Will Robson-Scott’s documentary short Chi Raq opens with a harrowing figure: “4,265 U.S. citizens have been killed in Chicago since 2001. This is 2.5 times more than in the Afghanistan war.”
Elegantly shot in black and white with quiet, expansive music, the film is a meditation on violence and poverty. Director Robson-Scott interviews those most affected by Chicago’s staggering homicide rates–the black men and women who live on Chicago’s South and West Sides.
Robson-Scott titled the film Chi-Raq after the city’s unofficial moniker–a name that brings to mind the violence and trauma of war. In the film we meet the soldiers: men in gangs who fight for economic prosperity. We hear about the civilian casualties: the unintended victims of unwieldly bullets. And then we see those who left behind: the men and women who grieve.
The interviews unveil a reality about Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods that many prefer to ignore–that the struggle to live is more often than not, life-threatening. An unnamed man describes coming of age within the revolving door of the juvenile justice system, “First thing I remember was being arrested when I was a shorty…I was like 13. So, once I became a part of the system it kinda f—ked me up.” Another man profoundly describes how this struggle for survival can eclipse all other alternatives. “They say there’s a better way, but for some of us that’s a picture we can’t even see. What we do everyday is a better way for us.” For him, this violence is eternal, “If heaven’s up top, this can’t be nothing but hell right here.”
Ironically, one of the key culprits underling these issues is entirely absent from the community. That is, the social and economic structures the city should be providing, but isn’t–like safe public schools and trauma centers.
The subjects of Robson-Scott’s documentary are well aware of this absence. Valerie Kyles, a mother of son killed by gunfire, “Something is missing for the young men…” and Cecilia Scott, the aunt of a boy who was robbed and killed, “They need to set a center up and let these kids go play basketball or get on the computer or do something besides violence. Violence is not going to make no body– they’re going to be in jail or they’re going to be dead.”
While the documentary does not tackle the issues of structural inequality head-on, it strikes at the heart of what decades of disregard beget, portraying the emotional realities of one of the most segregated cities.