Interviews

Spike Lee Addresses 'Chiraq' Controversy: "We’re here for peace"

Nina Metz
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
(Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune / TNS)

“A lot of people have opinions about the so-called title of the film,” he said of Chiraq, which is expected to begin filming in Chicago in June.

CHICAGO — “A lot of things have been said about this film by people who know nothing about the film,” Spike Lee told assembled media at a news conference Thursday morning, breaking his silence for the first time since news of his plans for a movie about violence in Chicago surfaced last month.

“A lot of people have opinions about the so-called title of the film,” he said of “Chiraq,” which is expected to begin filming in Chicago in June. (His phrase “so-called title” suggests this may be a working title, but Lee did not clarify, nor did he answer questions from reporters.)

“So we thought it was appropriate that we say what the narrative is — the filmmakers, the people doing this — not people who are judging from afar and, again, don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”

The film is being made for Amazon Studios, but reports this week suggest there is interest in pushing for a theatrical release, as well. The film’s representatives will be at the Cannes Film Festival (which began Wednesday) also looking to pre-sell the film to foreign markets.

Standing with Lee was activist Catholic priest Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina parish, co-writer Kevin Willmott, actor and Evanston native John Cusack and members of Purpose Over Pain, who held up photos of their children who have been killed by gun violence. They also held posters that read “Put the guns down” and “Chiraq is here.”

The project has been polarizing since news of it hit the web in April. Shortly thereafter Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he told Lee in person of his distaste for the “Chiraq” movie title, which equates the violence in certain areas of the city to the danger level of the war zone in Iraq.

“I love Chicago,” Lee said, urging people to give the project the benefit of the doubt. “Wait ‘till the movie comes out — (if) you don’t like it, you don’t like it. But see it first!”

Dressed more formally than his usual, wearing a gray suit, pinstripe shirt and orange tie, he cited news reports of 14 shootings that occurred in the city Wednesday. “I’ve made many trips to Chicago in preparation for this film,” he said. “And Tuesday morning I took the 6:30 flight from La Guardia (Airport in New York), landed at 7:30 and by 10 a.m. I was at a funeral. One of the members of our production team, his brother was shot down in cold blood.”

What Lee did not address is who is in the cast or what the film itself will be like — genre-wise or tonally.

Many have assumed the film will be a grim story of violence in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, and judging by Thursday’s remarks alone (which kept details of the film under wraps) you can see why that perception exists.

However, earlier this week ScreenDaily reported that the script is a modern-day re-imagining of the ancient Greek comedy “Lysistrata.” In the bawdy original by Aristophanes, the women of Greece band together and withhold sex until their men put an end to war.

Lee’s version (which is being co-written by Willmott, a filmmaker out of the University of Kansas) would purportedly update the action and set it in Chicago.

Willmott, whose work has been featured over the years in the Gene Siskel Film Center’s annual Black Harvest Film Festival, has a track record with comedy and satire that pokes holes in racial stereotypes, which only bolsters the notion that “Chiraq” might be close in spirit to Lee’s 1989 film “Do the Right Thing,” which itself sparked controversy upon its release.

“Way way back when I made ‘Do the Right Thing,’ there were people who said this film would cause riots all across America, that black people were going to run amok,” Lee said.

“They wrote a whole bunch of things. But those people ended up being on the wrong side of history. And the same is going to happen in Chicago. They are going look stupid and end up on the wrong side of history. We’re here for peace. We have to stop this.”

Cusack also took a turn at the microphone and opened with the droll observation that “I am 100 percent sure that the great city of Chicago can survive a film of conscience — just like it did ‘Transformers’.

“I love my city of Chicago — all of Chicago — and I would never do anything to hurt it. I’m very proud to be in this film and stand with Father Pfleger and Spike and with the people of St. Sabina.”

Thursday’s event was the first official confirmation of the movie and the first time the public was hearing directly from the people involved. Lee himself has denied numerous interview requests. You have to wonder if the intensity of the response to the movie’s title caught him and his collaborators off guard. Whatever the reason, they waited a full month before addressing the pushback.

“Speaking personally, there really is no controversy around this film except for a bit of a manufactured political controversy,” Cusack said. “A few people say it’s controversial and the press repeats it, but controversial to whom? Nobody that I’m talking to here.”

Cusack also underscored the project’s sincere intent: “Spike called me up and told me what he was up to. We met and he looked me in the eye and said, ‘Johnny, the only reason to do this film is to help save lives.’

“The film is set in Chicago, but could easily be any American city where poverty and violence and desperation are so ever-present. This film stands in a long and fine tradition of American films of conscience. And art — good art, anyway — works valiantly to shrink the gap between words and symbols and the truth people live with every day and feel under their skin.

Lee echoed this sentiment. “To me, an artist — not every artist, but artists I love, whether it be painters, sculptors, novelists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, actors — they hold a mirror up to what is happening in the world. And they do that with no fear. Because if you have fear, how are you going to tell the truth?”

Said Pfleger: “We’re not painting a city, we’re painting a reality that’s difficult and hard.”

Pfleger cited statistics on shootings in Chicago this year, which he said averaged out to nearly six people a day being shot in the city.

“I can’t think of a greater person to face this reality than someone with the history and body of work of Spike Lee,” Pfleger said. (The exact nature of his involvement with the movie was not clarified at Thursday’s event.)

“We have to stop the madness,” said Lee. “This is insane. Don’t go for ‘Okey-doke.’ Don’t go for it. This is nothing about Chicago losing tourism. Come on, please. Come on. Stop with the rudy-poop. This film is not about Chicago losing business.

“But let me go back to ‘Do the Right Thing’ if I can. One of the main criticisms was that Spike did not deal with the destruction of property. Same thing happened in Baltimore. They’re screaming and crying about the CVS. What about the brother (Freddie Gray, whose death in police custody sparked the protests and riots). Let’s not put property and profit over human rights”

In Pfleger’s estimation, “Nobody should better be able to face this reality than someone who’s proven his consciousness, proven his professionalism and proven his willingness to be courageous in dealing with issues. A man who is an African American director, and one of the best directors in America, who did casting in an African American community, who’s hiring from the African American community, dealing with African American issues.

“Sounds real right to me.”

Also on hand were Pam Bosley of Purpose Over Pain, and Pastor Brenda Mitchell, both of whom spoke movingly about their personal experiences of what it means to lose a child to gun violence.

“Look at us,” said Lee. “This is not a joke. This is not a game. This is real life and death and that’s the way we’re going to approach this.

“That’s the way I’ve approached all my films — I mean, people acting like you’ve never seen none if my films! Like, I just got pulled off the street. I’ve been doing this since 1986.

“In fact, everything I’ve done has led up to this film.”

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