Spike Lee’s Chi-raq is as compelling as its iconoclastic director, a mad mashup of Greek theatricality, Liberian freedom movements and a morality play, all set within the challenging environment of the South Side of Chicago. As heightened and metaphorical as any of his works, Lee nonetheless presents a raw, biting reality behind the satire, eliciting fine performances from a committed cast. It’s a film of radically varying tonality, often switching between tragedy and broad, shouting farce scene to scene. It’s a precarious balance, but one that Lee’s spent a career mastering.
From his earliest works, including his explosive and brilliant sophomore effort Do The Right Thing, Lee has looked at human behaviour within a community coming to terms with its own problems within the context of greater, systemic problems that are feeding the fire. Overtly political to the point of polemicism, Chi-Raq feels both personal and universal, a siren cry for coming to terms with a “self-inflicted genocide”, a chorus admonishing its audience to “Wake up! This is an Emergency!”
We spoke with a chatty but slightly guarded Mr. Lee by phone prior to the film’s Canadian premiere Thursday night at Toronto’s Bell TIFF Lightbox where the director will host what’s sure to be a boisterous Q&A.
Dork Shelf: What was your prior connection to the Lysistrata story?
Spike Lee: I had known of the play, but I had never read it until my co-writer, Kevin Willmott, wrote this script called Gotta Give it Up that used Aristophanes’ Lysistrata as the model. We couldn’t get that film made and we re-wrote it again and placed on the Chicago South Side.
DS: Were you aware of the story of Leymah Gbowee and her “sex strike” in Liberia?
SL: No, I didn’t know about that until we started to do research for the film. I did not know who she was, I did not know that she had won a Nobel Peace Prize either. My ignorance!
DS: The film opens powerfully with Pray for my City, which uses the rhymes of rap to enforce the theme as a kind of pre-chorus, complete with motion graphics highlighting the lyrics.
SL: That came about in post-production. I take pride in the opening credit sequences of my films and I knew we needed something special. Nick [Cannon] had gone into the studio to record this while we were shooting Chi-Raq. At first, I was trying to think about what the imagery would be, then I began to read the lyrics again and again and I said, we should just put the lyrics of the song up on screen – Black screen, blood red letters. That’s how it happened and I think it’s one of my best.
DS: The film deals explicitly with two forms of self-inflicted behaviour; you speak out against the self-inflicted genocide that’s taking place in places like South Chicago, and then the response is a self-inflicted chastity. That both of these are the community basically hurting itself and the community taking responsibility.
SL: Self-imposed chastity? What do you mean by that sir?
DS: I mean in the sense that what the women’s response is is to deny themselves and deny their men sex in order to make a change.
SL: I wouldn’t pair that like you just did with self-inflicted genocide.
DS: Both of those are reactions by the community. There is an explicit responsibility of the community to respond to the community’s behaviour.
SL: Keep going.
DS: So I’m suggesting that your film does not shy away from the fact that the genocide is self-inflicted but is courageous to say that part of the solution has to come from within the community.
SL: Well, now you phrase it that way! [laughs]
To me it’s very simple. In the film there are several instances where we give a shout out where we acknowledge the Black Lives Matter movement. At the same time, I think that we have the same indignation and hatred and anger when we do it to ourselves as we do when when cops or white private citizens gun down innocent Black people.
I’ve spoken to many of the mothers – at the end of the movie, we use stills, Women in White, those pictures are of their murdered children and daughters, those aren’t actors, they’re from an organization called Purpose Over Pain, which runs out of a church in the South Side of Chicago. Speaking to those mothers, it really didn’t matter to them if their child was killed by a cop or a gangbanger. The fact remains that their child is gone forever. We really want to try to make that distinction, which I think we do very well.
John Cusack’s scene in the church which is a sermon/eulogy where we get some of the reasons why these young Black men are doing what they’re doing. We give a reason why these things are happening.
DS: You have been working on some extraordinary documentaries while continuing to work in the fiction medium. Does fiction allow you that kind of subtlety that documentary might not? In other words, your film manages to ride a very fine line, on the one hand articulating the problems within the community, and on the other hand, articulating what was been brought up about those issues within a fiction to avoid being nailed down on specific points.
SL: I think that we’ve done the same thing in Chi-Raq that we’ve done especially in my two documentaries about Katrina, the first one being When the Levees Broke, the second being If God is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise.
DS: It seems to me, maybe from the outside, that through the use of allegory you can more powerfully comment on reality of the South Side, or the hot streets of Brooklyn, rather than being caught up in the actual facts of the matter. In Chi-raq you can have a Mayor that’s over the top in your fiction film, in a way that would be not necessarily accepted, even though I know the issues that you had with Mayor Rahm! I guess I’m asking if through the synergy of fiction storytelling you can get to the truths in a way that even sometimes documentary can’t, which is what the Greeks did with their plays. That they told stories that held deep fundamental truths within a fictional idiom.
SL: Well, I don’t want to get in a pissing match with you sir, I just don’t necessarily agree. For example in the docs we had the footage of then President George Bush saying “Great job, Brownie”. Come on. That’s the same thing we’re doing within fiction! Would you agree with that?
