South Side Cinema and the City of Chicago

A good friend of mine, fellow HS alum, critic, and artist Akeallah Blair reviewed the film Southside With You (2016) on her YouTube channel just recently. The film is a biopic romantic drama that portrays the first date of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle in South Side Chicago in 1980. As she noted, the film deals with more than just the romance between the couple, but also the socioeconomic issues plaguing the city at that time.

Akeallah refers to films such as Chi-Raq (2015) and Barbershop: The Next Cut (2016) as an example of a wave of recent Black Chicago based fictionWe’re probably going to see more projects as America continues to focus on the problems within the Windy City.

She also posed the question to the audience in the following effect: how are recent films about Chicago influencing the conversation around its current problems? It is a recurring question amongst artists and activists: does art inspire folks to change their minds and start movements? We’ve seen prominent examples of this in the past with A Birth of a Nation (1915), which re-inspired White southerners into resurrecting the racist terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan. Conversely, Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, which examined the unsanitary conditions of meat factories, inspired the government to regulate by creating the FDA. Of course, I’ve written about the same subject concerning art’s impact on consciousness via King Kong and race.

Before I answer her question, it’s best to have a bare bones understanding of the narratives concerning the city of Chicago.

Chicago is used, sometimes cynically, as our go-to example for rampant inner city. While it is by no means the homicide capital of the world, since St. Louis, Detroit and Baltimore boast higher levels, it is the example that artists, politicians, and pundits alike use to point out urban decay and chaos in the United States (hence the nickname “Chi-Raq”). Just recently, according to a CNN report, the city suffered a violent Labor Day weekend that saw its 500th homicide, already surpassing the total from the year before. There are a few (sometimes conflicting) perspectives that drive these narratives.

  1. America has failed Black people by leaving them with a city that’s divided as a result socially engineered plunder and segregation (i.e., White flight, redlining, etc.,).
  2. Chicago is what happens when there’s a lack of stable gun control laws.
  3. There is too much of a culture of pathology that has Black people killing themselves in Chicago.

Now, in the case of Chi-Raq and Barbershop, those films were practically anti-gun PSAs presented as art. Chi-Raq explores this with satire, mostly at the expense of historical and sociological accuracy, while Barbershop utilizes both comedy and family drama for its message. Both Spike and Malcolm Lee (coincidentally both cousins) mostly use narratives 2 and 3 as the intellectual backbones of their films. Southside With You mostly attached itself to narrative 1, although it is certainly less didactic in terms of message than the other two films.

It is also important to note that we might be in the midst of a wave of “South Side Cinema,” there have been other attempts to critically examine Black life in Chicago ghettos. Prominent examples include A Raisin in the Sun (1961), Good Times (1974-79), Cooley High (1975) to name a few. Critically acclaimed documentaries such as Hoop Dreams (1990) and Benji (2012) explore the impact of Chicago’s problems on high school athletes. All of these projects met the critical acclaim at varying levels and resonate with its viewers to this day, even more-so than Barbershop or Chi-Raq.

Nevertheless, I would proposition that all of these projects, now and then, have very little influence any sort of social change in Chicago. None of these movies were particularly successful in the box office to garner enough of a massive cultural conversation. Most of these discussions took place in intellectual circles and social media as opposed to the vox populi at large. This isn’t to diminish their necessity or call out their quality, but rather to understand that art doesn’t always have the sort of Upton Sinclair-esque impact on policy (re: The Jungle [1906]).

If anything, these films are a result of movements about and around Chicago as opposed to their initiators. This is to say, there is no chicken or egg argument with these particular films, insomuch as they are the artistic offspring of conversations we’ve had for years around inner city turmoil. Of course, these films can inspire more activism about this particular subject,  but they usually aren’t the primary movers of movements.

Does this mean that Southside With You or Chi-Raq are useless? Of course not. Art has its own potency in that it can inspire or haunt the audience. Yet, art alone usually cannot haunt folks into action, particularly since most people are aware of all the chaos and iniquity that plagues our world.It remains to be seen what other projects might end up actually succeeding in driving the conversations around Chicago and other inner cities forward. Until then, it would be wise for us to try to initiate the conversation and activism ourselves.


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