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Troubled Chicago Neighborhood Wary Of Spike Lee's 'Chiraq'


Spike Lee has turned his camera on Chicago. The director's past films include "Do The Right Thing," about a racially fractured New York City. Now he plans to explore a real and troubled neighborhood in the metropolis in the Midwest. Natalie Moore of member station WBEZ reports many Chicago residents don't like the film's topic or the title.

NATALIE MOORE, BYLINE: Spike Lee is naming his movie "Chiraq." It's a play off of Chicago and Iraq, an attempt to link violence in both places. Local rapper King Louie is credited with coining the phrase. He's part of a local style of rap music called drill.


KING LOUIE: (Singing) This is Drillinois - Chiraq, Drillinois.

MOORE: Chicago has been trying to swat away its violent image since the days of Al Capone. And many city residents see Spike Lee's movie as a step backward.

The film's to be set in Englewood, a struggling black neighborhood with single-family frame and brick homes. Last year, the Englewood police district had the second highest number of murders in the city. The foreclosure and economic crisis are still fresh in Englewood. Some blocks resemble urban prairies with only one occupied home on a street.

Yet, there's a bright spot on one corner. Kusanya Cafe is an Englewood gathering spot. Pictures of Malcolm X and the neighborhood adorn the exposed brick walls. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto vacant lots. The cafe opened two years ago and stands out among fast food and junk food-filled corner stores. Customer Martin Johnson doesn't like the idea of the movie and doesn't like the name "Chiraq."

MARTIN JOHNSON: It makes us look like a war zone in certain back communities, which you have decent people, such as myself, that's productive, civilized and don't get into trouble. And it just makes us all look bad.

MOORE: There's concern that war cliches like Chiraq dehumanize black communities and push aside the real problems, like the pockets of high poverty and double-digit joblessness that can produce an environment in which violence festers. But residents like Sonya Harper still have hopes for the future.

SONYA HARPER: I like living in Englewood because it's the only place that I have to call home. I want to preserve and I want to protect that.

MOORE: Harper's an Englewood native and food justice advocate who wishes more residents would focus on improving the neighborhood instead of abandoning it.

HARPER: I want to be able to look back when I'm 80 years old and say, that's the place that I used to call home, and I never wanted to look back because it was so terrible.

MOORE: Harper is also opposed to the name "Chiraq." But not everyone in the city is so concerned about the tone of the conversation or Spike Lee's project. Chicago columnist Laura Washington writes about race and says we shouldn't be talking about the title. Instead...

LAURA WASHINGTON: Have the conversation that people don't want to have, especially around personal responsibility, around why crime is so prevalent in our communities.

MOORE: However, many residents in Englewood and beyond say it's time to give a more accurate and brighter picture of Chicago's future.

Back in the Englewood cafe, 24-year-old Aaron Pierce says he's tired of seeing young people sporting Chiraq T-shirts with guns. So he's flipped the narrative and wears an anti-Chiraq T-shirt. He lives in Roseland, another South Side community associated violence. Pierce says Chicago's problems aren't much different from those of other big cities.

AARON PIERCE: There's violence everywhere. It's in any city I go to. We just have that title, Chiraq, and they get scared. The name is entertaining to people, but it's not funny if you live here. It's not funny at all.

MOORE: Pierce has already joined a movement to change the city's image on social media. Instead of using the popular #Chiraq, he's promoting Chilove. For NPR News, I'm Natalie Moore in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Natalie Moore