Culture

Spike Lee's Silence About Planned Film 'Chiraq' Has Chicago Residents Concerned

Community members wonder if Lee will promote unhelpful myths about Chicago.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

Aysha Butler has spent half of her life convincing outsiders that her South Side of Chicago neighborhood of Englewood is more than the war zone label it carries. Now she fears all of the work she and other activists put into reversing that narrative will be overshadowed by Spike Lee’s new film Chiraq. “Going in the door with such a negative connotation about our community with a title like Chiraq is not doing us justice and isn’t, to me, utilizing [Lee’s] creative abilities to the fullest,” Butler, 39, who has lived in Englewood since the age of 17, told AlterNet. (Chiraq is the nickname given to America’s third largest city in light of its staggeringly high murder rate: Chicago plus Iraq equals Chiraq.) 

She said she and her husband have bought property in the neighborhood over the past 15 years and have been working to attract desperately needed economic development opportunities to the area as president of RAGE (Resident Association of Greater Englewood).

Butler knows Englewood has its issues. More than 42 percent of its residents live below the poverty line and it currently ranks fifth out of the city’s 77 communities for violent crime, according to the Chicago Tribune. Public radio WBEZ 91.5 reports that the neighborhood recorded the second-highest number of murders in the city last year. But Butler points out that Englewood and many communities like it are more than their high-crime reputation. For example, RAGE has been active in getting residents to participate in a city program that would allow them to buy city-owned vacant lots in Englewood for as little as a dollar. Butler even maintains a personal blog of the neighborhood’s grassroots efforts to empower its residents through volunteering and talent shows. Butler wonders if Chiraq will feature these kinds of community members.

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Since the Academy Award-nominated director announced plans in April to film the movie in Englewood, one of the city’s neighborhoods hardest hit by violence, he has met with intense backlash. Mayor Rahm Emanuel said at a press conference that month that he shared the community’s displeasure with the film’s title. City Alderman William Burns referred to the title as a “slap in the face.”

The exact origin of the term Chiraq is unknown, but it is mostly an underground term that has been popularized by Chicago rap artists, according to Natalie Y. Moore, who wrote about the word last year for The Root. That it is derived in part from a country that has descended into violent chaos because of an unnecessary U.S. invasion makes the term pack an even more political punch.

As of now, little is known about the plot of Chiraq, which is heightening the concerns about it, Butler said. The most recent pushback against the film came Wednesday after newly elected Alderman David Moore denied St. Sabina Catholic Church a permit for a block party to celebrate the end of filming of Chiraq because he opposes the film's title.

"I applaud the fact that [Lee] wants to bring national attention to the senseless gun violence taking place in the city's black communities," Moore said in a statement, according to the Chicago Tribune. "What I object to is the branding of these communities to the rest of the world who will never know anything about the real people who live in Englewood and Auburn Gresham. All they will ever know is the name Chiraq and the overreaching association with the war-torn nation of Iraq."

Alderman Burns has gone so far as to call for the state of Illinois to withhold the $3 million tax break Lee’s production company will get if he doesn’t change the name of the film.

Lee has responded so far to the pushback over the film with silence, but in mid-May, he held a press conference at St. Sabina Catholic Church in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood to address some of the concerns.

"Way way back when I made Do the Right Thing, there were people who said this film would cause riots all across America, that black people were going to run amok," Lee said. "They wrote a whole bunch of things. But those people ended up being on the wrong side of history. And the same is going to happen in Chicago. They are going to look stupid and end up on the wrong side of history. We're here for peace. We have to stop this."

He didn’t divulge any details about the plot, which isn’t unusual for a filmmaker. Yet because of the film's title, people seem less willing to give the filmmaker the benefit of the doubt.

“The connotation of Chiraq is so hard for us to deal with because we’re not living in a war zone,” Jamie Nesbitt, a freelance journalist who has covered Chicago neighborhoods for more than 15 years, told AlterNet. “All of these people killed in these murders aren’t being randomly picked off in the street. A lot of these crimes involve domestic violence and other issues. This isn’t the Wild West.”

Michael Phillips, a film critic with the Chicago Tribune, told MSNBC’s Richard Lui that the speculation over what the film will be about is premature.

“This is a bigger mystery than the devil in a white city,” Phillips said. “Spike Lee has been very, very tight to the vest about any plot details and there has been a weird amount of media speculation, especially in Chicago but nationally as well, about what this film is going to be saying. Is it going to excite more gang violence or what. We do not know. I’ve heard every description, from it’s going to be a musical comedy based on an ancient classic, Lysistrata, which is a sex strike staged by women against the men to bring an end to the war, to a gritty, really hard-edged Englewood in contemporary Chicago. I do not know what the film is going to be about.”

Butler says she has spoken to aldermen who have held discussions with Lee and was told that the title of the film will not change. Lee may be a great filmmaker, Butler says, but the high level of secrecy about how the movie will portray her community reminds her of other outsiders who use the salacious reputation of Englewood to benefit themselves to the detriment of the people who live there.

“People are offended because everyone enters Englewood, does whatever they want to do in Englewood, leaves, does not think of the residents here and uses Englewood as a backdrop but doesn’t talk about why Englewood is in the position that it’s in today,” she said. “People are just tired of it and the fact that you’re now going to brand it as Chiraq is even more hurtful to residents like myself and others who have been working towards change.”

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.