By Tim Rosenberger and Valerie Lapointe
Director Spike Lee did not shy away from addressing the controversy surrounding his film “Chi-Raq” at a recent screening of the film at Northwestern University. That was a good thing because his audience was vocal about the movie’s take on racism, representation of women and gun violence during the post-screening Q&A.
An Evening with Spike Lee, which took place March 2 at Evanston’s Cahn Auditorium as part of Northwestern University’s student-run Contemporary Thought Speaker Series, screened Lee’s most recent film to a packed auditorium. Lee shared the stage with two former Chicago gang members, Curtis Toler and Brandon Jackson. Both now speak out against gun violence and are part of Cure Violence, formerly CeaseFire, which seeks to stop the spread of violence in Chicago communities.
“Chi-Raq” is a modern retelling of the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata,” a comedic tale of women withholding sex to end a war. Lee moved the story to Chicago’s South Side Englewood neighborhood, where warring gangs take the place of opposing tribes in Athens.
The film touches on the causes and effects of the violence that has so defined the South Side neighborhoods in Chicago. Lee filmed it last summer, during which time the Chicago Tribune tallied 158 homicides, mostly on the South and West sides. The response to the movie has been as controversial as the issues it deals with, but Lee, who has been criticized his entire career, is no stranger to controversy.
“[For my 1989 film] ‘Do the Right Thing’ I was criticized because people said there were going to be black people running amok all across America,” Lee said during the Q&A. “I am not new or immune to criticism. But there was a lot of bullshit said about ‘Chi-Raq,’ and I would just like to take this time to address it.”
A senior Northwestern radio, television and film major from the West Side spoke out against what she saw as the film’s jokes about systemic racism. She said the topic, which she saw as the cause of black-on-black violence, could have been discussed as a serious issue.
Lee said he addressed systemic racism – specifically issues of education, the prison complex and easy access to guns – in the film’s nearly 10-minute-long sermon by a priest played by John Cusack.
The forum’s negative backlash did not stop there. One NU sophomore said the film belittled its female characters. Their sexuality was a mere plot device, not used in a way that gave them agency.
Lee did not think the movie demeaned women. If individuals are going to start a movement against a power structure, he said, they will use whatever they have at their disposal.
“Why are women in music videos shaking their butt [with their] breasts exposed?” Lee said. “Why are they doing that? Why are they doing that? To sell records. To make money. These women [in “Chi-Raq”] are using their sexuality to liberate black people.”
Some in the audience objected to the movie’s satirical tone. Lee said he had no interest in presenting the film as a straight drama. While many people may not fully grasp satire, he said, it has been used for centuries to address serious issues. He cited possibly the most famous example in film, Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove,” a dark comedy about nuclear holocaust.
“We were not making light of the serious situation [on the South Side],” Lee said. “It is possible to have humor with serious subject matter, and there’s no way the women who have lost loved ones would even be a part of something that would make a mockery of their children.”
Lee visited the South Side during the film’s pre-production and spoke to many parents and families who lost children to gun violence. A few of them appeared in the film’s final scene holding photos of the loved ones they lost. Victims’ families filled the front three rows of the theater during the screening and spoke out in support of Lee’s film.
Carolyn Murray, whose 19-year-old son was killed over three years ago less than a mile from Cahn auditorium, was one of the parents Lee met with during filming.
She organized a community-wide gun buyback a few weeks after her son was killed. She also works with Purpose Over Pain, a Chicago group that advocates for stricter gun laws and supports parents who have lost children to gun violence. In 2013, she was Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky’s guest at President Obama’s State of the Union Address, in which he mentioned gun control reform.
“The only difference between Evanston and Chicago is Howard Street,” Murray said. “There’s no difference. We’re experience the same thing here that they’re experiencing [in] Chicago.”
Murray said gun violence is not just an issue in bad neighborhoods or urban areas. It is a problem everywhere. Her daughter is currently attending her first year of college in Wisconsin. Citing the shootings that have occurred on college campuses, Murray worries that her daughter could just as easily be killed there as someone in the city.
Murray does not struggle with money, she said. She has life insurance. She lives in a northern suburb, not in a bad neighborhood, and she fulfills all of the other stereotypes of well-off Americans. None of this made her child immune from gun violence, she said.
“So I’m fighting against the stereotype, but I’m also fighting against a society that doesn’t want to accept gun violence is real,” Murray said. “[People] want to criticize your movie and criticize the movement of drawing attention to gun violence and the violence overall. However, violence is [resulting in death across] this whole entire country.”
In addition to to the suffering families who supported Lee at the screening, a number of students came to his defense. A student from the South Side was awarded the final and possibly the most passionate voice in the discussion.
The black community is so critical of itself, the student said. It pained her that people always complain when someone does nothing to help solve a problem. But when people do act, they are criticized for not doing it in the proper way.
America was created on a foundation of racism and systematic racism, she said. Racism and gun violence are a problem for everyone. You do not have to be a black or white graduate student to jump on a train, go to the South Side and get involved, she said. Anyone can help solve the problem.
“So have the courage to just jump in,” the student said. “Keep it real whether you’re black, white, Puerto Rican, green or blue. This is our country. You’re questing just a few miles away. We cannot act as if this is just a South Side of Chicago problem. Most importantly, commend people who are doing something and be respectful.”