Listing every factual error in the most recent of the documentaries released this summer called “Chiraq” – there are two of them – is easy, because its director, British-born Will Robson-Scott, does not actually attempt to make any factual claims. Or, rather, he makes exactly one, which is superficially true but deeply misleading, as I’ll discuss in a minute.
Instead, Robson-Scott gives us thirteen minutes of black-and-white cinema vérité in a genre that might be called Violence Porn. Violence Porn is a cousin of Ruin Porn, the much-maligned and yet perennially popular family of photography and cinema that invites us to gawk at empty streetscapes and rotting theaters in places like Detroit or Camden, NJ. Except instead of asking us to feel sadness or disgust about cityscapes, Violence Porn asks us to marvel at just how incredibly scary young black men in Chicago are.
The folks behind VICE’s HBO show are Robson-Scott’s brothers in this endeavor, having also shot a thirteen-minute piece called “Chiraq,” which came out in June. It’s a bit more ambitious in terms of actually providing information and context, with the downside that almost all of that information and context is completely wrong. Its very first line claims that “in the last two decades, most major cities in America have seen a dramatic drop in violent crime, except Chicago” – curious, given that the homicide rate over the last twenty years has fallen by nearly 50%. It claims that the South Side “has lost most of its schools,” which, despite Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s best efforts to close allegedly underutilized buildings, is not even close to true. It claims, without qualification, that the demolition of public housing has made crime worse in outlying neighborhoods, a proposition fiercely denied by many of the academics who have studied the issue. And it strongly implies that violence is escaping the traditional “bad” neighborhoods and “seeping” into the rest of the city, which is exactly the opposite of what has actually happened in the last two decades: violent crime is more concentrated in certain areas than ever before, with terrible consequences.
If either of these documentaries had shown any interest in research or fact-checking, it might be easier to forgive them for having devoted so much time to filming young black men, usually shirtless or in hoodies and preferably heavily tattooed, jumping around in groups, throwing gang signs and flashing guns. But they didn’t show any such interest, and so we’re left to conclude that this, in fact, is the point. Neither documentary allows more than a minute or two to elapse without such a shot, and both devote the majority of their interviews to brief expressions from these young men about how crazy life is on the South and West sides. “We like to eat the body up,” says one man, explaining why murder victims in the city are shot so many times. “We were brought up to beat your motherfuckin’ ass,” says another.
None of this is to say that Chicago doesn’t have a very serious crime problem, or that its crime problem – or that of other cities – isn’t worth the attention of a documentary film. Such a documentary might accomplish one of two things: It might allow us to understand the big picture by telling us what all the news reports add up to, why the problem exists, and what possible solutions might address it. Or it might give us the human story behind the numbers and socioeconomic forces, allowing us to understand what it’s like to live in affected neighborhoods, what the motivations are of people who take part in the violence, and how everybody else copes in their day-to-day lives.
Neither “Chiraq” accomplishes, or even attempts to accomplish, either of those objectives – the big picture facts are either absent or wrong, and it’s hard to get a sense of the interview subjects as people when they’re only allowed a few lines of dialogue each. Instead, the most generous interpretation of the purpose of these documentaries is a kind of awareness campaign, akin to wearing a colored ribbon to draw attention to a deadly but relatively low-profile disease.
But that’s absurd. The first thing that any American – and many foreigners – will say if you ask them about the South and West sides of Chicago is that there is a lot of crime there. Awareness is not the problem.
In fact, you might say that part of the problem is too much awareness – and here we get to the heart of the matter. Both documentaries are called “Chiraq” because they claim (this is Robson-Scott’s only verifiable fact) that there have been more murders in Chicago since 2001 than U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. This, supposedly, is context. But what does it tell us? Are Iraq and Afghanistan less dangerous than Chicago? Obviously not; those figures don’t account for the fact that there are many, many times more people in Chicago than American soldiers stationed in those war zones, and they don’t include casualty figures for locals, who have died at rates hundreds of times higher than people have been killed in Chicago. Does it say something about the relative importance of violent street crime and overseas wars? Maybe; but why is that the comparison? Why not compare it to other, less far-fetched analogues, like the number of people who die in car accidents, or heart disease?
The answer is that these documentaries, and Violence Porn in general, are premised on reinforcing stigma: the stigma of poor inner-city neighborhoods, the stigma of being black, and especially of being a young black man. Car accidents and heart disease are tragedies that might happen to anyone; a war zone is something savage and foreign that belongs elsewhere: not for nothing does the VICE documentary conclude that “the South Side of Chicago is basically a failed state in the borders of the U.S.,” where locals “proudly declare themselves savages or soldiers.” This is why neither documentary can show us anyone in these neighborhoods but young black men who are gang members, or the mothers of young black men who have been murdered: to depict an average citizen going to work, or taking their young child to school, or even just mowing their lawn, would clash with the stigma that gives these films all their power.
Ultimately, the message is that you, the presumably white, or at least middle-class, viewer of the documentary, need to be very afraid of the unhinged people who live in these areas. (At one point, the VICE correspondent looks at a map of gang territory and helpfully volunteers that it “scares the living shit” out of him.) Or, rather, you should continue to be very afraid. Because these places have already been suffering from white and middle-class stigma for decades, pretty much since they were turned into all-black ghettoes around the middle of the twentieth century. I, a white person who lives on the North Side, run up against this stigma whenever I try to take a friend to visit a restaurant or gallery even in a relatively safe black neighborhood on the South Side, and they refuse because they “don’t want to get shot.” (This is usually accompanied by a laugh, to suggest that they’re kidding, but the fact that they actually won’t go suggests that they’re not.) The people who live in those neighborhoods run up against the stigma every day because of the social isolation, lost business investment, and paltry consumer spending it causes, which just furthers the economic decline that the “Chiraq”s are supposedly lamenting. This is not a minor issue: one study by Harvard professor Robert Sampson found that a neighborhood’s reputation was a better predictor of its future poverty rate than actual signs of disorder like graffiti or crime.
And so it’s hard to conclude that these documentaries do anything other than make the problem worse. It would be nice if the next round of journalists who venture into America’s crime-plagued neighborhoods treat the people they find there as people, and not spectacles.