Okay, so when I first heard that Spike Lee was making a movie called Chi-Raq, I was a bit suspicious, given that his prolificacy makes him kind of hit-or-miss. Chiraq is a nickname for the parts of Chicago in which gun and gang violence are so rampant that they resemble a war zone. There are a whole, whole lot of complex factors and moving parts that contribute to that violence, and addressing or unpacking them with any accuracy and nuance takes a steady, careful hand. Chi-Raq, however, isn’t a documentary based in Chicago, but rather a musical comedy. After the trailer was released a week ago, Lee was accused of making light of the violence, and more broadly, swooping into the city from New York in hopes of profitably exploiting black Chicagoans.
“The trailer was released and there’s very humorous moments in the trailer,” Lee responded. “Some people are going to twist it and think that this is a comedy. Chi-Raq is not a comedy. Chi-Raq is a satire. And there’s a difference between satire and comedy.”
The angle is that this is an adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play wherein women tried to end the Peloponnesian War by refusing to fuck their men until the fighting stopped. And this is the plot of Chi-Raq, just with Teyonah Parris and a drumless, gun-toting Nick Cannon acting as its stars. I’m gonna be honest here: The trailer got me a little woke. It shows a cast of famous black actors using their Outside Voices and gesticulating loosely, while the Chiraqi women pledge their newfound abstinence in a mass effort to stop the gun violence in their neighborhood. After watching it, the movie seems less than good and potentially actively bad, in small part because of the mere presence of Nick Cannon, and in larger part because it doesn’t appear to engage with the backdrop much beyond the half-baked idea that Chiraq niggas be shooting, ha, but they be rapping and fucking, too. I mean, it kind of feels like the movie is making light of a serious situation by simplifying and misrepresenting a complex one, and therefore exploiting black Chicagoans! But this is all just from a single trailer! Maybe Spike pulls it off!
But then Lee released a music video tied to the movie, and now I’m all fucked up. This is how the song, penned and sung rather beautifully by Kevon Carter, opens:
Everybody’s talking about Brother Bill Cosby / It looks like our favorite dad was drugging girls.
But please not let us forget about little Amari / An innocent victim of this cruel world.
Only seven years of age and he was shot / But it wasn’t by a racist nor a cop
You see it was by someone the same color as myself / We’re the only race that shoots and kills themselves.
Wait, wait. Here are some additional bars:
Everybody’s talking about Meek Mill and Drake / Everybody’s mad because Cecil the Lion was shot.
But where was the compassion for those murdered in Chicago / When will it end? When will it stop?
We gotta do better / What’s the use of saying Black Lives Matter if we’re gonna kill ourselves?
We gotta do better / What’s the use of saying ‘I can’t breathe’ if we’re choking ourselves?
Titled “WGDB”—We Gotta Do Better—it’s an ode to black pathology, anchored by two opinions. The first is that black-on-black gun violence is something that occurs because blacks widely approve of or ignore it, which means it still needs repudiating. The second is that maybe if black people just had more self-respect, the cops whose salaries black people pay would treat them nicer, shoot and/or jail them less, and so on. These are both bad and dumb opinions.
This song is one of the worst fucking songs ever, and the lyric, “We’re the only race that shoots and kills themselves,” is the worst line in it. You don’t even need to see any statistics to know that this assertion is just demonstrably, historically false. (But, fine: here). Black people don’t shoot each other because they’re black; black people, like all people, shoot people they live around. Suggesting otherwise ignores centuries of state initiatives like slavery and redlining that cement racist social castes and cause people to often live in communities with people who look like them.
Now, Lee has already said that this whole thing was satire, in which case, great. Maybe, then, this is merely a satirical track in a satirical movie. And maybe a rather powerful, influential black cast didn’t affix their names to a black movie called Chi-Raq that promotes black pathology through the rather well-tread Fox News/Stormfront cliché—“But what about violence in Chicago?”—to draw the conversation away or detract from black grievances like police brutality. As Chi-Raq is being promoted right now, it really could go either way! Either Spike is really trying to pull this idea off, or my man is playing himself.
He has responded, though. When asked by Chicago about his take on recent incidents of unarmed black men being killed by police in tandem with his movie about black crime, Lee said:
I’ve never tried to present myself as a motherfucking spokesperson for 45 million black folks. This is my opinion: We as a people can’t talk only about Black Lives Matter, I Can’t Breathe, Don’t Shoot, and then not talk about this self-inflicted genocide we’re doing to ourselves. For me, it goes hand in hand. Only by talking about both and addressing both can we bring change. Cops ain’t just killing us. We’re killing ourselves, too.
And then there’s this:
Still, I’m holding out some hope, if only because I must. Maybe Spike Lee really and truly firmly thinks that, as “WGDB” suggests, white people don’t kill white people and Latino people don’t kill Latino people and Asian people don’t kill Asian people. And that black people are killing black people along with all or most white people and all or most Latino people and all or most Asian people. But maybe this is all a long and jolly con. I don’t know, man. Shit. I’m probably not going to waste 17 dollars to find out, though.