Steinberg: ‘Chi-Raq’ too rosy a picture?

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On a usual day in Chicago, the big story Tuesday would be the release of the trailer of Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq,” which would seem to be the fulfillment of the worst fears of City Hall.

It begins with flashing red letters, “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY,” then a gunshot, the red stars of Chicago, dripping blood, and a voice, “Homicides in Chicago, Illinois, have surpassed the death toll of American Special Forces in Iraq.”

But whatever outrage the mayor might be tempted to indulge in should be resisted, given the facts on the ground. A 9-year-old boy gunned down Monday, perhaps deliberately. A few hours later and a few blocks away, a promising young woman murdered.

Watching Spike Lee’s trailer in the wake of that and it seems stylized, funny, wrong. A cartoony, Quentin Tarantino version of something serious as death.

CHI-RAQ Trailer from 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks on Vimeo.

In non-movie Chicago, Kaylyn Pryor, 20, who a few weeks ago won Mario Tricoci’s 2015 “Mario, Make Me a Model” competition, was standing on a street corner in Auburn Gresham when a car pulled up, shots were fired. She was taken to Christ Advocate Medical Center and pronounced dead.  That was 6:20 p.m. at 7300 S. May. Two hours earlier, six blocks west and six blocks south, Tyshawn Lee, 9, was shot in the head and back and died at the scene.

I haven’t seen the movie. That’ll be released Dec. 4. And I’m not criticizing it. Maybe it takes the stark horror of crimes like the deaths of Pryor and Lee and makes them real and heartbreaking.


But it is in rhyme, an update of “Lysistrata,” a 2500-year old play about the women of Greece trying to end the Peloponnesian War by withholding sexual favors from their men until they agree to a truce and transporting it to Chicago in 2015 — well, you can’t accuse Spike Lee of being derivative.  The words seem right.

“Welcome to Chi-Raq,” exclaims Samuel L. Jackson. “Land of pain, misery and strife.”

The words are right. But delivered with a swagger, while wearing an orange suit. The two minutes-and-change trailer makes it seem like “Schindler’s List” done as a Warner Brothers cartoon, with Bugs Bunny in the lead.

I hope I’m wrong.

But just as all the feel good pink ribbon breast cancer ballyhoo in October is increasingly criticized for making it seem like defeating cancer is a matter of enough positive attitude, so the implication that, even in a fantasy, the black women of Chicago’s violent neighborhoods could bring this to an end if only they tried, well, there is something ugly lurking there.

“We’re going to make sure these fools put down these guns,” Lysistrata says.


“Lysistrata” was a comedy, remember. Although it does share one sad fact with “Chi-Raq.” Both productions are about wars that were still going on when they debuted. One thing is very clear, whatever the full movie turns out to be. Any embarrassment that Spike Lee’s movie brings to Chicago is deserved. We should have been embarrassed by this ongoing human tragedy already, no movie necessary.

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