This week’s release of Spike Lee’s film Chi-Raq, Amazon’s first feature, could not have come at a more propitious time. Chicago, IL, whose homicide statistics have drawn comparisons to American casualties in the Iraq war (hence the film’s title), is roiling in a media maelstrom stirred by the release of year-old dash-cam footage of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, an African American who was shot 16 times by a white CPD officer, Jason Van Dyke. The event has shaken both the city’s political foundation – Mayor Rahm Emmanuel fired Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy this week, and now there are calls for Emmanuel’s own resignation – and its population to its core.
Storied cinematographer and frequent Lee collaborator Matthew Libatique splashes Lee’s Chi-Raq in Titian strokes of blood orange and corroded teal, framing the South Side into a lurid, bleach-skipped netherworld. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a grieving Jennifer Hudson – whose amazingly brave performance could well be informed by the real-life 2008 murder of her mother, brother, and nephew in Chicago – employs a rag and a pail of soapy water to clean up the blood of her dead daughter. Wired in the emotional shock of knowing her child was collateral in the crossfire of a gang dispute, Hudson ferociously tries to scrub away a reality she can’t accept. But the spillage fans out on the sidewalk and becomes vibrantly red, similar to the stained nexus of Francis Bacon’s 1986 painting “Blood on the Floor.”
The film is lifted by some powerhouse acting from the aforementioned Hudson, the legendary Angela Bassett and Mad Men’s gorgeous Teyonah Parris. Comic turns from Samuel L. Jackson as the mack-daddy Greek chorus Dolmedes, Dave Chappelle as a strip-club owner and Wesley Snipes as the psychotic gangleader Cyclops will have you in stitches. Then there are the career-defining star turns of Nick Cannon (yes, that Nick Cannon, from America’s Got Talent), as the broken and sociopathic gang leader Chi-Raq, and John Cusack’s fiery Roman Catholic priest Father Mike Corridan, based on real-life inner-city Chicago priest-activist Fr. Michael Pfleger.
Chi-Raq is based on Aristophanes’s ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, penned in 411 B.C., about the women who imposed celibacy to bring a ceasefire to the Peloponnesian War. But behind the laughter, stylized sexuality, Kurbrickian references and rhyming dialogue sits a festering American tragedy. This satire is not School Daze set to drill music or Do the Right Thing on that purp&lean. Chi-Raq is a magnifying glass trained upon the proliferation of and easy access to high-powered weapons and their part in the decimation of mostly young African-American men – an unthinkable epidemic not only exacted by monstrous police brutality but by other other black men drowning in the urban quagmire of gang warfare.
I spoke to the Oscar winner last week after a screening of Chi-Raq in New York. As always, Spike Lee tells it like it is.
Why did you choose Chicago as a location to tell this story? This film could’ve been done in Baltimore, MD…
…Or sometimes known as Bodymore, Murderland. Dee Cee. Dodge City. Philadelphia or Killadelphia, Brooklyn or Buck Town, the Boogie Down Bronx, Harlem, Oakland, or Oaktown. It could have been done in any of those places, but Kevin Willmott, cowriter on Chi-Raq – it was his original idea, and when you deal with a problem, you want to go to the epicenter of that problem. Chicago is one of the greatest cities in the world, and it has had a great problem. My wife Tanya, she came up with a great analogy: Tonya says that Chicago is the canary in the coal mine. As Chicago goes, that will determine how the rest of the country goes. What’s happening in Chicago is happening on much larger scale than anywhere else in the country. New York City has three times the population of Chicago, yet Chicago has more homicides. And this is not happening all over Chicago; this is happening specifically on the South Side and West Side. That makes what’s happening even more disturbing.
What made you go with Amazon? This is their first feature film venture.
Everybody else said no. And the people at Amazon are real innovators and great at what they do.
You got a lot of flack when you went to Chicago, you got a lot of flack while you were filming, you got a lot of flack after you wrapped the film, you’re getting even more flack before the film hits the theaters next week. What do you think that’s about? Is is because you’re not a Chicago native? Is it because you’re an outsider?
Chicago has a thing about New York and New Yorkers [laughs]. All jokes aside, people are very sensitive about their neighborhood, their town, their city, and I understand and respect that. But who else was going to do this film? What Chicago filmmaker was going to do this film? And no one had done it! So I understand the sensitivity. But on the other hand, its not like I was Zeke from Cabin Creek who just jumped off a turnip truck. I have a body of work.
But forget my body of work; put that aside. Here’s the real question: why in the hell would Jennifer Hudson, who lost her mother, her brother and a nephew, why would this talented woman want to be a part of a film that would ridicule this great tragedy in her family? Why would the members of Purpose Over Pain, an organization that comes out of Father Michael Pflegler’s St. Sabina Church, whose children, family and loved ones were murdered, want to be part of a movie that would trivialize their children who they had to bury? At the end of the film, those women holding up those pictures of their children and family members who were killed by the gun violence in Chicago? Those are not actresses. Those are real women from that great organization. Would they be a part of something that trivialized their pain? Of course not!
On that point, about a week ago ago, you had an individual who really went in on you, and called you a traitor to the race and a sellout for making Chi-Raq. Had this person seen the film in its entirety? What were they basing their opinion on?
First of all, the individual you are talking about was slipped a copy of the script. We know who did it, because the scripts were numbered. I am not going to name any names, but people who were once involved with the movie slipped a script to this person. This guy was going on television saying, “The script is horrible, I read it.” Other people who were born and raised in Chicago told me, “Spike, understand this: Chicago has a pocket of haters. Its not a lot of people, but there are some.” At the end of the day, I am not angry, just disappointed. All it amounted to was distraction, trying to keep from focusing on the most important thing this film is trying to do, and that is to save lives.
