Art Awareness Black Lives Matter Black-on-Black Crime Blackness Empowerment Film Masculinity Social Justice Stereotypes Urban Life

Why We Need Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq

Chi-Raq movie poster.

It’s not wise to underestimate how movies can shape a young person’s life. Twenty years ago, when I was a teenager, Tales From the Hood played a tremendous role in my growing up. The movie, through an infusion of horror and humor, showed several stories dealing with racism and Black men growing up in urban America. The film displayed the wages of gangsterism, drug dealing, and urban violence, is death. It also, served as a seminal warning about choices I would have to make in my future.

A strong narrative that warns and informs young black men about the pitfalls of hyper-masculinity and the precious fragility of life can potentially change lives and alter future decisions. In urban areas from any part of America, the deaths of black men at the hands of other black men has represented a persistent problem in America. Although the volume of crime and homicides have fallen from their height in the early 1990’s, what is commonly referred to as “Black-on-Black” crime has continued to be an ongoing, but neglected, epidemic.

In light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which aims to stop police officers from killing Black people without punishment, the urgency of halting intra-communal crime has been diminished. When video after traumatic video emerges showing American police inflicting capital punishment on Black people and receiving neither indictments or convictions, it fractures the trust a community has with its police force. Without trust, the Black community can have no faith that “Breathing While Black” won’t be misconstrued as a criminality. As a result, black people tend to refuse to cooperate with cops regarding investigations into black men murdering each other.

A strong narrative that warns and informs young black men about the pitfalls of hyper-masculinity and the precious fragility of life can potentially change lives and alter future decisions.

The Spike Lee joint Chi-Raq arrives in the midst of the sweeping #BlackLivesMatter movement to stop state-sponsored murder, to challenge US to stop murdering each other. But, contrary to some critiques, Chi-Raq does not portray black men murdering each other as occurring in a vacuum. Rather, several characters properly situate the intra-community homicides within their proper sociological and ecological context by referencing unemployment, economic divestment, lax gun laws, and racial discrimination as root causes. In effect, Chi-Raq does a masterful job of contextualizing why the violence exists in our communities.

A critique aimed at Chi-Raq is that it disrespects Chicagoans by the use of the name “Chi-Raq.” I can attest that in the Memphis public housing developments Foote Homes and Cleaborn Homes during the late 2000s, black folk living there often referred to those spaces as “Little Iraq” or “Little Vietnam.” Residents of those public housing developments did not use those descriptors haphazardly, but rather to illustrate that many of them felt they were living in a warzone. Research has now shown that many children living in these communities are growing up with PTSD—which isn’t unlike soldiers who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan—due to their disproportionate exposure to violence.

A second critique of Chi-Raq is that it makes light of sexual abuse and rape. It’s a critique which cannot be ignored. There are scenes some may consider triggering or potentially painful to watch for victims of either acts. While Chi-Raq is a farce and a comedy on many levels, I would argue that Spike Lee is using satire to address stereotypical Black masculinity. His casting choices of the two main male characters further elucidates that point.

In effect, Chi-Raq does a masterful job of contextualizing why the violence exists in our communities.

Nick Cannon and Wesley Snipes play the leaders of the two opposing gangs in Chi-Raq. Nick Cannon, almost universally regarded as a “goody two-shoes” or a “nice guy,” playing the leader of a gang almost invites sarcasm from at the outset. Utilizing him highlights Lee’s point. Here’s a man who is routinely roasted on his own show (Wildin’ Out) for his lack of gangster-esque gravitas, playing a role as a gang leader. Lee, in his casting of Nick Cannon, invites the audience to unveil the humanity beneath the surface of gang members that can be reached if the community worked to do so.

On the other side, there’s Wesley Snipes playing a character named “Cyclops.” Here, Lee is subconsciously calling forth the memory of Nino Brown from New Jack City and Simon Phoenix from Demolition Man. While Nino Brown was known for his coldness, calculation, and brutality, Simon Phoenix was a homicidal maniac committing acts of violence with an almost trickster-esque glee. Cyclops seems to be a combination of these two characters. Wesley Snipes channels both characters and several times spasms with a giddy, childlike chuckle that suggests he is both mimicking and channeling those characters. In doing so, Chi-Raq is simultaneously mocking the types of gangster characters that Wesley Snipes has played in the past as well as those who present themselves as gang leaders in real life.

