'Chi-Raq' Director Spike Lee Takes on Chicago's Plague of Violence and the Laquan McDonald 'Snuff Film'

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Spike Lee (Associated Press)

“There’s an urgency to this film,” Spike Lee says, sitting up in a wooden chair in the first floor studio of his Brooklyn office. “This film was made to save lives.”

Lee, the iconic 58-year-old filmmaker, has historically done his best work when he’s sending a message and fighting for a cause: his most celebrated projects include Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise, the Emmy-winning Hurricane Katrina documentary he made for HBO. His new film, Chi-Raq, continues that tradition by tackling the endless cycle of inner city violence in America, with an eye focused on the South Side of Chicago.

Chi-Raq started six years ago, when Lee was shown a script by Kevin Willmott (Confederate States of America) called Gotta Give It Up, which transported the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata — about women refusing to have sex with men until they ended the Peloponnesian war — to a “non-descript urban area.” Lee and Willmott couldn’t get the financing then, but they revived the project last year, striking a deal that would make Chi-Raq Amazon Studios’ first major in-house film production.

The movie takes its name from the combination of “Chicago” and “Iraq” that’s been used to describe the midwestern city’s troubled South Side. It’s also the name of Nick Cannon’s gangster/rapper character, who becomes the focal point of the sex strike led by his girlfriend, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris). While often serious, the film is also a lyrical comedy, using musical numbers and rapped dialogue to add a dimension of satire to the urgent message. John Cusack co-stars as a priest working to stem the violence; Wesley Snipes plays a rival gang leader, and Jennifer Hudson is a young mother whose personal tragedy precipitates the strike.

Lee spoke with Yahoo Movies about Chi-Raq, the Black Lives Matter movement, recent killings in Chicago, and more.

You had a version of this script six years ago. What made you want to pick it back up?
I’m very active in social media, and I have an artist friend named Adrian Franks. So whenever an African-American was killed in this country — mostly by cops or private citizens — he would give me a portrait [of them]. I put it up on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. And we started putting them out in front of the building. And anytime I put something up, I always got comments from Chicago. They’d say, “We feel you for Trayvon, we feel you for Mike Brown, but what about Chicago?” The people of Chicago were the ones who gave me the impetus to do this.

So I called up Kevin and said, “Here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to co-write it, we’re going to make it take place in the South Side of Chicago today, and we’ll call it Chi-Raq.”

If you look at Hollywood films that have been done the last couple years — leaving out comedies and dealing strictly with dramas — a lot of these films take place during the Civil Rights movement or [deal with] slavery. This is not making a judgment on those films; it’s just a fact. And I said, “Kevin, we’ve got to do something that’s contemporary. There’s a lot of s–t happening today.” And Chi-Raq is the product, the end result.

You filmed on the South Side of Chicago, basically on location, with the communities featured in the movie. What was the reception like?
We had a great reception. We had an open call for extras and 5,000 people came out from the neighborhood. We got love.

The film had to be shot there. And again, and this is why we had Angela Bassett [who plays Lysistrata’s neighbor] say that dialogue, in the first scene with Lysistrata, “It’s not just Chi-Raq, it’s Body-more Maryland, it’s Killa-delphia, it’s Buck-town (which is Brooklyn).” She could have gone on another 10 minutes It’s not just Chicago, but Chicago is the murder capital of the United States of America. And it’s the mass murder capital. We had to deal with where it’s happening the most, and we felt that, from the first script, that satire would be the way to do this.

And look, I understand that people are very sensitive about their particular city, their neighborhood, their block. But Chi-Raq is not the first film in the history of cinema to use satire to deal with a very serious subject matter. Look at Doctor Strangelove. What’s more serious than the destruction of God’s planet? That film was funny as a motherf—er.

