Chi-Raq: Spike Lee’s Spiritual Guide to War-Torn Chicago

“I was Chi’s Boy!!! What I’m Now, I can’t say. What did I Seek? To be Monster Greek?
Bein’ Thug iz what I loved. How you like me now? Lost a Kidney, a Spleen, most of my Digestive Tract. One Goddamn Bullet, Dawg, dat’s da Keepin’ It 100 Fact.”

— Armonty

Spiritual Guide to Chicago

Once Lee had the green light to make Chi-Raq, his first call was to Father Michael Pfleger, the spiritual leader of St. Sabina’s Church in Auburn Gresham, a neighborhood adjacent to Englewood on Chicago’s South Side that faces many of the same problems of Poverty and Violence.

Father Michael Pfleger

A White Roman Catholic Priest and Social Activist, Father Pfleger has led the predominantly Black congregation of St. Sabina’s since 1981. His impassioned crusades against negative influences, including Guns, Drugs, and Liquor and Cigarette billboards in the neighborhood have won him the loyalty of his parishioners and the respect of the city.
“Father Pfleger may not be well known nationally yet, but he will be after this film,” says Lee. “He’s one of the leading Anti-gun, Anti-violence advocates in America today and my conduit into Chicago. I originally met Father Pfleger when he invited me to appear at a Speaker series during Black History Month. I had never even heard of him. When I found out he was a White Priest who has had an all-black congregation in Chicago for almost 40 years, I said, I have to meet this guy.”
Pfleger helped Lee connect with Chicagoans supportive of the film’s objectives. “First he made sure I was sincere, because he couldn’t jeopardize all the good will he’s built just for Spike Lee,” says the filmmaker. “I’m not from here, so I expected people to say, who does he think he is? He doesn’t know anything about Chicago. Father Pfleger was able to help me navigate through a lot of that. His guidance, wisdom and prayers were irreplaceable.”
Pfleger says he was genuinely impressed with Lee’s passion for raising awareness of the critical issues facing his parishioners, and agreed to introduce the filmmaker to locals who could provide insights into the dire situation on Chicago’s South Side. Lee met with the Principals of two schools in the community who had seen children in their charge become victims of violence, as well as photojournalists Alex Wroblewski and Carlos Javier Ortiz.

“He also met with a group of about 50 Brothers about the life of the street,” says Pfleger. “Then he and I spent about two hours talking. The evening ended with 50 parents who had lost Children to Gun violence. It was a pretty intense day that went from early morning until late at night.”

Among those Pfleger introduced to Lee were Brandon Jackson and Curtis Toler, former Gang members who run an organization called PeaceMakers. “It’s a program we run here at the church,” he says. “The group does a number of things, including hold interventions if tension is going up. We try stop it before it becomes violent by getting people to talk to each other and start to build bridges together.”

The Pastor says he hopes that the film will prick people’s consciences. “I want it to make them say, ‘We’ve got to stop this.’ ‘What can I do in my World, in my House, on my Block, in my Neighborhood?’ If people are looking for a Movie to end the violence, they’re naïve, but it could strike our consciousness and push us to ask what we are going to do about it.”
Those aims are, in his view, in keeping with the prodigious body of work Lee has already produced. “Spike’s work has always been about raising consciousness to important issues,” he points out. “His films have humor, tears, anger and conscience all wrapped up together. Here he has the courage to take on the issue of black-on-black crime, which we don’t talk about a whole lot.”

The film may not offer solutions, but it calls attention to some of the root causes of the problem, says Pfleger. “First, we’ve got to stop easy access to guns. Unfortunately, guns are becoming part of the American wardrobe. The NRA and the Gun manufacturers want guns to be accessible for one reason: Money. They fight so hard in D.C. and in individual states because if we stop the flow of Guns, we shut down the Bankroll. So guns are now the first line of offense in America.
“People need jobs to be able to stand on their own,” he continues. “We’ve got to get good schools and we’ve got to deal with poverty. We’ve got to decide what we do when somebody shoots or kills, and recognize the devastation that does to families and communities. I’m hoping that people will fight on the gun issue, fight for jobs, mentor young people and help support them, push the education system to make sure schools are what they ought to be in every community. Pick a battle, but do something.”

Pfleger and the congregation of St. Sabina’s provided Lee with one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, a searingly emotional tribute to the community’s fallen and their families.

“There’s an organization at St. Sabina called Purpose Without Pain,” Lee explains. “This is a group that no Mother ever wants to be part of. It’s a collection of women who have lost people they love to violence. As a parent myself, it was one of the hardest scenes to shoot.”

In that ferocious tableau, women holding up pictures of their lost loved ones surround gang-leader Chi-Raq. “Those women aren’t from central casting,” reveals Lee. “That’s really them in the film. The pictures are really their sons and daughters. Everybody on the set was crying. It’s so powerful because it’s so real. Those women are never going to be the same, but they came together to draw strength from each other. It doesn’t matter to me what anyone else says about this movie, as long they are behind me.”

Film’s Controversial Title

Lee is prepared for controversy. The title of the film has already led to a public dust up between Lee and Chicago’s powers-that-be. During pre-production, Lee and his team met with Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and several City Alderman, who, says Lee, seemed more concerned with the effect the movie — and its provocative title — might have on tourism and economic development.

“It reminds me of when I made Do the Right Thing, and people talked about the destruction of white-owned property, but completely left out the death of African-American character Radio Raheem,” Lee says. “It is a known fact that Chicago is the most segregated city in America. Denying that would be like saying the Sun doesn’t come up in the morning and go down at night. The South Side is just another world.”