A city by any other name isn't always as sweet...
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When the trailer for Spike Lee’s next film Chi-Raq came out this week, I tried to watch it with my media eye and not my native south-side Chicagoan (side) eye. I failed, in part because of my appreciation for Lee’s strong and consistent aesthetic. Spike Lee and his work are so Brooklyn, so New York City, and the trailer for Chi-Raq is no exception.

If the trailer, if not the very film itself isn't "Chicago", this bears a follow-up question: What does a Chicago film feel like anyway? Other than Cooley High and Love Jones, in films and television, Black Chicago rarely exists as a supporting character. Chicago is either merely a location made to look like another, like the New York City-set TV series Empire, or the Chicagoness in a work is referenced, such as in the film Soul Food (which was filmed in Toronto) but is never made the focus.

To me, Chicago feels like wide-open streets with a perpetual vintage filter. It feels like building and rebuilding, like the Stony Island Arts Bank (pictured), one of Rebuild Foundation’s several art placemaking projects on Chicago's South Side. Black Chicago is a confusing mix of Black love and Black violence, the kind that make my high school students sure they must leave the city altogether to be happy and safe, even though many of them have never traveled past the downtown stops on the CTA Red and Green Lines. 

Supporters of the film Chi-Raq say that it will encourage a national dialogue about Chicago’s gun violence crisis. I'm not sure what the film will add to the dialogue that the actually crimes themselves do not. This week alone saw the shooting deaths of nine-year Tyshawn Lee of Auburn Gresham and 20-year old Kaylyn Pryor in Englewood, the same Chicago neighborhood where Chi-Raq was filmed.  My hope is that it will light a local fire, and encourage creatives and storytellers across the country to take ownership and stewardship of how our cities show up in our work. 

Your turn: How do concepts of location, place and home show up in your work? Let me know via email or on Twitter with the hashtag #HighwaterPlaces
Highwater Weekly Picks 

  • Darius Clark Monroe's outstanding 2014 doc, Evolution of a Criminal tracks his trajectory from teen bank robber to burgeoning filmmaker. Check it out now on Netflix


  • James Faultneroy celebrated Halloween last week with his latest track
Reading List
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Thanks for reading. 

Your partner in progress, 
Chakka AKA Mouf Ellison
Copyright © 2015 Highwater MAG, All rights reserved.

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