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Spike Lee Clashes With Emanuel Over 'Chiraq' Film Title, Requests Tax Break

By Margaret Paulson in News on Apr 16, 2015 3:00PM

Spike Lee at a ceremony in Washington, DC. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Apparently when Spike Lee was in town Wednesday, he was here for more than just an exchange of words at City Hall with Mayor Emanuel over the title of his upcoming Amazon Studios film, Chiraq. According to DNAinfo Chicago, Lee and representatives attended a meeting with the Illinois Film Office and city’s department of special events to ask for a $3 million tax break under a program that provides a 30 percent tax credit on expenditures for films provided they create jobs, stimulate growth and bring diversity.

Ald. Will Burns, who formerly helped build the Illinois film industry tax credit, was at the meeting and expressed strong reservations about Lee’s request:

“With the title, ‘Chiraq’ that’s branding whole parts of the city. For people who live on the South and West Sides who pay their taxes, are active in block clubs and work to make their neighborhoods better it’s a slap in the face.”

Mayor Emanuel has reservations too, indicating that he and Lee had an “honest and frank conversation” at City Hall about his displeasure with the title of Lee’s proposed film, which is reportedly about black-on-black gun violence in Englewood.

When Rahm Emanuel is “honest” and “frank,” we can only guess that involves some attempts at strong-arming and a slew of f-bombs. But aside from what we know about the mayor’s temper (See exhibits A, B, and C), which sometimes even makes us embarrassed for him, maybe he’s not so off-base this time.

The term “Chiraq” has emerged in the past few years to describe gun violence in Chicago’s south and west sides, but it’s a deeply fraught word, one that many gangs are reportedly proud of and one that highlights the massive divide between the north and south sides, separated along economic, racial and social lines. According to Chicago Magazine, rapper King Louie invented the term in 2009. But conversation around the term has grown. Even before Lee’s proposed film, London-based filmmaker Will Robson-Scott shot a documentary short in Chicago titled “Chi Raq” that documented gun violence in some of the poorest neighborhoods here.

It seems like the entire Internet is filled with proclamations of Chicago as the “Deadliest City in America.” In September 2014, online marketing research firm YouGov released poll data indicating that its respondents said Chicago is the most dangerous city in the country - 53 percent of respondents perceived the city as “unsafe,” vs. 33 percent who saw it as “safe.” News outlets picked this story up and ran with it (full disclosure: so did we), further cementing Chicago’s dangerous image in the public consciousness.

However, the YouGov poll only had 1,000 respondents, 758 of whom were white. It’s unclear how UK-based YouGov found their respondents or if they were self-selecting but it’s obvious that the sample isn’t representative of the population of the U.S. and thus can’t responsibly be used to make claims about what Americans think.

I’m worried about the image it gives us and I think Mayor Emanuel is, too. I’m not often generous in sentiment when it comes to the mayor, but I do think this time he’s trying to protect the city from an unfair image. According to a report by the highly reputable Pew Research Center, Chicago is “nowhere near ‘U.S. murder capital.’”; In fact, since 1985, only six cities have held that title when murder is measured as a percentage of their population: Detroit, Michigan; Washington, D.C.; Birmingham, Alabama; New Orleans, Louisiana; Richmond, Virginia and Flint, Michigan. Crime in Chicago spiked in the 1980s and '90s but has actually dropped to reach the same level during the 1970s.

I think Spike Lee can make a thoughtful film and tell an important story that needs to be heard and hopefully Mayor Emanuel would agree. However, image matters and the mayor knows that. If Lee does choose to use the title “Chiraq”— and why wouldn’t he, considering the media attention it’s already brought to his film?— the title will be a distraction from the real issues affecting real people in Englewood and other Chicago neighborhoods who live with everyday violence.

If Lee— who bills himself as somewhat of an activist— wants to be responsible, he should set up a fund and donate a percentage of sales to helping us fix this problem. (Lee definitely knows a thing or two about seeking donations.) But if he comes here, uses hometown “actors,” makes money from exploiting real Chicagoans’ suffering, takes a tax break and just leaves our city how he found it, and maybe with an image that’s worse, he’s not helping but instead doing a severe injustice to the people living and working in Englewood and other similar communities. That doesn’t sit well with me and I’m sure with many other committed Chicagoans.