The Chicago Police just released another video, of a 17-year-old African-American man named Laquan McDonald being shot by Chicago police last year.
They also just released it with the audio, and now you can hear it with the gunshots. The last five or six gunshots, he already had smoke coming out of him. The gunshots just reinforce the fact that he was dead already during the last five or six shots. My question is — and I’m not the only one asking this — why did it take over a year for this thing to be released? Why did, allegedly, police go to the Burger King and erase the [security] tape? [Editors note: Photos show the police in the Burger King the night of the shooting, but they deny deleting security tape. The head of the Chicago Police was fired on Tuesday].

Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, didn’t take too kindly to the film or its name.
He never said, “I don’t want you filming here.” It was the title. He felt it was going to affect tourism and economic development on the South Side.

You’d think the real video would do more to hurt tourism than a movie.
And that’s another question: When did he see [the tape]? Somebody had to see that gruesome tape — and you can actually call it a snuff film — to make the decision that they weren’t going to let it be seen. It took a journalist filing for its release under the Freedom of Information Act that it got out. And if it wasn’t for that, the world would never have seen it. And why did the charges come out against the officer before the tape?

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Parris and her fellow strikers in a scene from ‘Chi-Raq’

Are you going to send Rahm Emanuel a copy of the movie?
He was invited to the premiere in Chicago, but he was in China. He got back in the same night of the premiere. I think plenty of people are going to tell him about it when it opens this week. He probably has a couple of people that he’s telling, “Go see it, and tell me what it’s about. And also, how do I look?” And I would like to say right now that the character that the great actor D.B. Sweeney plays is not based upon His Honor Rahm Emanuel.

We’re talking about the horrible problem of police violence against African-Americans, but this movie mostly focuses on gang violence, while the police in the film are mostly portrayed as inept and relatively harmless. Why did you take that focus?
Because I think Black Lives Matter [focuses on police violence]. And we support them: I was out there marching with everybody else for Eric Garner. My son and I were sitting in the first pew at Michael Brown’s funeral. But it can’t be about the color or complexion of the hand or finger that pulls the trigger. If you look at the numbers, how many citizens have the cops shot versus [gang members shot]? The statistics shown at the beginning of the movie speak for themselves. Those numbers aren’t made up, either.

You get a great performance out of John Cusack, who gives a powerful eulogy for the little girl who gets shot.
He had a high bar. Have you ever seen Father Pfleger [the Chicago priest upon whom Cusack’s character is loosely based] at St. Sabina Church on Sunday? He’s like fire and brimstone. John brought it. That whole scene is like a manifesto for the whole film. It could have gone one way, he could have said, “Well, Patty liked toys, she liked jumping rope, she liked play dates, she wanted to be the President of the United States.” We wanted to talk about the systemic ills and wrongs in this country that came together that [made us need] to gather to bury an 11-year-old.

I told John, “People in the pews here, a lot of them are members of the church. Even though they know it’s a scene from a film, if you’re not bringing it, they’re not going to respond. So you’ve got to come with it.” And Cusack tore that s—t up.

What did people in the community, who knew gang members, tell you while you were on set?
There was a lot of stuff done in preparation, so we had several former gang members who worked as Peacekeepers for Father Michael Pfleger, so they would keep us in the loop. I got to meet people, they introduced people to Nick Cannon, introduced him to gangbangers. So we’d get to hear their side of the story.

This is a whole new side of Nick Cannon on display. It may be his best performance.
He was great in Drumline, too. But here’s the thing I’d like to add: Nick Cannon, a guy not from Chicago, he’s getting a lot of flack. People [are] saying, “He’s not from Chicago, he’s not a Chicago rapper, he’s soft.” And the thing that really disturbs me, there’s this new term called “Savage.” They say “He’s not a savage.” Yes, thank god he’s not a savage! He’s never shot anybody. He’s never killed anybody, and that’s a good thing.

I’m trying to understand my young brothers in Chicago and anywhere else, [and understand why] we cannot get to a place where the aspiration is to not be a savage. That’s the new standard? To be a savage? And this really hurt me to my heart, to my core. And to one guy, I said, “Brother, let me ask you a question: If you have any children, do you want your son to be a savage, or your daughter to be a bitch or a ho?” He never answered.