Analysis: Realistic images of Chicago violence interwoven in ‘Chi-Raq’

SHARE Analysis: Realistic images of Chicago violence interwoven in ‘Chi-Raq’

Angela Bassett (center, being interviewed) in a scene from Spike Lee’s movie “Chi-Raq.” | Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios

A mother scrapes the blood off the Englewood sidewalk where her 11-year-old daughter was gunned down by a gang-banger.

When the blood doesn’t come off so easily, she pours a bucket of water onto the concrete. Her daughter’s blood spills down the street.

There are cruel, realistic images in Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” — images that should haunt Chicagoans who might not know, or care, of the city’s gang wars and bloodshed.

But there’s also an interwoven blend of satire — D.B. Sweeney, as the mayor of Chicago, wears a pharaoh costume to try to lure his biracial former model wife to bed during a sex strike. She says no.


If Mayor Emanuel — who has blasted the film’s title for months —is worried about how Chicago looks in this film, he might want to worry about how the film’s Chicago mayor is portrayed.

Sweeney doesn’t resemble Emanuel physically, and his Mayor McCloud is a farce, a goofball, a man who cares mostly about how bad things in the city affect him and his votes. In one scene, shot in his fictional mayor’s office, he even squeals. That office set looks a lot like Emanuel’s actual office in downtown Chicago – far away from the bloodshed.

Samuel L. Jackson’s omniscient narrator stands outside the General Jones Armory in the South Side’s Washington Park, where plenty of scenes were filmed. He talks of the distrust between police and gang-bangers, and both appear at his side. Then both fire shots toward the camera.

In one scene, Nick Cannon’s lead Chi-Raq character talks to a former gang member who was left in a wheelchair after being shot. He urges Chi-Raq to choose another path: “This ain’t livin. This ain’t life.”

John Cusack’s Fr. Mike Corridan is Fr. Michael Pfleger, no matter how you look at it. Pfleger has said Cusack shadowed him. Cusack even wears his vestments during an emotional funeral scene.

That funeral scene, filmed at St. Sabina, is cinematic reality. There are posterboards of images of the young girl killed. There are dancers dressed in white. There’s an impassioned speech by the pastor, urging the community to turn the killer in. The girl’s mother sits in the first row, tears running down her face like a faucet.

Last Saturday, 20-year-old Kaylyn Pryor, the girl who “did everything right” but was still killed by a gang-banger’s bullet in Englewood, was laid to rest.

There, dancers in white twirled while dressed as angels. Pastors there told the mourners of the reward being offered to find her killer. And they too urged people who might know something to “break the silence” and speak up. Pryor’s mother and sisters cried in the front row.

Pfleger doesn’t appear on camera, but his voice is heard at the beginning, comparing the numbers of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan to those killed by gun violence in Chicago.

Throughout the film, there are powerful images of children killed by the bullet. Their faces are plastered on posterboards held by their mothers. The kids are painted onto murals in Chicago’s alleys. One features Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old girl killed a week after performing at President Obama’s second inauguration.

Jennifer Hudson, the Oscar-winning Englewood native, plays the mother of the young girl killed in a drive-by. When she first sees her daughter’s body covered in a white sheet, her short ponytail poking out, she screams, “My baby. That’s my baby.” Then she yells at onlookers, who step away when asked if they saw who did it. “You didn’t see nothing?” she screams. “The children in Englewood. Do they mean anything to you?”

As the characters urge others to “break the silence” and tell the truth, in real Chicago, there are still no charges in the gang-related deaths of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee and Pryor, who were killed on the same day during a gang war in Englewood.

“Chi-Raq” was shown to reporters and critics on Friday, and premieres Sunday at a private screening at the Chicago Theatre. It opens to the public Dec. 4.

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