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Chicago rapper Rhymefest isn’t so hot on Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq

Photo: Rhymefest (In My Father's House)

As a Spike Lee project is wont to do, the first trailer for his upcoming film Chi-Raq has proved very divisive. Some claim it looks like a return to form for the director, others questioned its presentation of women, and still others urged everyone to at least wait until the film was released to pass judgment. One Chicago rapper, however, is airing his grievances now. “Jesus Walks” co-writer Rhymefest (a.k.a. Cheland Smith) took to Twitter to call out the upcoming film:


While promoting his new documentary In My Father’s House, Rhymefest shared his thoughts on Chi-Raq with both The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Suntimes. “This is a perfect example of somebody not from Chicago who comes to Chicago and exploits the violence and the situation without leaving anything sustainable in its place,” Rhymefest explains. And it turns out he’s not judging the film solely by its trailer; he was also able to read the script as well. Although Rhymefest isn’t positive it’s the final draft, he said the trailer matches the version he read.

Chi-Raq is a heightened retelling of the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, in which women withhold sex in order to pressure their male lovers to end the Peloponnesian War. That conceit is part of Rhymefest’s problem with the film. “I don’t believe that using sex as a tool or a weapon to end violence is any type of sustainable solution, even within satire,” he notes. Instead he suggests a whole host of more conventional solutions including creating stronger family ties (his documentary is about reconnecting with his estranged father), funding after school programs, and free mental health clinics, and going to church.

He calls the film “irresponsible” and adds, “The overwhelming majority of people on the South and West Side believe this is foolishness.” He also questions whether a comedy is the best way to approach the material: “I grieved for the 9-year-old little boy [Tyshawn Lee] who was shot [on the South Side], and now a comedy is being made about death in Chicago.” When asked what he’d say to Lee, Rhymefest responded, “You owe Chicago an apology. And you owe Chicago your presence to repair the damage.”

Indeed, Rhymefest’s main complaint is that Lee’s film centers on a community of which Lee himself knows very little. He argues that if the director wanted to center on Chicago, he “should have used Chicago writers.” He also says classifying the violence on Chicago’s South Side as a “war” is misleading:

This movie is not about a war. This is not a war. Wars are fought for a reason generally. People fight over land, over money… That’s not what’s happening on Chicago’s South Side.. People like to say its gangs fighting over turf. That’s not it. It’s senseless violence. People feel disrespected and not validated. They’re poor. Guns are cheap. Drugs are cheap. Because guns and drugs are cheap senseless violence happens. The guns and drugs get into the hands of children…You can pick up the story of this film and drop it into any [city]. Chicago was used because of the media’s portrayal of the violence and it was used as a way for [Lee] to sell tickets. We were used. We were exploited. This story is not specific to Chicago.


He cites the fact that Chicago rappers like Common and Kanye West were once rumored to be involved but didn’t end up working on the film as proof that it doesn’t accurately reflect Chicago: “That tells you something that the two artists who have connected to this city and its issues are not in the film.” (Technically, native Chicagoan John Cusack is on board, but he might not necessarily provide the perspective Rhymefest is looking for.)

Rhymefest also adds:

If I were to go to [Lee’s hometown of] Brooklyn and grab one community leader and say I’m gonna make a movie called ‘Blacks Kill Blacks All Day in Brooklyn,’ and this movie is written by somebody from Chicago, I don’t think Spike Lee would like that. At the end of the day, I take issue with the name ‘Chi-Raq.’ The way the film was made in secrecy, and then Lee tells us to just trust him. That’s the story of Chicago. Everything’s done in Chicago in secrecy. That’s the politics of Chicago. He learned Chicago politics quick.


Still the rapper admits he’s a fan of Lee’s work and despite his concerns, he’s still planning to see Chi-Raq. And if it’s better than what he saw in the script or trailer, Rhymefest says he’s “willing to shake Spike Lee’s hand and apologize.”

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