The war in Iraq was one of the most regrettable decisions of American military interventions. It was an example of White American policy asserting wealth, power, and domination in the Middle East. The war destabilized the entire region. It was, in fact, a war. Who supplied the weapons? As people try to reclaim humanity amidst the debris of violence, they are fleeing to countries for refuge and those who cannot leave stay behind, killing each other, or rather, surviving in what has become a battlefield of poverty and destruction. Who benefited from profitable contracts? Who supplied weapons? Who created the war? Who is cleaning up after the debris and rubble? How do humans cope with war? Who was given the weapons? Who has the license to kill and when? Who has power?
When we refer to Chicago as “Chiraq,” we not only create parallels to the American casualties of war in Iraq. If we list the deaths of Americans citizens killed, and fail to mention Iraqi casualties, we become a part of perpetuating propaganda. Many soldiers die in war on all sides and even more civilians bear the burden. The aftermath of battle is a vapid melancholy. Everyone is mourning. Except those who win have a special place in history for their mourning. Monuments are built, medals are given, and a nation of people praise an illusion of victory. Though we have created grave technological advancements of comfort, we have yet to rid the world of violence. Violence reinforces power, establishes fear, and protects privilege. What then of violence in Chicago’s poor Black neighborhoods? How do we choose to speak about violence in Black American communities when we know the history of violence in America?
It is said that exposure to violence increases one’s risk of becoming violent. What is to become of those most exposed and least defended? When Black people protest police murders, we are protesting murders. We are protesting abuses of power. We are demanding to exist and for the law to be upheld. We are demanding justice. This seems important to reiterate. This is not a moment, we have a history of resistance in this country. We are not fighting for scraps of representation or empathy. A Black president or film or face will not suffice. Humanity will be known and the depth of our stories told. We choose to live. We choose laws that protect our living. We demand a value system for Black life.
Spike Lee decided to name his most recent film, Chiraq. A word to create analogy . In October, I saw a seventeen-minute preview screening for Chiraq in the historic Lyric Theater of Overtown, Miami. It was the culminating event to Revolt Music Conference and part of an inaugural Film Festival. After some time, Spike Lee walks on stage, working through minor technical difficulties. He speaks about the premise of his film and shows us a short music video we presume to be a part of the soundtrack. Before it plays, he explains how he met with a white preacher in the South Side of Chicago (Father Pfleger) who was working to stop what he called “Black on Black” violence. I cringe at this phrase as it has become a recurring deflection tactic in response to the current Black Lives Matter movement demanding justice for the murders of innocent Black men, women, boys, and girls. Spike Lee claims he wants to save lives.
I waited for the punch-line and it occurred to me that Lee really believes what he is saying. The seventeen-minute preview was no better than the explanation of it. It was a dragged out version of the viral trailer except it began with numbers of American Soldiers killed in Iraq and Black people killed in Chicago. Spike Lee wanted to drive the matter of these deaths into the viewers heads. He states good intentions but there is some terrible disconnect. Are these images not all poorly performed stereotypes? Is Lee taking shots at the Black community? He throws around phrases like, “self-inflicted genocide” and “Black on Black violence” as if he invented the terms. I attended the screening with Umi Selah of the Dream Defenders along with other community organizers. Selah is a Chicago native. Triggered and confused by what we saw, we raise our hands for the Q&A. We need clarity. We understand this film is a satire. Are we a part of the satire? Spike surveys the room for questions. He chooses Umi Selah to speak. Umi says he is “flabbergasted.” Spike, intrigued, asks “in a good or bad way?” Umi expresses disappointment in the film, outrage even, to which there is a short, but intense, back and forth. It escalates and is quickly interrupted by ushers waving Selah to leave. The audio recording is here:
As we express often-repressed feelings, we somehow become caricatures of ourselves. It is violence projected onto us. We walked out of the building after being escorted out of the theater and there are already three police officers charging toward us. What becomes of our frustration? How and where is it safe for us to express ourselves?
