Chicago has been at the epicenter of social and political discussions over the past year. From corruption in the school board to the incessant levels of violence that run through the streets, the Second City has been designated a wasteland by any political pundit who will volunteer to have their mugs on TV. One of those pundits who has decided to throw his hat in the ring about his “expertise” on Chicago is filmmaker Spike Lee.
It may seem like the obvious choice (and it pretty much is) but no other film this year encapsulated the feeling of Chicago than Lee’s film Chi-Raq. Based loosely on the Greek comedy Lysistrata, the film tells the tale of Chicago women who are tired of the men of the city and their incessant use of violence to prove their machismo. The women band together and decide to withhold sex to make sure the shootings will stop; ‘No Peace, No Piece’ goes the film’s tagline. The film itself is actually not that bad, showing moments of brilliance and reminding us that Lee was once considered one of the most preeminent American filmmakers. But Chi-Raq is the demonstration of how Lee can be a frustrating filmmaker; a sincere attempt to try to start a conversation about present social issues, but go wildly off the rails by trying to implement too many over-the-top messages.
But the film itself does not paint a picture of how the city actually is; it is the filmmaker behind it. When first announced it would be entitled Chi-Raq, the city was sent into a tizzy with think pieces coming out of the woodwork before one shot of the film was even seen. This was not a documentary and should not be interpreted as. You can look to brilliant documentaries such as The Interrupters for a better depiction of the city. The discussion of why art should not be taken literally is a discussion for another day, but critics needed to calm down a bit. Making matter worse was Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s staunch stance that the film in no way represented the city. Emanuel’s initial concerns were understandable at first, but his cavalier smugness towards the film and Lee, in light of the city’s own dealings with violence, only made the situation worse. The bullheaded Emanuel is his own worst enemy. His tough, unflappable demeanor was one of the things that captivated this city when he decided to run for mayor, but those qualities and reluctance to compromise quickly wore out their welcome. The mayor’s attitude was on par with his newest combatant Lee.
The filmmaker, never one to back down from a fight, was quick to call Emanuel a bully and urged critics to first watch the film before condemning it. Like Emanuel, Lee’s intentions were admirable, but quickly dissipated. Seeing these two stubborn figures go toe-to-toe made me realize that, despite the objections, Emanuel and Lee are very similar. Both were called geniuses earlier in their careers, meandered once they tasted success and then tried to jumpstart their careers by provoking the same fan base that catapulted them to popularity in the first place. Emanuel has remained steadfast in that his outdated methods are still working and Lee continues to use his brash filmmaking style that can sometimes come off as outrageous.
It’s been an interesting journey for Chi-Raq. Coming out of the gate the film was engulfed in a wave of controversy and intrigue from bystanders, but seemed to fizzle out and impress once it actually came out. If that isn’t an apt description of Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral career in Chicago, I don’t know what else is.