And what of Lysistrata and the sex strike? Lee doesn’t seem to know what to do with the concept, but its clear he is inspired by the Aristophanes play Lysistrata in conjunction with the powerful real life example of Leymah Gbowee and the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Gbowee is well-known for her efforts to employ a sex strike as a means of stopping the two bloody Liberian Civil Wars which lasted from 1989-1996 and then later, from 1999-2003. The amazing activism and organizing conducted by Liberian women is covered in the heart-wrenching documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

Research has now shown that many children living in these communities are growing up with PTSD— which isn’t unlike soldiers who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan—due to their disproportionate exposure to violence.

It’d be truly offensive if Spike Lee suggested that it is black women’s responsibility to engage in a sex strike to stop the violent activities of black men, however, I don’t see Chi-Raq suggesting that. Lee is simply highlighting and paying homage to how such a strategy has been used by black women to bring about peace in Liberia (and thus how it might be used in Chicago). It’s something which may not be clear to audience members unless they are aware of this critical history.

During the Liberian Civil Wars, Liberian women were raped and sexually abused by boys and men. This went on for years, until Liberian women turned the tables on patriarchy by denying them access to their bodies. The concept likely seems farcical on the surface. Can a sex strike truly stop a war? Apparently, it did. Liberian women organized and mobilized on the basis of such a premise that upended the power structure and in doing so, they stopped a brutal and deadly war that not only affected Liberia, but Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Ultimately, Chi-Raq is a bold and farcical affair. It is a tragicomic jeremiad and oft-times lamentation on life and death in America’s divested and red-lined black neighborhoods. The movie’s thesis is that we kill each other out of allegiance to a masculinity that demands retribution because we are attempting become the same sort of powerful men that thrive in America—capitalistic, abusive, and dehumanizing of others.

“We are not Chi-Raq,” a pivotal character proclaimed but, due to hip-hop’s influence, too many black males are wrapped up in embodying stereotypical black manhood like the type portrayed by Wesley Snipes in New Jack City or Demolition Man. Nick Cannon is not considered “tough” by these standards, so he’s used to exemplify that many gang members aren’t tough either. We know he’s playing a role, just as it’s clear that so many young black males are playing a role when joining a gang.

Ultimately, Chi-Raq is a bold and farcical affair.

We need Chi-Raq now more than ever. We need to examine and upend the stereotypes of black masculinity that have been so pervasive. We can’t survive by continuing to think of athletes, rappers, or hustlers as the epitome of our masculinity. At the same time, we must recognize the desire to become athletes, rappers, or hustlers is powerful precisely because for so many young boys growing up in these neighborhoods, these are men are seen as the pinnacle of success.

Our black boys are being set up for failure when we reduce the range of roles and vocations they can aspire to become. Someone accepting stereotypes and playing restrictive roles is willfully contributing to the cycle of death. It often means we can’t breathe with police and even more so we can’t breathe among ourselves. We can’t heal our communities without public health, mental health, and social work professionals. We can’t restore our neighborhoods and raise our children without firefighters, factory workers, sanitation workers, construction workers, and, yes, even law enforcement officers.

Chi-Raq is not a perfect movie, but it bids us to wage a struggle on two fronts: to confront police who kill us while simultaneously confronting “us” who keeps killing us. In a Manichean world, this seems to be a tall task, but #BlackLivesMatter is the perfect slogan for this dual struggle. Once we start loving and respecting each other, once we stop killing each other, and once we stop embodying and acting out the stereotypes that weren’t created by us, we will be in a far stronger position to stop police from treating us like our lives don’t matter.

By Lawrence Brown, Ph.D

Lawrence Brown is the grandson of sharecroppers who lived in the Mississippi Delta and is a native of West Memphis, Arkansas. He is an Assistant Professor at Morgan State University in the School of Community Health and Policy. He is engaged in Baltimore communities as an activist for equitable redevelopment along with housing stability and studies the impact of forced displacement, historical trauma, and masculinity on health.