Even before the trailer for Spike Lee’s latest film, Chi-raq, was unveiled, there was controversy. From the very beginning, there were people who objected to the film’s title as well as to a New Yorker telling such a sensitive Chicago story. No one even seemed to be sure what the film was about.
Now all the questions have been removed: Chi-raq is finally here. Most people were not expecting a musical, and certainly not a satire. So instead of the controversy dying down, in many ways it has amped up.
Joining Spike Lee for the journey are many well-known faces, including some he’s worked with before, like Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes and Angela Bassett, as well as those he has not, like Dave Chappelle, Jennifer Hudson and the film’s leads, Teyonah Parris and Nick Cannon. The Root caught up with the pioneering filmmaker while he was in Chicago and chatted with him about the film, the controversy, how Chi-raq is not what many expected, working with Hudson and what he hopes to accomplish with this film.
The Root: When did you first decide to do Chi-raq?
Spike Lee: Well, it was in different editions. The first edition was about six years ago with the script that was written by Kevin Willmott [called] Gotta Give It Up, and it was an adaptation of Aristophanes’ play from 411 B.C., Lysistrata, but we couldn’t get it set up. A year ago, with all this stuff that was happening with Eric Garner and Mike Brown and Trayvon [Martin], [plus] I always get comments on my social media from people in Chicago saying, “You need to do something here in Chicago,” so that prompted me. I called Kevin up and said, “Let’s do it again. Let’s correct the script, and this time it can’t take place in a [nondescript] urban area. Let’s make it take place on the South Side of Chicago.”
TR: You’ve done a lot of New York films, and you’re a New Yorker, so what did you do to get into what Chicago is?
SL: You know, I’m not from New Orleans, either, my dear. I did When the Levees Broke and If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise. I did 4 Little Girls, which took place in Birmingham, Ala., where the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed and those four little black girls were blown apart. So it’s not the first time that I’ve done something that was outside of the Republic of Brooklyn, N.Y.
TR: But those were also documentaries …
SL: It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. It’s still storytelling and it’s still subject matter in New Orleans, Birmingham. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s a documentary or a narrative film; it still deals with places I’m not from.
TR: Did you ever consider doing a documentary?
SL: No. No. No. Kevin Willmott, again, it was his idea, and I thought it was a brilliant choice to do it as a satire. Satire is the work of the 411 B.C. [original]. Aristophanes satirized. Satire, I mean, has been used in everything. This is not the first film in American cinema where satire has been used to deal with very serious subject matter.
One of my favorite filmmakers, Stanley Kubrick, if you go back to his film Dr. Strangelove, what is more serious than a film that deals with nuclear holocaust, the destruction of mankind, of this planet? And that film is funny as a motherf—ker. Satire. A satire can be used and has been used, and in the future will be used, to deal with serious subject matter.
TR: Did the original script call for the rhyming, Shakespearean type of vibe, or did you decide to go that route later?
SL: Yeah, that was the original script. Kevin again made the great decision that we should keep the verse from the original source matter. Plays like Lysistrata were written in verse, and Kevin said we should keep the verse, and I agree with that. The thing we discussed, though, was how much verse should there be. We both agreed that the whole thing should not be in verse.
TR: Were you surprised by the pushback you got in the beginning when you started filming?
SL: No. I mean that’s the nature of the beast with this subject matter, I think. So it’s going to be something. But that doesn’t stop us from doing what we want to do. We keep going and see it through to the end.
TR: Several Chicagoans, like Jennifer Hudson, Harry Lennix, Steve Harris and a few others, are in the film. Was having Chicagoans in the film important?
SL: Steve Harris, yeah, Harry Lennix, Jennifer Hudson, D.B. Sweeney, John Cusack. We felt it was very important to have [that]. It was imperative to have. When people saw us film in Chicago, they had to see their people on-screen. This was not going to be New York and Hollywood. They had to see Chicago’s finest on-screen.
TR: You set the film in Englewood, and that’s where Jennifer Hudson was born and raised. As a director, when you have an actor that has such a personal connection to a place, to a subject matter, how do you handle that?
SL: Thank you for the question. I knew I wanted Jennifer for it, but I also knew that she was a victim. She lost three family members: her mother, her brother and her nephew. I got her number, but it took me a week to call her. Because, number one, I didn’t want her to think I was trying to exploit her personal misery. So I call her up and [it’s] very polite. We met here in Chicago and I said, “I hope if you accept this role, it doesn’t open up [those wounds] and you don’t have to go through this again.” She was like, “Spike, I go through this every day. Let’s make this movie together.”
And since you brought up Jennifer Hudson, she gives a magnificent performance—the funeral scene and the stuff with the soap and the brush and the bucket and the water. And that’s the thing; when people [who] have not seen the film, maybe saw a two-minute, three-second trailer, said I was exploiting the violence in Chicago, I mean, that’s ridiculous. Jennifer Hudson—her mother was murdered, her brother was murdered, her nephew was murdered on the South Side of Chicago. Why would Jennifer be part of a project that made light, or made fun of, who mocked [her pain]? Why would Jennifer Hudson be part of a film that disrespected her family? Her family members were murdered. That s—t don’t make no sense.
TR: You also put Chicago music in it with the drill, house, even a little Chi-Lites. Was that conscious?
SL: We wanted to have Chicago. Not just the music. We wanted to have Chicago represented throughout the film. Good and bad. That was the plan. Represent Chicago, be that positive or negative, but you got to tell the truth. Chicago is the murder capital of America. That’s not Spike Lee saying that.
TR: Ultimately, what do you want people to get out of this film?
SL: Save lives. Save lives. Save lives. Save lives. That was the goal. People were told that from the beginning. The goal of this film is to save lives.
Editor’s note: Chi-Raq opens in theaters nationwide Dec. 4, 2015.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.