It is in poor taste to call what is happening in Chicago, “a self-inflicted genocide.” It is a term coined by a White Priest Michael Pfleger from the Southside of Chicago. Spike Lee champions the notion in his preview. The term is inaccurate and insensitive. It is spitting in the eye of a brother while a foot is on his neck. Where does the comparison to the war in Iraq begin and the war in Chicago end? Did we forget about Abu Grahibprison? Does Chiraq mention Homan Square?
I once watched an interview in response to Django where Spike Lee had not yet seen the film and did not intend to watch the film. He stated, “It would be disrespectful to my ancestors to see that film. I can’t disrespect my ancestors.” I thought I understood. The best Spike Lee films were with images that sought to signify the inexpressible. He told some of our stories and created characters of our imagination. Is Chiraq a film to make the ancestors proud?
The film comes at a time where there is a mass movement to assert that Black Lives Matter. Black men and women lives matter. Black boys and girls lives matter. This film is in danger of pacifying white accountability while demanding Black responsibility. Across the country, Black people are protesting and demonstrating, not just in marches and rallies, legislation and politics, but are also interrupting classrooms, hospitals, churches, shelters, and in bedrooms—we are loving each other, differently. The political and spiritual consciousness is being raised.
Chiraq offers a comparison to a Greek comedy by Aristophanes called, “Lysistrata.” The premise is women deny sex to stop male violence. It would be satire if it were not bowing to stereotypes. Black women’s bodies are not ransom for manhood or dignity. J. Marion Sims was a White American who committed acts of war on Black women’s bodies, they were tortured and mutilated. Why not a film about Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy? The three enslaved Black women whose names Sims recorded if only for the positive results observed in experimenting with them. The birth of the study of women’s bodies came at the price of Black Women’s physical bodies and caused their deaths. He believed Black women did not feel pain. Apparently, our men don’t either. Or so it would seem as if Black men haven’t the sense or heart to stop killing people who look like them. I don’t believe it is just for lack of knowledge that our children are dying, it is also a fight against the lack of imagination, resources, opportunities, and identity. It is a lack of political education. In the pursuit of profit, Black communities have become battlefields for experiments against the poor and defenseless. Women have been at the forefront.
Perhaps, Spike Lee will save lives with Chiraq and the hoods of Chicago are documented so satirically genius that Black folks awaken to some mass existential epiphany: we ought not kill each other. Perhaps, Nick Cannon turns into a version of Lee’s Malcolm X and wilds out by politicizing gangs. Thanks to the “pussy boycott.” White folks will travel far and wide to sit on double decker buses and tour a part of the hip neighborhood they saw Nick Cannon and Wesley Snipes gang bang in. New businesses come to develop once gun ridden “Black on Black” crime infested neighborhoods. Please, save us from ourselves. What did become of our beloved Brooklyn? Urban ghettos have become a playground for the liberal white gaze to act out it’s fantasy of appropriating the Black lives they saw in movies. Or not. It makes me wonder, what does Spike Lee really believe his films are doing? Saving lives? Land theft in Brooklyn is no fault of Spike Lee. How could he possibly know the influential power of his films to shape and cultivate cultural images of life, let alone, Black life? How many fitted Chiraq hats does it take to save a life in Chicago?
Capitalism reinforces a geography of violence. Black people have been experiments of a failed democracy. Chicago was site of violent housing experiments that left many Black families displaced. Six million Black Americans fled the rural South to escape slavery and the war on Blackness during The Great Migration. It is, in fact, a war. We have been perpetually migrating. It has destabilized entire communities. We see it in land theft, policing, education, gang violence, drug abuse, mass incarceration, gender violence, media, literature etc. The war waged against Black people started long before Chicago’s current violent murder rates. Black skin is a uniform of war. Any murder, murders something inside of us all. Especially, when that murder is at the hand of a brother or sister. Spike Lee’s film and critique is a betrayal to the ancestors and what we have been fighting for. Only a fool would look to the film, Chiraq, to save lives.
Aja Monet is an American contemporary poet, writer, lyricist and activist of Cuban-Jamaican descent from Brooklyn, New York. Learn more about Aja by visiting her website, www.ajamonet.com.