The biggest distraction was hizzoner, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who said he didn’t like the title of the film because it would affect tourism and economics. However, I will say emphatically that in no shape or form did Mayor Emmanuel say not to make this film. He just objected to the title. Look, this is free country, and people are going to have their opinions. I respect that.
You got some incredible performances out of your actors.
Angela was great and so was Sam. And the ending was an homage to Patton, with Sam standing in front of the American Flag.
Very strong finale indeed. Dave Chappelle as the strip club owner was very funny, as was Wesley as the gang leader Cyclops.
Dave was incredible and Wesley, that’s my brother. Its been a minute since we worked together, since Jungle Fever. He went away for a while, but the thing about Wesley: he is so honest. We even made reference to it in the film, and he was all for it. That’s my brother.
Teyonah Parris: very sexy, and an excellent actress, too.
No diss to Mad Men, but I really saw Teyonah shine in the film Dear White People. She auditioned for Chi-Raq and nailed it.
The two performances that really stuck with me were Nick Cannon as Chi-Raq, the gang leader, and John Cusack as Father Mike Corridan.
Cusack did his thing didn’t he? He’s also great playing the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in Love and Mercy. He’s strong. I know a lot of people are gonna say, “Spike is on some bullshit. He got a white preacher all up inside the black church on the South Side of Chicago.” Well, ladies and gentleman, Cusack’s character is based on a real life Catholic priest on the South Side of Chicago, named Father Michael Pflegler and his parish, St. Sabina. Father Pflegler is a white Roman Catholic priest who has been at that church and in the same neighborhood for over 40 years. He calls himself a child of Dr. King. Father Pflegler is one of the leading anti-gun and anti-violence opponents in Chicago, if not the entire country. I see him as a living saint. He was the spiritual advisor and consultant on Chi-Raq. Some folks think I showed up in Chicago the day we started shooting, June 1st. I came to Chicago in January 2015 to do research and to do my homework for this film, and it was Father Pflegler who steered me in the direction of who I needed to meet.
Cusack studied Father Pflegler and he gave Cusack tips on his performance. The eulogy in the church for the funeral of [Hudson’s character] Irene’s daughter was originally written by Kevin Willmott and myself, but Father Pflegler helped write it, and so did John Cusack, so it was a real collaborative effort by the four of us to find the truth in that scene. Cusack dug deep, so much so that he had to take a rest. That speech was fire and brimstone. Cusack is a great actor.
I have to say, when the movie opens, it took me a few seconds to realize that was Nick Cannon on stage spitting a hot sixteen to that drill beat. He used to get labeled as cornball, but after Chi-Raq, that’s dead. His performance was career-defining.
Some rappers in Chicago said I should have cast a Chicago rapper. “Nick is too clean, Nick is too wholesome…” Nick and I were getting all of these comments on Instagram. But the real disturbing comments Nick and I would get on Instagram would say, “Nick is not a savage!” I was like, Wow; we’re savages now? How did we get to a place where being savage is something you aspire to be? Is this the new standard among young black males – to be a savage? No, I wasn’t casting any savages in my film! I’m like, Did they want Nick to have bodies on him? Did Nick have to kill somebody to be official? Did DeNiro have go out and kill motherfuckers left and right before he played Travis Bickle? Of course not, because DeNiro is a great actor. I needed an actor, and Nick was great.
Make no mistake, I am not condemning these young brothers out here. They are misguided, but more than that, they are in pain. That scene where Nick as Chi-Raq is getting lifted from that purple weed, that purp, and drinking that lean, which is codeine cough syrup mixed with Sprite soda and a grape Jolly Rancher, he is reflecting these young guys self-medicating themselves – to get numb, so they can go in the streets and inflict the pain they feel on the others who feel and are scarred by the very same pain.
It’s this kind of mentality that would make somebody go out and execute a nine-year-old. Tyshawn Lee. Lure him into an alley and shoot him in the back of the head. No one, with any sense of righteousness, would shoot a nine-year-old in the back of the head. I don’t care who his father is or what his father did. And people who do that? They are savages. We gotta turn that shit around. I know these young guys feel lost, feel no one loves them, probably no father in the home. Grandmothers who are now 40, 45 years old, they are in the club, twerking. This comes full circle to the breakdown of the black family. And not to make any excuses, but now we see the impact on these state laws that say you cannot receive public assistance if a man was in the house. Like I say, that’s still no excuse for a lot of these men not being fathers to their children, but still, this is an institutionalized form of racism. So we made this film to reach these guys and say, Young brother, I love you, we love you. There is nothing glorious or uplifting about being a savage. Nothing. This film was made to try and save lives.
[A week later, after the release of the dash-cam video of Laquan McDonald’s murder by Officer Jason Van Dyke – Van Dyke shot a prostrate McDonald 16 times, while he was in a fetal position in the street – I asked Spike for his take.]
I think we need to have some answers from the powers that be. Why did it take so long for the video to be shown, and why did it take so long to indict that police officer? It didn’t take long for them to pay out a $5 million dollar settlement with Laquan’s family. Uh-oh? I know that video is horrific, but it had to be exposed to the world. The world had to see it. Listen: the world saw JFK assassinated. The whole world saw the Zapruder film. They didn’t wait a year for that. That video of Laquan had to be seen. And now we need some answers.