BY LOLLY BOWEAN
Reports that filmmaker Spike Lee is planning to shoot a feature movie in Chicago called “Chiraq” ruined Aaron Pierce’s mood last week.
“I’m just really concerned about using that name,” said Pierce, a Chicago rapper who started an “Anti-Chiraq” social media campaign and also runs a mentoring program for public school students. “That name does not really give us a positive look. That name belittles our city and I feel like it dehumanizes us.
“We are from Chicago. It is not like Iraq.”
As word spread last week that Lee is courting Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Piven, Common and Kanye West for the cast of “Chiraq,” it gave rise to more talk about the city’s gritty moniker and reputation for violence.
Some residents worried that a film carrying the nickname could glorify Chicago’s violence. Others wondered whether spotlighting the label could affect tourism, business development and even the confidence of young people who are growing up here.
“This (film) is not good news,” said Chekitan Dev, a travel and hospitality marketing expert and professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. “Anytime a brand is associated with anything negative, that affects the perception of the brand. And this raises an issue important to travelers — that is safety.”
Around for years
If Chicago’s reputation for violence endures, it can only hurt tourism, Dev said.
“It’s been known for a while that Chicago has been struggling with a violence problem,” he said. “This adds fuel to that fire that makes it a wider perception among people.”
Chicago has been tagged with negative nicknames before, from “Beirut on the Lake” in the 1980s to “Chiberia” during the winter of 2013-14. But Chiraq particularly stings, reflecting the mindset of people who feel they live in a war zone because of rampant violence.
The term has been around for years but became especially popular in 2012 when Chicago experienced a spike in homicides, recording 504, far more than either New York or Los Angeles.
Yet violence has been declining in Chicago since the 1990s, when homicides peaked at more than 900 for two years in a row. There were 407 homicides last year. In the first three months of a cold and snowy 2015, shootings jumped 40 percent and homicides rose about 26 percent compared with the year-earlier period, Police Department statistics show.
‘Left as traffic’
Chiraq has been referenced in rap songs and mentioned in films and on television shows. It also has been printed on apparel, and there is a Twitter handle that uses the name and tweets information on local homicides.
In one rap reference, Lil Reese, a protege of Chief Keef, used the word in his song “Traffic.”
“Where I’m from, this Chiraq, you get left as tragic,” he rapped.
As first reported by The Wrap, Lee’s project is called “Chiraq” and he is making it for Amazon Studios.
Lee, who will be part of the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival, plans to shoot the feature film there as well. Three of the actors Lee is courting are Chicago-area natives — Piven, Common and West.
The city has been busy juggling a number of TV shows, but 2014 was a considerably slower year for films. “Chiraq” would be the first high-profile movie to film in Chicago this year.
Research in January
The Oscar-nominated filmmaker was in town in January, apparently conducting research with the help of the Rev. Michael Pfleger, the pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Church.
Pfleger said he could not talk about Lee’s project or reveal details about the movie.
At the time of Lee’s January visit, Pfleger wrote on his Facebook page: “Thanks to Director/Actor Spike Lee, who spent the day at St. Sabina yesterday talking and interviewing….People who cover the violence, Principals who deal with violence in and around their schools, Brothers from the Blocks who live in it everyday and Parents who have lost their children to Violence…..He spent the day from early morning till late in the night….listening and asking questions to try and get a deeper understanding of the plague of violence. Thanks Spike for caring and wanting to understand.”
For Charlene Carruthers, a community organizer and the national director for the Black Youth Project’s BYP100, the term Chiraq is troubling. It’s a loaded word that focuses on the violence without examining the root causes for it, she said.
“The word implies we are at war — but who the opponents are is misplaced,” she said. “There are Black people in communities in Chicago that are exposed to a reality where they don’t have enough resources to live with full dignity. Then there are people who wonder why there is violence in communities that have suffered with years of divestment.”
‘Life imitates art’
Plus, fixating on street violence alone is a distraction, Carruthers said. There is poverty, joblessness and lack of access to opportunities, which lead to tension and sometimes killings.
“Is there a film about the 50-plus schools that have been closed?” she asked. “Is there a film about the legacy of redlining in the city and its lasting effects? A film about police violence in this important moment in time?”
The Rev. Corey Brooks, of New Beginnings Church of Chicago, said that while he doesn’t like the word, he knows the problems it represents. Brooks camped out on the rooftop of a local motel to raise enough money to build a community center to combat, among other things, violence and the rise of street gangs.
He approved of the name as a film title.
“I do know that art imitates life, but life imitates art,” he said. “We do have a severe problem with gun violence and we have murders every single day. I’m grateful for anyone who wants to bring light to the situation. I don’t think Spike Lee is a director who will be insensitive, and knowing him, he will be very accurate.”
There is power in the word, Brooks said. It forces people to take notice and give attention to a community that has been troubled and too often overlooked.
“No one wants Chicago called Chiraq,” he said. “But I understand the rationale behind it. The violence that young African-Americans face can seem parallel to the violence young people in Iraq face. It’s unfortunate that we live in a day and time where we have to make that comparison.”
Even as he has worked to increase police presence in the 20th Ward and assure residents that things are getting better, Ald. Willie Cochran said the term Chiraq never seems to go away.
Cochran said he bristles when he hears it.
“I’m on the ground with it, and I understand why the term was coined,” he said. “I don’t like the term, and I don’t like the circumstances that made the term evolve. And I don’t like the word being glorified the way it is in the music industry and videos. It’s one of those things that keeps communities, cities and the images of people oppressed. That’s a term we should be running from and putting to rest.”
While he dislikes the nickname, Cochran said some good could come from using it as a storytelling device.
“Spike is a philosophical person,” Cochran said. “He could tell a story that leaves the audience and the world in a state of mind where they could be remorseful for creating a situation that gave life to a name like that.”
Chicago Tribune’s Nina Metz and Jeremy Gorner contributed to this report.