a striking presumption of heterosexuality that undermines Lee's main argument in the film.
In other words, the weaponization of sex, as Lee posits it, doesn't put black women at a strategic advantage. He’d be foolish to believe any such "sex strike" could ever work in the real world.
But the fictionalized, if not satirical, approach stokes the flames of outrage and absurdity in a way that may outwit the general numbness and lack of political will on issues of gun violence, profiling, and police brutality. If the result is a net positive, so be it; but it also comes at the expense of unwittingly proving Rahm Emanuel was right to resist the potential mischaracterization of the city's issues, even if the film's blunders weren't in his talking points.
We don't need black women to withhold sex for the problems to subside. We need filmmakers like Lee, and officials like Emanuel and Governor Bruce Rauner, to closely examine racist and classist political systems, and avoid conflating widespread policy failures with a so-called lack of personal responsibility in black communities.
If black life in Chicago must be fictionalized and compared to a war zone, perhaps we can all agree to wake up and understand the current political schema as a disparate battleground unto itself—one that the voters of the city created, and that wealthy politicians and their cronies have upheld. That’s what deserves a real strike.