Interview | Spike Lee on ‘Chi-Raq’ and a Troubled America

No matter how composed a journalist you may be, Spike Lee is an intimidating fellow. As one may be able to discern from his films, Lee is an impassioned and earnest man who will not, in his words, “pussyfoot around.” He will be direct with you, and expects others – including his audience – to be just as direct in return.

His newest film, Chi-Raq (which opens this Friday) is an earnest commentary about the horrific gang violence in Chicago, a city which boasts more homicides than any other American city. The commentary comes couched in, unexpectedly enough, an energetic and stylized adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, an ancient Greek play about society’s women withholding sex until society’s men put an end to war. 

Spike Lee recently discussed him film with Crave, and wants to make darn sure that we know America is in trouble. He also talks about the real-life people that made it into his film, and the real-life charities that contributed. There is far too much violence in Chicago, and Chicago may be a chilling indicator for the rest of the country. In his usual direct fashion, Lee tells us what’s what.

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CraveOnline: I am threatened and daunted to be in your presence.

Spike Lee: No need for that, sir!

I’ve been a fan since, gosh, the ’80s. I’ve even stood up for some of your films that my friends didn’t like. I really like Bamboozled.

It’s funny. People are rediscovering Bamboozled. Nobody wanted to see it when it came out. But with the 15th anniversary, they’re writing a book about it, so I’m glad people are coming around.

“You cannot just assume everyone is going to want to do your film. Not just schedule-wise, but subject matter-wise.”

When approaching Chi-Raq, were you seeking to make a movie based on Lysistrata first, or were you looking to make a Chicago movie first?

The co-screenwriter, Kevin Willmott, it was his idea first. Six years ago, he had this idea for a script where he adapted Lysistrata, and we tried to get it made, but we couldn’t get it done. And, like a year ago, I called Kevin back up and said “You still own that script?” He said “Yeah,” and I said “Let’s co-write it together, and let’s make it take place in the southside of Chicago, and let’s call it Chi-Raq.”

Was the original script a straight adaptation of Lysistrata? Did it, for instance, take place in ancient Greece?

It was contemporary, but it took place in any urban area. It was not specific. It didn’t take place in the southside of Chicago.

Were you a big enthusiast of ancient Greek theater going into Chi-Raq?

Not at all. Kevin Willmott was the one who came to Lysistrata. He came to me with a script six years ago called Got to Give it Up. It was set in some nondescript urban area, but I felt we had to give it a place. Keep it rooted. People have to understand that this could be a real place.

What is casting like on a Spike Lee joint? Surely you have your pick of numerous enthused actors.

Not true. Because you cannot just assume everyone is going to want to do your film. Not just schedule-wise, but subject matter-wise. How much money you have budgeted; that’s a big concern. Agents might tell them that it might not be a good move to be in a Spike Lee film. Despite all that, I’m very happy with the cast we assembled for the film.

Roadside Attractions

What brought you to Chicago? Was it the stats of the violence? Is there something about the character of the city that appealed to you?

Chicago – and I can credit my wife for this – she said that Chicago is the canary in the coal mine. Chicago is not the only city in which this can happen. Brooklyn. The Bronx. Killadelphia. Bodymore. New Orleans. South Central. But, on that scale, no one is competing with Chicago. New York City has three times the population of Chicago, and Chicago has more homicides than New York City. L.A.’s bigger than Chicago, and Chicago has more homicides than L.A. My wife said the phrase “the canary in the coal mine.”

Worse than New York…

Clockers deals with this. This is Chicago – and I’m not happy saying this; it brings me no joy – but the truth is Chicago is the murder capital, and the mass murder capital of the United States. According to the FBI, a mass murder is – if my understanding is correct – if three or more people get killed in the same spot – three – it counts as a mass murder.

So there is this horrible violence we need to address, being folded into a Greek play…

As a country! It’s an adaptation of a Greek play, but it still applies. Most recently to Leymah Gbowee (and I know I’m pronouncing her last name incorrectly), she won a Nobel Peace Prize by using the tactic of a sex strike, and stopping the civil war in Liberia. We have that clip in the film. It could still work!

Roadside Attractions

I appreciate your approach, using poetic verse as an opening into the “harsher” material. Are you, however, afraid that the more fantastical elements might make the violence seem somehow less serious?

It’s satire. I mean Aristophanes write this satire back in 400 BC, so it’s been proven again and again and again. Why did the great Stanley Kubrick decide to deal with nuclear destruction of this planet with satire? Dr. Strangelove! I mean, he’s not here, I’d have to do my research, but he chose satire. Paddy Chayefsky. Network. That’s a brilliant satire.

There are people who might have a different approach. I really can’t speak to how people interpret the movie. If they think [the violence is being leavened], I can’t speak to it. Let me answer this another way. I don’t know if you know, sir, that Jennifer Hudson had three members of her family murdered in Chicago. Including her mother. Do you think Jennifer Hudson would take part in a film that she felt made light of the murder of her family members? Or the murder in Chicago? She wouldn’t have done the film. At the end of the movie, the finale, all the women dressed in white, holding up pictures. Those aren’t actors. Those are mothers who belong to an organization that no mother wants to belong to. It’s called Purpose Over Pain, run by the church seen in the movie, St. Sabina. Those photos they’re holding up are picture of their sons and daughters who got murdered by senseless violence.

If they thought this film was making light of their children who had been murdered, they wouldn’t have been part of it. It wouldn’t have happened! We’re talking about people who were victims of this violence in Chicago! They wouldn’t be part of a film that goes “Ha ha ha, isn’t it funny that someone got killed!”

“I can’t speak to what other filmmakers do. All I know is it’s different approaches. I choose to tell the stories I choose to tell. And every film is different.”

I certainly felt the sincerity. Jennifer Hudson’s tears felt real. I felt a lot of genuine outrage from many characters, mostly from John Cusack’s character, and the speech he gave at the funeral.

The eulogy. He’s eulogizing the seven-year-old in the casket.

That sounded like more than just your personal voice, but the voice of the community.

John Cusack’s character is based on a real person. Fr. Michael Pfleger. You should Google him. He’s a white Roman Catholic priest who has been head of a church for 40 years in Chicago’s southside. The congregation is all black.

Did he contribute to the movie?

Oh yeah. He’s credited as “spiritual advisor-slash-consultant.” [Laughs.] Fr. Pflegel and I have become very close. That speech was myself, Kevin Willmott, Fr. Pflegel, and John Cusack.

Roadside Attractions

The intro was colorful and exciting, but the emotional core really started to show with that speech. We see the passion. We finally start to see that Chicago is in trouble…

The country is in trouble. Not just Chicago. The thing that, I think, you might have been drawn to is that the script that was written for that scene and John Cusack’s great performance. He’s not just eulogizing a seven-year-old who has been murdered. He’s gives the reason why she’s in that coffin. Cusack is a great actor.

Your movies tend to be… what’s a good word?… direct.

Yeah, we don’t try to be that subtle! [Laughs] Why pussyfoot around? Let’s get to the point!

I see so few other filmmakers who bother to confront in such a way…

I can’t speak to what other filmmakers do. All I know is it’s different approaches. I choose to tell the stories I choose to tell. And every film is different. Let the script dictate to you. Let the script lead you to how you’re going to tell that story. Through the music, through photography, production design, costume design, editing… all that stuff.

As for the current filmmaking climate, all I can do is continued to teach my students. I am a tenured professor at NYU graduate film school, just teaching the best I can.

What was the first record you bought with your own money?

It was a 45. It was probably some old Motown songs. Motown, or The Beatles.

Top Image: Vibe

Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.