DS: “Heck of a job”. That’s a good, surreal line by President Bush.
SL: “Heck of a job, Brownie!” [laughs] But I understand what you’re saying.
DS: Simply put – is there a liberty to do things within a fiction film that there isn’t in a documentary?
SL: I think that you’re held to a higher standard when you do documentary. I’ll leave it at that. I’ll agree with that. No argument.
DS: At one point in time, Kanye was associated with the film. Could you talk about that?
SL: Not really.
DS: Ok. Let’s talk about the Patton shot that closes the film instead. I love Samuel L. Jackson coming up and doing the George C. Scott thing.
SL: The film bookends with Samuel L. Jackson, the great, great Samuel L. Jackson as the Greek chorus figure Dolmedes. Myself and the great cinematographer Matthew Libatique, we were thinking about where were we going to shoot this ending because it doesn’t state in the script where it’s going to be at that point.
I love Mr. Francis Ford Coppola – I mean, he’s a great man, he’s shown me great love over the years when I’ve visited him at his vineyard and stuff and I want to do a homage to him and Patton. That scene in Patton is one of the greatest openings in my opinion if not in world cinema, at least in American cinema history. Matt and I got with our production designer and said can we do this? The great thing is that not only do you see the American flag, but at the very end, the American flag drops and you see the city flag of Chicago. I’m very proud of that scene.
DS: And that is the actual flag of Chicago?
SL: Yeah, the black and white stripes with the 4 red stars, that’s Chicago’s flag which we see at the beginning of the film in the credit sequence when you see blood dripping from those 4 red stars.
DS: And it looks very similar to an Iraqi flag.
DS: When I’m asked what my favourite fiction film is that you’ve done, it’s Crooklyn. I adore the hell out of that film. And one of the things that film did was it introduced me to “Oh, Girl” by the Chi Lites.
SL: Yes! We knew in the script that we needed a song that would be sung by Lystrata’s army, the National Guard guy outside and the protestors and it just made sense that the song had to be a song from a group that comes from Chicago. In fact, I didn’t even remember until later that I’d used “Oh, Girl” in Crooklyn – I had forgotten!
DS: You listen to that soundtrack less often than I do my friend – I’m watching Guardians of the Galaxy, thinking, man, I know half of these songs from Crooklyn!
DS: Michael Pfleger has been both the source of a lot of positive and a lot of negative attention in Chicago. Can you talk about the challenge of getting Michael’s point of view across in a fiction film and your own relationship with the real Michael and how you see his work within the community?
SL: Regarding the real life Michael Pfleger, we were in concert with his views about Chicago South Side and the world in general. I think Father Michael Pfleger is a living saint. I understand why people attack him, because any time you attack the status quo, you’re going to be attacked. But Father Michael Pfleger took me into his bosom, the bosom of his church, Saint Sabina, and he’s the one that connected me to various people who ended up being in the film.
I’d also like to add that the character played by John Cusack is not entirely Father Pfleger. It’s also based upon the character that Karl Malden played in On the Waterfront. One of my dear friends was Budd Schulberg, we were tight, very close the last 10 years of his life. So it’s also a homage the same way Bamboozled was homage to Budd Schulberg’s script for the Elia Kazan directed A Face in the Crowd.
There’s several articles that have been written here in America about [A Face in the Crowd’s] “Lonesome” Rhodes and that film [presages] Donald Trump today. They had a crystal ball way back in 1957 when that film came out!
DS: You’ve obviously inserted yourself both in the political realm of the current election cycle, you’ve endorsed Bernie Sanders, but you also were vocal during the “Oscars So White” conflagration. Have you seen the backlash against you as being strong or challenging to your art.
SL: Number one, I knew there would be backlash against myself as a filmmaker before I even did my first film She’s Gotta Have It because I knew the type of films I wanted to make and the type of stories I wanted to tell. I’ll give you an example – go back to 1989, where Driving Miss Daisy won best picture and Do the Right Thing was not even nominated for Best Picture, even though Danny Aiello did get a nomination for best supporting actor for a male, and I got a nomination for best original screenplay. But if you use that as an example, I knew the work I would be doing would be not the usual Hollywood fare.
DS: I know you skipped it but by now you must know they closed the Oscars this year with “Fight the Power”?
SL: I heard, I did not see it, but people told me that Chris Rock came, his entrance and exit were to “Fight the Power”.
DS: A slightly neutered version, but nonetheless a song you helped popularize, you shot the video for.
SL: Not with the lyrics of Chuck D saying “Elvis was a hero to most/but he never meant shit to me/simple and plain/mother fuck him and John Wayne.” [laughs]
DS: Well, that’s my new ring tone! But you should know they did play the Chuck D./Flavor Flav version as the closing but they took out that stanza.
SL: They had lyrics at the end?!
DS: They had lyrics at the end.
SL: Not the beginning? Just the “fight the power” chorus?
DS: No, you actually had the middle bit, but naturally they did cut out the “Elvis was a hero to most”.
SL: [Laughs] Well, thank you for correcting me because I did not know that!
DS: Thank you so much for your time.