Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday he had an “honest, frank conversation” with Spike Lee to let the movie director know that he doesn’t like, “Chiraq,” 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, as South Side Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), former chairman of the City Council’s Police Committee, did last week. 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.”
Last week, Beale accused Lee of “stigmatizing” Chicago and “insulting” its residents by choosing the name “Chiraq” and urged him to find another name for his upcoming Chicago-based movie.
“It’s very offensive and, hopefully, he rethinks his position on that issue. He definitely needs to change the name. That’s an insult to the city of Chicago. I don’t care what he changes it to, but not that one,” Beale said.
“People are stigmatizing Chicago unnecessarily. We have a lot of good communities. Yes, we have challenged areas, and we’re attacking those challenging areas. But we don’t need anybody coming in trying to highlight the problems that we’re having. And to stigmatize our city as Chiraq is an insult to me and, I’m sure, to the rest of the residents of Chicago.”
Even if Lee handles the subject of violence with sensitivity in the film, the name alone would be destructive to the city’s efforts to attract jobs and take its rightful place as an international city, Beale said.
“We’re trying to attract tourism. We’re bringing jobs in to Chicago. The city is growing. We’re trying to promote the good things in this city every single day. To highlight the problems we’re having with that type of name is an insult,” he said.
What about that thing called the First Amendment?
“Freedom of expression still does not mean you can insult the people of this city,” Beale said.
Even U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he’s “concerned” about Lee’s designated title for the movie, which is expected to be filmed in Chicago, possibly starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Piven, Common and Kanye West, according to the Hollywood news site “The Wrap.”
“There’s no question that Chicago, as most cities, has its share of violence but the honest answer is we’ve seen a decline in the numbers. . . . So I hope this is not creating an image of the city that is unfair,” Durbin said.
“It is worrisome. I’d like to know what the message is in the movie. If the message is a positive one about the progress that is made, then perhaps it will be to the benefit of the community. But I hope it’s a fair analysis of the reality of violence, but also the reality of what’s been done at all levels of government to deal with this violence and to reduce it in Chicago.”
For years, Chicago’s international reputation was marred by the fact that it was the home of Al Capone. The mobster was supplanted as the face of Chicago, only after Michael Jordan arrived on the scene to carry the Bulls to successive, three-peats as NBA champions.
The Chiraq label gained steam after a particularly bloody 2012 when the number of homicides on Chicago streaks topped the 500-mark.
The director was accompanied by the actors/Chicago natives John and Joan Cusack at Sunday’s Easter Mass at St. Sabina Catholic Church, led by the Rev. Mike Pfleger, the firebrand peace priest.
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mike Sneed reported last week that Lee has made repeated visits to Chicago in recent weeks to scout locations for his upcoming movie and interview victims of Chicago’s senseless violence.
Father Michael Pfleger even noted in a January Facebook post that Lee visited St. Sabina’s Church and interviewed people and school principals dealing with violence, as well “as Brothers from the Blocks” and “Parents who have lost their children to Violence.”