The director started shooting the film last week but opponents insist that the city’s gun violence and pain is not entertainment
Monday 8 June 2015 16.05 EDT
On a dusty vacant lot, mothers hold up photos to remember their dead children.
The parents say their children were not in gangs but happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time – sitting on the front stoop or walking in a crowd or a park – when a stray bullet found them and put an end to their young lives.
They are victims of the systemic gun violence on Chicago’s South Side.
Others, like Nova Henry, 24, and her 10-month-old daughter Ava, were victims of domestic violence by Henry’s former boyfriend who purchased the gun despite a long history of criminal charges. The gun he used in 2009 was purchased at the gun shop just steps away where Henry’s mother, Yolan Henry-Corner, stands holding a sign of both victims.
Henry-Corner found both bodies on that hot August day. Her life changed forever within minutes. “I walked out of that house knowing I had to do something,” she says.
Film director Spike Lee is in Chicago this summer filming a drama that addresses Chicago’s troubling homicide epidemic and indeed, a film crew was interspersed in the crowd to capture shots of the Saturday rally that attracted about 300 people, including almost two dozen gun-rights advocates who lined the fence protecting Chuck’s Gun Shop & Pistol Range in south suburban Riverdale.
Lee’s presence in Chicago would normally be embraced by a city that otherwise treats visiting celebrities with open arms. However, many here worry that the film’s subject and Chiraq, its title, will create significant hurt for an area that is already in pain.
“I just think [the film is] going to glorify the killing. They don’t care about the killings or our kids. They get glory about watching the pain of the parents,” Delphine Cherry says.
She should know about a parent’s trauma: her daughter Tyesa, 20, was fatally shot in 1992 outside of a movie theater by a 14-year-old gang member who was aiming for someone else. Twenty years later, in 2012, Cherry’s son Tyler was fatally gunned down on the driveway of their home in nearby Hazel Crest.
“Chiraq” is a slang term Lee did not invent but instead emerged from drill, both a term for retaliation and a hip-hop subgenre that was born in Chicago earlier this decade by rapper such as Chief Keef, Lil Reese, King Louie and Lil Durk. Drill represents a shift from the socially conscious rap of hometown heroes like Common, Lupe Fiasco, and Kanye West to a more brittle and minimalist sound with lyrics that depict neighborhood violence. The formula proved lucrative: in 2012 Keef, born Keith Cozart, was awarded a $3m contract with Interscope, a major recording label that released his debut album that year.
Film is ‘not a game’
Lee told reporters last month that his film is “not a game” and that he understands the sensitivities of the community. “This is real life and death and that’s the way we’re going to approach this.” An update of the classic Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes, the film will take place in Englewood, a South Side neighborhood known for violence; the plot involves women who withhold sex from their men in order to force them to put down their guns. The film will be produced by Amazon Studios, a new venture announced in January that plans to release 12 movies a year, first in theaters and then four to six weeks later via Amazon Prime, the company’s streaming service.
For city officials, Chiraq is a summer publicity crisis. Since 2012 when the number of homicides spiked above 500 in the city, Chicago has been in the national spotlight for its gun problem, which has been problematic for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel who has made great efforts to reach out to advocates in Englewood and elsewhere to show his administration is invested in finding solutions.
Last month he told reporters that he talked with Lee to tell him he was “not happy” about the film’s title and to assure him “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 [there] mainly driven by the people that make up Englewood.”
However, the violence problem persists. According to Chicago police data, there have been 161 homicides in the city through 31 May, an 18% increase compared to the same time last year. Some media reports say homicide numbers are actually much higher due to how the city collects and reports its data.
Alderman Will Burns threatened Lee last month with a resolution he wants passed that will ask the Illinois Film Office to reject a $3m tax credit Lee wants for his film if he does not change its title.
“We as taxpayers should not giving him money to name the movie Chiraq that makes it harder to bring economic development and other jobs and the benefits that folks want on the south and west sides in the city,” Burns told WGN radio recently. “Every time we brand these communities as Chiraq it makes it harder to bring these kinds of jobs to these communities. I want Spike Lee to make his movie, I just think calling it Chiraq validates Chief Keef and gangbangers and how they approach our neighborhoods.”
Lee started shooting the film last week and crews have already been spotted at various locations around Chicago, including the Double Door, a rock club in Wicker Park, and Powell’s Barber Shop in Englewood.
Asiaha Butler, a leading community activist in the area and founder of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, (RAGE), worries the film will enforce negative stereotypes about her neighborhood, which she says is rebounding with store openings, arts activities, and increased community involvement.
“This is a promotion of death and parents who are losing their children want to promote life,” she says. She says the film follows a pattern of many outside filmmakers and media organizations that suggest their efforts are shedding light on violence but instead often ignore the positive shifts that have been taking place on the South Side over many years. The results, she says, often promote a recycled narrative: “When you think of the South Side, it’s all about death.”
Father Michael Pfleger, the pastor of Saint Sabina church on the South Side, disagrees. A long-serving advocate against violence and poverty in the area, he says that Lee’s critics are judging a film they have not yet seen. He views the film as yet another component of a wider effort to motivate political action in a city that is sharply divided by race and economic class.
“This is real. People are being shot and are dying. If we’re afraid to deal with that, then shame on us,” Pfleger says. “Is [Lee] going to glamorize it? No. Is he going to face it? Yes.”
Lee has consulted with Pfleger to get an immediate understanding of neighborhood issues. From those conversations, Pfleger says he is convinced the filmmaker “wants to save lives” with his work. “We have to trust him to so he can do what he can do to make that happen. Let’s try anything and everything to stop this genocide,” he says.
Reverend Jesse Jackson, the famed Civil Rights advocate who spoke at Saturday’s rally, shares his views. “If you are worried about Chiraq, well, it is Chiraq,” he said. “We lost more Americans last weekend in Chicago than in Iraq. There is a kind of shame.”
John Cusack, a Chicago-area native, will portray Pfleger in the film. Reportedly the cast will also include Jennifer Hudson, Jeremy Piven and Common – All from Chicago.
“I have the luxury to make movies all my life, but there are real battles fought on the front lines all over the world. So a guy like Mike Pfleger is one of those people who are trying to do good,” Cusack says.
Outside Chuck’s, Pfleger and Jackson lead marchers to the front door where they wait to talk with the owner but are eventually turned away. Chicago police say 8 percent of all guns recovered from Chicago crime scenes between 2009-2013 were purchased at the shop and that 35 percent of the guns traced back to Chuck’s were recovered within three years of the original purchase date.
That suggests the sales involved either criminal behaviour by the buyer or the dealer and that stricter regulations are needed to prevent “straw” purchases, which pass guns from a legal owner who can pass federal background checks to someone who cannot. They also say shop owners are not accountable for following the regulations that are already in place.
Supporters of the shop hold signs blaming gang culture and bad parenting on gun deaths. “Armed blacks don’t get oppressed,” a sign reads. One man screams through the fence, calling the protestors “hypocrites.”
Looking on is Tonya Burch whose son Deontae Smith, 19, of Englewood was killed by a stray bullet at a block party in 2009. That Saturday morning, Smith had just learned he was accepted into the US Air Force and was going out to celebrate. She says when she arrived on the scene that night, her son’s body was face down on the pavement. She sat with him for more than four hours.
His killer has not been caught and she is offering a $10,000 award for information. She says she is not upset by the term “Chiraq” and wishes critics would redirect their energy “towards the violence.” Which includes ending the “no-snitch” culture that perpetuates the killings.
“The police can’t do everything,” she says. “Too many kids are dying.”