Civic Practice Scholar Karlyn Boens on Spike Lee’s ‘Chi-Raq’

December 23, 2015  • Karlyn Boens

Karlyn Boens saw Spike Lee’s latest movie Chi-Raq, which is an adaptation of the Ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, written by Aristophanes. In it women from the city states of Greece come together and agree to deny sex to their husbands and lovers, hoping that such a deprivation will finally cause the men to bring an end to the Peloponnesian War, which at the time the play was produced had been going for about 2 decades. Lee’s film uses the same premise transferred to black men and women in Chicago, a city which, earlier this year was dubbed “America’s mass-shooting capital.”

Samuel L. Jackson in a film still from Chi-Raq

I saw Chi-Raq last week. There were only four people in the theater, including myself. Afterward, we headed toward the exit in silence. No one dared to talk about it.

But I was wondering, If you had a daughter who lived in Chicago, what would this movie mean for her?

I am an 18-year-old daughter of Chicago. My parents raised me on the West Side of the city with three other foster siblings. Fireworks and gunshots were normal all year round. Being the youngest, I had time to learn the difference between the two sounds. I also watched my older siblings being pulled into the street life. Mama didn’t take it easy. Whenever she heard a gunshot, she feared it was aimed at one of them.

The first boy I ever liked was a gangbanger on the West side of Chicago. We were both freshmen in high school, though he was old enough to be a sophomore. He smoked a lot of marijuana. I was a good girl who felt like I could change him. One day I told him that if he didn’t stop smoking, I would never kiss him again. He really liked me, so he stopped.

That made me feel like I was in control, like I was the cause of his sudden change. But soon after, he started up again.

Four years later I’m now a freshman in college. I took sociology in my first semester, which helped me recognize that whatever control I may or may not have had over my crush, there were also structural factors that were at play too. He was a gangbanger not because he wanted to be but because it was all he knew. Having no mother or father, his family became the homies off the block.

He didn’t have anyone to show him a different life. Those circumstances taught him to feel helpless, which gave him the need to relieve his stress with a temporary fix, marijuana.

I was not the reason he started smoking and I will probably not be the reason he quits.

To people who criticized you before the movie came out, you responded by pointing out that 331 people were shot—and 69 murdered—during the time it took you to finish principal photography. Which was June 1–July 9. But you know nothing about this murder capital if you fail to recognize what’s behind those numbers. This matter cannot be oversimplified as your film appears to do. Watching Chi-Raq, you would have us believe that Chicago’s murder problem is an issue in the black communities caused by black people. Your film makes the black community, in particular women, out to be the only perpetrators and instigators of the violence in our city. This view fails to realize that Chicago’s murder problem is a systematic issue.

Chiraq is not just about the black on black killings in Chicago neighborhoods. It’s about economic disparity. Between 2008 and 2012,income in almost all the lakefront neighborhoods increased. They declined in most other neighborhoods. There is no middle ground when, according to the most recent census data, the richest 5 percent here earned over $201,000, while those in the poorest 20 percent earned under $16,100.

Chiraq is about police brutality. Between 2009 and 2014, 70 people were killed by our police; most of them were black. Since 2007, 400 police shootings have been investigated by the Independent Police Review Authority. Two of those were found to involve “wrongdoing,” though no one has been punished. And the city has spent $500 million on settling police cases since 2004. And then there’s Laquan McDonald. And Alfontish Cockerham, whose murder was also caught on video, a video the city also refused to release. When a city can cover up a police execution, and then tell us not to protest when we find out about it, how are we supposed to interpret that as something other than an act of war?

Chiraq is about homelessness. In the course of the 2014–15 school year, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless identified nearly126,000 Chicagoans as homeless. Thirty-five percent of those were children. Chicago Public Schools reported that 98 percent of its homeless students were children of color. I was once one of those students.

Chiraq is a city of colored folks who are experiencing learned helplessness. We have endured repeated oppression. We have no energy to look for jobs anymore. We see no point in geting off of Section 8. Hope is slim to none here in Chiraq.

Chiraq is influenced by the State of Illinois, who hasn’t been able to agree on a budget for six months. Higher education funding is in danger, the lottery isn’t paying out, the State Museum system is closed, nonprofits offering all kinds of services—to the homeless, to at-risk and low-income families, and to kids who need help staying out of jail —are disappearing.

I imagine you at least probably made white people feel comfortable watching your film. For once they didn’t have to hear about institutionalized racism and the white privilege that also defines Chiraq.

You don’t live here, and these issues do not directly affect you. If you did live here, your film wouldn’t exist like it does. It would have taken time to address all the issues that cause violence here, instead of just making it seem like it has a simple fix.

I agree with Chance the Rapper, who said that, “the idea that women abstaining from sex would stop murders is offensive and a slap in the face to any mother that lost a child here.”

I was not looking for a satire from you, that’s least appropriate. I wasn’t even looking for a documentary where gang violence is glorified. I was not looking for you at all.

I am looking for Chicagoans (and not the white people who live downtown) to continue to reclaim our streets. I’m looking for moreMalcom Londons, Black Youth Project 100s, and high school poets from Louder Than A Bomb to emerge. I’m looking to get my voice heard for the sake of my city.

And if you didn’t know who these people and organizations were before I told you, you don’t know anything about my city.

I have dreams for my city. One day the black community will reconcile with all that has caused it pain. Reconciliation will be from the top down. It will start with the justice system in Chicago and work its way down to every single individual. Faith has to be restored in my community. There is no way around that. In my city, I recognize that the violence here is tearing communities apart. Mothers are worried for their children. There seems to be no safe haven. We have tried to laugh to keep from crying—that has proved to be a temporary fix. Now is the time to face the true solution.