The long lines inside The Plaza Theater indicated just how timely the screening was. People from all over the state of Georgia had come to see the documentary. Despite being from various backgrounds, professions and ethnicities, everyone in attendance was there out of concern and interest for the city of Chicago. As a mirage of images showing drive bys, street fights, guns, police brutality and gang violence flooded the screen, a sultry poetic voice asked the question the documentary hoped to explore: ‘What in the world was going on in Chicago?’ When Father Michael Pfleger, a Catholic priest who was interviewed for his social activist work in the city, said: “You can’t tell someone they have hope, when their neighborhood looks like a third world country,” nearly everyone in the theater agreed as nodding heads affirmed his statement. But how did Chicago, nicknamed the “city of big shoulders” by American poet Carl Sandburg, become commonly known as Chi-raq? What happened to the city’s strong, resilient shoulders? Was it it true that the Windy City was overcome and only good for its overwhelming winds of violence? This was The Atlanta Film Festival’s screening of Chicago Love, and whether or not the audience knew it, the documentary was much more than a show and tell film about the city; it was a call to action.
Filmed during Lollapalooza weekend, REVOLT TV, a cable news network, brought cameras to the streets of Chicago. In fact, the makers of Chicago Love, spent 4 months investigating just how true the media’s depiction of the city really was. According to The Daily Beast, an American news and opinion website, Chicago had earned the title of America’s 2014 murder capital. What REVOLT TV found within their quarter of a year investigation was much more complicated; what they found was a city in dire need of TLC. Bound by a lack of economic development, gang violence, unemployment and poor public school education, residents readily admitted that the media continues to ignore the foundational issues and social fractures that result in the violence over emphasized on television. Further explaining the media’s disregard, Charlene Carruthers, National Coordinator of The Black Youth Foundation remarked, “The media blames the individuals instead of looking at the structural factors causing the violence.” But as cameramen and producers walked the streets of Chi-raq, they saw just how deeply rooted the socio-economic issues were to the brutality.
A primary focus of the documentary is the lack of public education. Two years ago, the city closed 50 public schools, affecting over 46,000 children living on the south and west sides of the city. Forced to attend schools in what residents call rival districts, due to the city’s highly divided territory lines, students are all too often found in conflicts. Stripped curriculums in the education system no longer include home economics, life skills or conflict resolution. So, as one Chicago resident and activist points out at REVOLT TV’s roundtable, “Simple conflicts result in gun violence. When one kid starts talking about one student’s momma and that kid can’t think of anything to say in response, his next thought is….” as his voice trails off and he motions pulling a trigger. Sure, to the adult trained and studied in problem solving, this may seem ridiculous and careless, but according to native Chicagoans, the city and local government has been equally, if not more, careless when it comes to funding proper education. In fact, the documentary later points out that the city of Chicago spends $80 million a year on minor marijuana charges while it simultaneously insists that there is no funding available to keep schools open.
Further evoking violence is the extreme poverty and unemployment that plagues the city. The documentary notes that the unemployment rate for black youth is 92%. Ordinary jobs for high school students, such as McDonald’s cashiers, grocery store clerks and the like are occupied by adults attempting to raise families on minimum wage salaries, leaving students jobless and uneducated. Unfortunately, yet very realistically, students are faced with the inevitable question: should I go to school or work to help my family? Often, they choose to help their families. But what kind of money can a young child obtain without an education? 20 year old local rapper Lil Bibby understands the struggle. “You can’t get no money in school,” he repeats twice. “You get a little taste of that hustling money and it’s gonna make you wanna stop going to school.” But as much as the people in Chicago suffer, the city isn’t nicknamed “big shoulders” for nothing. In fact, despite the plethora of issues plaguing the city, residents are indeed resilient, often expressing, overcoming and escaping their troubles through the arts and sports.
Pointing out that rap artists, Common, Kanye, and Lupe Fiasco all emerged from the city’s rough neighborhoods, Chicago Love is much about the arts as it is about the dynamics of violence. Interviewing local artists such as Twista, Young Chop, The Boy Illinois, Cadoe, Baby Trav, St. Millie, Young Heavy, Stunt Taylor and Rhymefest, the film acknowledges that while drill music, a subgenre of Chicago hip known for its violent lyrics, dark themes and trap influenced beats, may perpetuate violence, music as a whole betters the city. Commenting on just how influential music is to the regeneration of the city, Father Michael Pfleger comments, “Music is the one thing that doesn’t ask permission to get up in your spirit.” Similarly, dance functions as a life giving activity to young people living in the city. During “fefes,” huge block parties where everyone shows off their cars, rap skills, and dance moves, dance plays an integral part of release, renewal, art, unity and community involvement.
Chicago Love, created by Sean P Diddy Combs, is a film that at its core asks “where is the love?” Where is the love for youth misguided by a lack of opportunity? Where is the love for a city budding with artistic skill but entangled in gang strife? The documentary covers everything from how social media enhances the violence to up and coming dancers and artists determined to revitalize the city. Producers interviewed everyone from former gang leaders to Antoine Mitchell, a Rhodes Scholar born and bred in Chicago. While there are no easy answers, there is a clear call to action. Delving deep into the gritty essence of urban city living, the documentary calls us to love the city of Chicago, not solely in talk, but in deed also. We are called upon to support and nurture its residents in any way we can. But isn’t that what love does? Doesn’t it dive deep, look beyond, persist in spite of, endure just because and follow through even when it gets hard? Besides, everyone of us needs a little TLC. What makes the people of Chicago any different? Like Langston Hughes wrote, “I too, sing America,” the same is true for the people in Chicago–they too, sing America. They too, need love. Chicago Love.
- Sharita Gilmore