I recently viewed Chiraq. After reading some of the reviews, I realized that many people simply don't get Spike Lee's creative genius. The story is based on Aristophanes' Lysistrata, a Classical Greek comedy in which women withheld sex from their husbands as punishment for fighting in the Peloponnesian War. In Chiraq a group of young African American women organized a protest in which they withheld sex from their boyfriends and husbands until they agreed to put an end to the epidemic of violence and homicides that plague impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago. The term "Chi-Raq" is a conflation of "Chicago" and "Iraq" that is invoked by South Side residents in an allusion to the middle-eastern war zone. The movie is intended to publicize the epidemic of violence and chaos that prevail in many of Chicago's segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods.
Chiraq is an original, genre-defying production. The movie is rendered as an interconnected series of narratives, rhymes and rap music making it a sort of "hip (h)opera." The talented, nearly all-black cast features several of the best actors in Hollywood. Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, and John Cusack deliver stellar performances. The choreography is dazzling. The singing is superb. Samuel L. Jackson's over-the-top narrative is presented in the braggadocios tradition of folk poetry "toasts."
The movie generated some heated controversy. There were strenuous objections to the depictions of ghetto neighborhoods. City Council members urged Lee to change the name of the film threatening to withhold the tax credits the city had promised. In a Chicago Tribune article, the author claimed the movie "fails to illuminate the lives of the many Chicagoans who go to bed with the sound of gunfire outside their windows and wake up to the news of yet another murder." Another critic said the movie is "a black-on-black trauma without taking into consideration external systemic factors."
These accusations are misplaced. Similar criticisms were aimed at The Wire a crime drama series set in Baltimore. The Wire's producers located the series in Baltimore but it could have been any one of several American cities plagued by crime and drugs. The Wire's writers presented the conditions in Baltimore as an indictment of the failed American promise of equality; a warning that many cities and their residents are slowly dying from institutional indifference. Instead of the Wire's realism, Chiraq relies on humor, hyperbole, and hip hop music. Spike Lee's message in Chiraq is the same as The Wire's except an equal share the blame is borne by self-loathing youths who terrorize their own communities.
Academics have shown how black ghettos were intentionally created by whites during the first half of the twentieth century. For decades, researchers have identified the discriminatory dynamics that foster the conditions in America's inner-city communities. Today segregation is perpetuated through an interlocking set of individual actions, institutional practices, and governmental policies. Chiraq employs humor and a hip-hop motif to tell a tragic tale.
Leland Ware is the Louis L. Redding Professor of Law & Public Policy at the University of Delaware.