Jessica Johnson | Spike Lee and Black Studies in the Digital Age

A while ago I attended Jessica Johnson’s presentation on history and memory in the digital age, and struggled to think about what her presentation meant to me, and how I may interpret it in the context of this course. Levees has really been a turning point for me in Lee’s filmography, and has provided a way to think through a lot of concepts I’ve struggled with throughout the semester, including some of Johnson’s conclusions.

One of the most interesting concepts posed by Johnson is the role of statistics and data in understanding history and shaping memory of slavery. She discussed how statistics, to



In our discussions of Chiraq, 4LG, and When the Levees Broke, we discuss data and the impact on loss and grievance by statistics. We often feel numb to numbers and Lee’s films emphasize personal narratives to humanize mass tragedies.

I went to a resource that our Library has called Social Explorer. It’s really cool because it visualizes census data from any year on a map. What I have found particularly powerful (or abhorrent) is how it often displays how blatant socio-economic and racial segregation still is.

I encourage other people to check it out and play with it a little @, but I also included some screenshots from my own research.

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Now combine the above images with the one below (tracking income) to demonstrate the intense disparities. We are all aware (to different extents) how disproportionate things in this country are, but it is quite compelling to see these actual, substantial numbers as images and appearing right in front of you. (Though, in my opinion,  films > maps )

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Today, we discussed the New Orleans “diaspora” and I went back to Social Explorer to try to find census data on the displacement. Unfortunately there was not much data provided from any year 2001-2005 so I had a bit of trouble. Professor Parham did pull up a New York Times article, however, which does an amazing job of mapping the disaster and visually communicating the magnitude of devastation.

Black on Black Deaths|Malcolm X and Chiraq

I) What is worth dying for?

For a while, I was struggling to figure out what to say about Malcolm X, because I was incredibly moved by the movie. Days after the screening, I listened to several of Malcolm’s speeches on YouTube, and our recent class discussions enabled me to discover why I was so inspired by him.

Malcolm X knew that his activism and his statements against Elijah Muhammad heightened the arrival of his death. Yet, he never let that stop him.

“If you’re not ready to die for it, put the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary.” — Malcolm X

Freedom is what Malcolm believed in. Freedom is what pushed him to keep fighting against the injustices inflicted upon Afro Americans. He believed that freedom was worth dying for.

II)The System:

What is worth killing for?

In Malcolm X, black on black violence envelops in a completely different format from Chiraq. However, each of these forms of violence is a result of a system. In Malcolm X, the system revolves around Elijah Muhammad. The system is perpetuated by the symbol of Elijah Muhammad and his followers, but not the man himself. Since Malcolm X deviated from the system, and sought to demystify the symbol of Elijah Muhammad, he had to be “punished”. It has nothing to do with Islam, which in fact is a peaceful religion, and everything to do with the structure of that system.

In Chiraq, the system at hand is one which has existed since slavery. It is a system that seeks to oppress blacks and suppress development. A system that damages, impoverishes, takes advantage, and murders. I recommend that y’all watch Crips and Bloods: Made in America. In the documentary, there’s a part where one of the OGs mentions that a system succeeds in oppressing others, if it causes them to oppress themselves.

I’m not saying that these systems provide justifications for killing others. I don’t believe that such a justification even exists. I’m just stating that they are the root cause.

My Problems with Chiraq are…

Chi-Raq is a term coined by the people, so where were they? First Spike Lee film I did not enjoy this entire year for three reasons.

  • Satire does not work here. I’ve lived in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago’s West Side for my entire life. I can’t count on my fingers the number of people I knew who lost their lives to gun violence because I don’t have enough. Nothing about what’s happening in my city is humorous or funny. Being satirical undermines the severity of the problem that exist. In fact, I argue that if a white man directed this movie with this same exact script people would call him racist. Chicago is a WAR ZONE. Honestly, I can’t even say that straightforwardly because we all know that in reality it is worse. How can Spike Lee be satirical in this instance? It’s like attempting to create a satire about the Holocaust or 911 or Pearl Harbor. We are talking about the loss of thousands of lives. There’s no way a person could be satirical about this I am sorry. No disrespect to Spike Lee but he’s petty for this one. He’s not capturing true emotion. Too many parts of this movie made me want to laugh and the shit is not funny. I left home in the fall of 2014 to come to Amherst College and every single time I’ve returned home for a break someone in my neighborhood who I’ve known has been shot or killed. That hurts. At 18 years old I saw a man take his last breathe. That man was in his early twenties. Reflect that pain and suffering. Or just don’t name the shit Chiraq.
  • Lee was very inconsistent. He names the movie Chiraq, which is a name that was given to Chicago by south side drill rappers because “they” had more casualties than in the war in Iraq. The movies focus appeared to be about gang violence that needed to be stopped on Chicago’s south side but then he mentions Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin. Neither of those men are victims of gang violence and neither of them died in Chicago. I don’t see the connection here.
  • Lee didn’t do his homework. Extreme misrepresentation of Chicago. Honestly, this movie looks like something that goes on everywhere. So why name the movie Chiraq? Why pay Nick Cannon to pose as a drill rapper if he’s not even from that or knows anything about that. Let America see what’s really going on. Use that money to put real savages on the screen. Not as actors but as examples. Let them tell their stories and get to know what’s really going on. If I had to guess, I would say not one person who lived in Chiraq had any significant role in creating this script. We don’t burn down houses in Chicago. That’s some old racist Ku Klux type of stuff. I just don’t understand where these ideas came from.

What makes this even more discomforting for me is that I just watched Barbershop: The Next Cut. If you want to put comedy on the screen while portraying the reality of “Chiraq” then take that approach. Make this more realistic. Show the people that there is hope. Offer a solution. Spike Lee movie ends with both main characters downfall. Lysistrata didn’t even get a peace treaty signed because Nick Cannon’s character didn’t sign it, but she still had sex with Nick Cannon’s character meaning “No Peace No Pussy” didn’t work. Nick Cannon goes to jail and becomes another statistic. Basically saying the solution you propose to solve the gang violence will not work and the men you try to influence to change will not change. If anything this movie is like a Shakespeare tragedy.