Feb. 1 saw the return of the University of Kansas film professor Kevin Willmott to the Washburn campus for a showing of “Chi-raq.” The film, co-written by Willmott and Spike Lee, was chosen to be a part of Phi Alpha Theta’s monthly film series.
Tom Prasch, chair of the history department, cited several reasons for choosing “Chi-raq” for this month’s showing. Notably, it is a contemporary take on the classic “Lysistrata,” a greek comedy by Aristophanes with an anti-war message.
Additionally, the film addresses gun violence in contemporary America and is a return to more mainstream movie making for director and cowriter Lee.
“His work has always interested me; as an African American film maker, he seems [to be] an incredibly important figure,” Prasch said of Lee.
“Chi-raq” begins by asserting that we find ourselves in an emergency and that more Americans have been murdered in Chicago in the last ten years than American special forces soldiers who have died in the Iraqi and Afghani wars.
“The level of gun violence … it’s become so everyday. This is a problem in a lot of American cities … the notion that this is an emergency is new and fights that normalization,” Prasch said.
Following “Lysistrata’s plot, a group of women in Chicago, specifically in the Englewood neighborhood, band together to end the deaths of gun violence by going on a sex strike.
The men of the film, such as Nick Cannon’s character Demetrious/Chi-raq, must either make peace or never get a “piece” again.
While retaining the bawdy humor of the Greek comedy the film adamantly promotes the potential for peaceful protests. Mentioning the real life success of such a strike helped to end the second Liberian civil war.
Prasch also shed some light on the situation in Chicago by explaining that Chicago’s residential patterns are some of the most racially segregated in the country.
“Segregation is one of the main, less addressed characteristic of northern cities. Chicago is an unusually extreme case, that south side/north side divide.” Prasch said.
Willmott’s work on the film actually began 13 years ago with a screenplay called “Got to Give it Up” written by Willmott. Production with Lee did not pan out then but two years ago Lee showed interest in making it under the new name “Chi-raq”. A name originated by rappers in Chicago based on the perception of the city as a war zone.
“It’s a really different kind of film. We kept the original play, written in 411 B.C., written in verse, and we kept it in verse … we incorporated some new characters … mainly the John Cusack character …based on father Michael Pfleger, who’s a real priest deeply involved in the gang violence problem,” Willmott said.
Willmott and Prasch both expressed a gaining of awareness about the level of shooting deaths by way of the film.
“The normality of violence is something you can’t quite get your head around. We would be shooting the film and strike up a conversation with people in the neighborhood and find they’d lost a daughter or a son or a mother or father …almost everyone you met had lost somebody” Willmott said.
Connections between the American involvement in Middle Eastern wars and the danger posed to Chicagoans were found in more than the name “Chi-raq” during the filming process.
“There was a woman who had two sons, one who went over to Iraq … they were very worried about the son going to Iraq … a few weeks later the son in Chicago was killed and the son in Iraq had to come back for his funeral,” Willmott said.
A question and answer segment was held with Willmott after the showing. One of the key issues brought up was the intentional lack of shown violence in the film, opting to show the consequences of shootings without sensationalizing or glamorizing them.
The history of the gang environment of Chicago was also explained briefly. According to Willmott, many Chicagoans reported that the tearing down of the Cabrini Green public housing project spread gang activity over a far wider amount of the city. The RICO Aact of 1970 also contributed to a situation of many small gangs with little central authority as is now the case in the city.
Community members also brought up questions ranging from how to enact social demonstrations within a university and the potential for a “food desert” to be created by the removal of the Dillons grocery store on Huntoon this February.
When asked what Washburn students who did not see the film should know about it, Willmott echoed the call for criticism of violence present in “Lysistrata”.
“It relates to things they see or heard about in Topeka or Kansas City … not just gangs but gun violence … that so many Americans think that guns are part of our wardrobe is something we ought to think about,” Willmot said.
“Chi-raq” can be purchased through www.amazon.com and is available for streaming for amazon prime members.