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Alderman: Spike Lee should not get $3M tax break if he calls movie ‘Chiraq’

If movie director Spike Lee insists on maligning Chicago by calling his upcoming movie on black-on-black violence “Chiraq,” he should forfeit the right to a $3 million tax break he wants, a South Side alderman said Wednesday.

Ald. Will Burns (4th) took the municipal angst over Lee’s working title to a whole new level in a way that could run afoul of the First Amendment.

He introduced a resolution at the last City Council meeting before new aldermen are sworn in calling on the Illinois Film Office to reject Lee’s application for a $3 million film production tax credit if he chooses to name the film “Chiraq.”

“There’s nothing anti-First Amendment about it at all. If he wants to name the movie `Chiraq’ and film it in the city of Chicago, he should be able to get the permits for that and he should be able to do it. But we shouldn’t give him money as taxpayers to brand a part of the city as Iraq. That doesn’t make sense,” Burns said.

“Part of the deal with the film tax credit is that the film production company has to prove the film will have a positive economic impact on the state of Illinois. By calling a whole part of the city of Chicago `Chiraq,’ they’ll make it harder to bring economic development to those communities, to bring jobs to those communities and, therefore, will have a negative impact on the state of Illinois. For that reason, they should deny it.”

Burns said he’s simply not willing to give Lee the hammer to clobber Chicago economically at a time when the city is trying desperately to boost tourism and attract businesses and doing a pretty good job of it.

“As someone who represents a South Side ward, it’s very difficult to sort of battle through the perceptions of what South Side neighborhoods are like. That’s why we’re ecstatic about getting the Obama presidential library,” Burns said.

“When you brand a whole community as `Chiraq’ and you take that all over the world, it adds just another barrier to bringing economic development to those communities.”

At a briefing a few weeks ago, Burns said Lee made it clear that he planned to seek a $3 million tax break to help defray the cost of a production with a $15 million-to-$18 million overall price tag.

When Burns said that gave the taxpayers a “seat at the table,” a “stone-faced” Lee had no response, the alderman said.

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity said it does not have an application for the film tax credit yet, according to a statement from the office.

Burns said he’s well aware that hundreds of people are lining up for Lee’s casting call Saturday at St. Sabina for a chance to be in the movie. If Lee decides to cancel the Chicago production and take those jobs elsewhere, Burns said, so be it.

“There are a lot of people who live in communities on the South and West Sides who play by the rules, mow their lawn, take care of their kids, go to work every day. . . . It does them a great insult to call their community Chiraq and put it in the movie,” he said.

“It’s especially insulting when it comes from a New Yorker. I mean — go to East New York. Go to Brooklyn and film that. Go to the Bronx. You don’t think they’re shooting people in the Bronx?”

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) sympathized with Burns about being stigmatized by a name like `Chiraq.” But Reilly argued that his colleague had gone a bit too far.

“It is just a name. We should be promoting movie production in the city of Chicago. Maybe Mr. Lee will think of a different name down the road. But I wouldn’t introduce the ordinance Ald. Burns did,” Reilly said.

“There’s a lot of jobs that come with this. I can respect my colleague’s opinion that the name of the movie doesn’t reflect well upon the city of Chicago. It’s an unfortunate name to choose. But at the end of the day, it is a major movie production with a world-renowned producer. We need to bring more objectivity to which projects are supported with tax breaks and which aren’t.”

Last month, Mayor Rahm Emanuel had an “honest, frank conversation” with Lee to let the movie director know that he doesn’t like the working title of Lee’s coming movie on black-on-black violence based in Chicago’s crime-ridden Englewood community.

Emanuel didn’t say whether he asked Lee to change the name. Nor did the mayor say whether Lee was open to a title change.

But the mayor made it clear that he had used the Hollywood pipeline provided by his brother, super-agent Ari Emanuel, to make his feelings known directly to Spike Lee. The face-to-face meeting took place in the mayor’s office prior to Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

“He said the movie is about the neighborhood of Englewood. I was clear that I was not happy about the title. I told him also that there are very good people who live in Englewood who are raising their family. There’s a lot of positive things happening in Englewood mainly driven by the people that make up Englewood,” the mayor said.

Emanuel said Lee told him the upcoming movie would confront a sensitive subject that has been swept under the rug for far too long: “black-on-black violence — specifically African-American male to African-American male” and how it’s affecting urban communities.

In an apparent attempt to soften the blow of the title, “Chiraq,” Lee also noted that gun violence is “not limited” to Chicago. It’s happening in Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York, where he’s from. He even talked about the derogatory name used to describe a part of Brooklyn where he’s from. He talked about how similarly insulting names applied to Philadelphia and Baltimore.

“I said then and I believe that’s an important conversation to have,” the mayor said of black-on-black crime.

“Given you’re a great artist, while I don’t support the title, and I don’t like the working title, the topic is a conversation that has been ignored for too long and needs to be discussed and hopefully through art, we can have a serious conversation about what is happening in urban America.”