1. This is a fatalistic name given to Chicago by mostly black people who experience that city more as a warzone than as anything else.
2. A 2015 movie by Spike Lee focused on the tragedy that for a long time has enveloped the city of Chicago and other black projects in the United States.
The drawing of parallels between the deaths of Americans in Iraq and the deaths of Americans in Chicago isn’t a new phenomenon. In the 2011 song Murder to Excellence Kanye West raps:
I’m from the murder capital
where we murder for capital….
Time for us to redefine black power
41 souls murdered in 50 hours…
Is it genocide?
Cos I can still hear his mother cry…
314 soldiers died in 1raq
509 died in Chicago…
Last year was a year when the world heard a lot more about the deaths of young black men at the hands of the institutions that are supposed to protect them in America than ever. The names evoked a place where all you had to do in order to die was to be young and black. The script was always familiar. A black man shot, strangled, killed by the police. A grand jury convened. No wrongdoing on the part of the police. Last year I empathised with black people in America more than I ever have before. All that killing got to me. They are after all my brothers and sisters. We share a heritage that goes further than mere skin colour. Our ancestors have all suffered and been subjected to violence, theft, conditions of enslavement and actual enslavement by people who felt that their technological advances in the art of warfare gave them dominion over their fellow man. Our cultures have both been decimated by these very people. A forcible process of substitution , dilution and dissolution has taken place in all cultures of all black people all over the world in the centuries preceding this. Our religion, our way of life, our mode of dressing, our way of relating to each other has been forcibly changed beyond all recognition. Add to all this they are human like I am. They are my brother and sister as all humans are. It is thus only human to feel their pain. To mourn with them. To rage with them. To hope for change with them. To do my best to understand what they are going through so that I may not pass judgement on that which I do not know.
This is why I watched Chiraq. Also because I read that it’s a damn good movie. And it is. The movie opens with a raging and angry song. A song about a dying city. The lyrics are splashed on the screen in red. They are the words of a man losing his religion. Trying to keep his head up as he is surrounded by nothing but death and disaster. The refrain asks “please pray for my city.”
It cuts to a concert. One of those concerts that my heart prays are not an invention of the screen but an authentic slice of black culture in some places in America. A young rapper holds forth to an audience in a small space that holds maybe 100 people but everyone there really feels the music. They shout back the lyrics; they sway to the beat and, at least in this movie, do it in synchrony. Creating a wave that is as hypnotic as my mind tells me it is impossible. Then the action pauses and an old man walks on the stage.
He speaks directly to the audience about Aristophanes a playwright in ancient Greece who wrote his plays in rhyme and informs us that this movie too will be in rhyme.
The plot of the movie comes both from reality and art. The fictional world inspiring it being one thought up by Aristophanes who wrote a play called Lysistrata in which the title character (who shares a name with the main character of Chiraq) convinces the women of Greece to go on a sex strike to bring an end to the Peloponnesian war. The real world event that it resembles took place during the Second Liberian Civil War. The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace led by Crystal Roh Gawding and organised by Leymah Gbowee and Comfort Freeman explored non-violent means of fostering a peace in Liberia. They threatened curses, held sit-ins, organised a sex-strike. Through their actions they forced a meeting with Charles Taylor ( you know this is a serious guy because his name sends shivers down my spine and I come from a country who elected as President and Deputy President two people who were at the time being tried for war crimes at the Hague.) they kick-started peace talks and were instrumental in bringing about the end of the war and ushering in the country’s first female head of state. Who went on to share a Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee.
Back to the movie itself. As promised the script rhymes all the way through. The application of the rhyme didn’t seem contrived though. It sounded as if the people spoke like that and that things just happened to rhyme as they sometimes do. The first conjugal scene is cut short when the house Lys and her boyfriend (a gang leader also called Chiraq) are in is set on fire. He rushes out with an AK-47 and fires bullets at the retreating car. Lys meets his neighbour, an older woman with whom she seeks refuge after visiting the murder scene of a young girl. It is this woman who schools her on Liberian history and plants the idea for the strike in her mind. Convincing her that only they can do something about it by speaking three lines that hold in them the sad truth about America’s policy as regards guns
Ask the parents at Sandy Hook ,
when they murder white babies and things don’t change
Saving black lives is way out of range
Something sparks in her and she goes out to mobilise her fellow black women. Appealing to their shared grief, the fact that all of them had lost somebody important just now and stood to lose somebody important in the next moments
It’s how we die,
You wanna lose your man in a drive by,
In a pine box fore he twenty-five
And the strike is set. There were two scenes in the movie that stayed with me. The mother of the black girl who was killed takes out a pail of water in order to scrub out the blood that was left on the pavement of the crime scene. She scrubs it and wrings out the water and scrubs it again. It hit me that this must happen. That this kind of thing must happen. When a person is killed on the street the cops will take their evidence and leave. They will leave the stain on the road without cleaning it. If you leave it long enough it will begin to disappear, washed away by rain or faded by dirt. Something will happen to take away the sore on the road. But, if this is your child or parent, if this is a spouse or a sibling, if this is a friend or a lover and this road lies near where you live you will not want to see it. It’s a reminder. A reminder of the spot where they died as if you could forget it. It’s a symbol of the institutional and cultural rot that enables this kind of thing to happen. It’s something anyone would spend hours and hours scrubbing away. Turning it red, orange, faded, streaked, spotted and almost vanished.
The other scene involved an insurance salesman who drops by a house because he has heard that there is a young black boy there. He wants to offer an insurance policy because we all know their life expectancy is extremely low. Can’t you just see something like that happening in real life? Somebody suggesting that they sell this policy because this is an at-risk constituency, a people who walk with the spectre of death hovering above them at all times. The thing is I don’t see it being approved by any insurance company because there would be too many claimants. It would make no financial sense because as it is put in yet another of Kanye’s songs
We weren’t supposed to make it past twenty five
the joke’s on you we still alive
Despite the bleak nature of the movie it still manages to be extremely humorous. There is a moment in there that is like a swallow of spring-water for any fan of the Wire. There are all the reactions to no peace no pussy movement. Men frustrated and counter-protesting. The governmental efforts to turn the women on and make them give in. Men going half-crazy from the lack of release is always a subject ripe for humour.
The movie ends with an emotional moment that gives a nod to history repeating itself as tragedy and it is as sad a closing scene as I have watched in a long time.