Spike Lee Touts 'Chi-Raq' and Says Oscars 'Are a Smoke Screen'

Nina Metz
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Spike Lee discusses his decision to abstain from this year’s Oscar ceremony, as well as his thoughts about Chicago itself.


Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris, Jennifer Hudson, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix, D.B. Sweeney, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson
Rated: R
Studio: Roadside Attractions
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-12-04 (General release)

CHICAGO -- Strolling into the lobby of a downtown Chicago hotel Thursday, filmmaker Spike Lee made a point to say hello and shake hands with each employee. That's a small bit of graciousness you don't normally see from celebrities. And, as distinct from some of Lee's media appearances prior to the theatrical release of Chi-Raq last month -- and last Monday announcing that he would not be attending the 2016 Oscar ceremonies -- he seemed especially relaxed on this day.

Chi-Raq will be available on DVD Tuesday and for free to Amazon Prime members beginning Feb. 4 via streaming. (Lee was in town for an appearance on the Steve Harvey Show.) The film is the first feature-length project from Amazon Studios, which is broadening out from the original TV series it produces.

For its inaugural movie the company went with a well-known name (Lee) and an audacious project, a satire about a sex strike and gun violence on Chicago's South Side. That title -- the cause of much Sturm und Drang in the months preceding the film's release -- was, in hindsight, a savvy bit of marketing that got people talking long before anyone got a look at the film. That's a rarity for smaller projects, which usually have to fight for any scrap of attention.

About Chi-Raq's theatrical run: As of early last week, the film has made $2.6 million since opening in theaters Dec. 4 (the budget was reportedly in the $15 million range), and according to Box Office Mojo nearly half of that was on opening weekend, which suggests the film did not have legs despite generating some of the best reviews Lee has seen in the past 10 years.

Box office isn't Amazon's business, though. The streaming service doesn't have to worry about tickets sold (or TV ratings for its series) because the company's original content is meant to lure more people into signing up for Amazon Prime.

In our conversation (edited for length), Lee discussed his decision to abstain from this year's Oscar ceremony, as well as his thoughts about Chicago itself.

Q: There was so much heated discussion about the title for a while there.

A: I've been weathering opinions since 1986 with She's Gotta Have It. When we were making Jungle Fever and we were shooting in Bensonhurst (Brooklyn), I got a death threat. It wasn't about the title, it was about the subject matter: an interracial romance. I have it (or rather, the cover of the New York Daily News with the headline Cops Surround Spike Lee) framed in my office. (Laughs.)

When I had my meeting with the mayor (Rahm Emanuel), he was worried about the title Chi-Raq, but he was sitting on that tape of the shooting of Laquan McDonald. So the title of the film should have been the least of his problems.

Q: My colleague Phil Rosenthal wrote a column speaking to that point earlier this month. The headline was: Which has hurt Chicago's image lately: ‘Chi-Raq' or Mayor Rahm Emanuel?

A: Well . (starts to laugh). Here's the thing: The mayor never said to me, Don't make the film. He just said he didn't like the title. I asked him why and he said it was because it would give the city a bad image and it would hurt tourism and economic development. And I've said this before so excuse me if I sound redundant, but while we were here filming Chi-Raq (in June and July), the NFL had their draft with 250,000 people in Grant Park, the Grateful Dead had those big concerts at Soldier Field and then there was also Lollapalooza. So Chicago was jumping! I mean, you couldn't get a hotel reservation, let alone get a seat at a bar.

People miss what Samuel Jackson's character says in the movie: This is a tale of two cities. And this film did not stop economic development on the South Side. Look, I'm just happy that they finally decided to build a trauma center on the South Side. (Plans for the Level 1 trauma center were announced in September.)

Q: I don't know if you knew this, but according to Phil's column, the day you met with the mayor and he told you he didn't like the title? That was the same day the City Council approved the $5 million settlement to Laquan McDonald's family.

A: The same day? So the same day I met with the mayor the City Council approved that settlement? Unbelievable.

(Facetiously) But no one saw that tape at that point, right? No one saw (nothing)! How can you approve a $5 million settlement if you don't know what you're settling on? And then, if you saw the tape, how do you let the (official story) come out that Laquan was approaching the police violently?

Are the protesters still outside the mayor's house?

Q: The level of the protests ebb and flow. I think it's hard to sustain a presence at such an intense level on a daily basis.

A: Yeah, the energy. And he's going out kicking and screaming, he's not resigning.

Q: Let's talk about the Oscars. The presumption was that Chi-Raq was released before the end of 2015 so that it would qualify for a nomination. (It received none.)

A: No, that was not the driving force. We just wanted to get it out. Not because we're trying to win a nomination -- I felt that it was worthy of it -- but that was not the goal. We're talking about lives, and I always will believe that art can change stuff. So that was the way we collectively made that decision.

Q: All the acting nominees this year are white, and you've stated that's why you will not be attending the ceremonies this year. What if a white actor in your film had been nominated -- say John Cusack had been nominated -- might it have changed your thoughts about attending?

A: I would have given him a hug and said, "I'm happy for you." If anybody (from the movie) got nominated -- and that's a big if -- I would have said "thank you," but I'm not going to be there.

I'm not going. And I'm supposed to be there! It's traditional that if you win the honorary Oscar in November, then you go to the ceremony in February. But it's bigger than me. As I told somebody the other day, it's bigger than (this year's host) Chris Rock. It's bigger than all of us. Also, if someone did get nominated, I wouldn't say, Don't go. I'm not telling anybody what to do, for the record. All I'm saying is, my wife and I aren't going. We're going to the Knick game.

Q: You originally sold your Knicks tickets for that night, so you had to buy them back? How much did you spend to get them back?

A: Face value.

Q: That was nice of them!

A: Yeah, well if they want to get any more tickets in the future! It was a friend that I sold them to.

Look, what's just as important (to this conversation about Oscars and a lack of diverse representation) is that you have people like George Clooney and Michael Moore speaking out. That's one of the things I wrote about in my essay (which he posted on Instagram last week). I'm tired of people in the media calling me the day after nominations come out to get my response. You guys need to start asking questions to the white nominees: How do they feel about it? You have to start asking the studio heads how they feel about it.

You know, (Academy president) Cheryl Boone Isaacs looked embarrassed when she got up there and explained that two years in a row -- if you're keeping score at home, that's 40-0 (over two years, 40 white actors nominated for Oscars, zero people of color). And Cheryl was the driving force responsible for me getting my honorary Oscar, I know that for sure. I mean, she only has one vote, but she really encouraged that. Her agenda coming in was to diversify the voting members of the Academy.

My thing is this: The Academy Awards are a smoke screen. The battle is with the upper echelon gatekeepers in the executive offices. There's a great song in the musical Hamilton (called The Room Where It Happens) -- we're not in the room. They have these quarterly green-light meetings where white males basically sit at a table, look at the scripts, look who is attached to it, look at the budget and they decide what they're making. We're not in the room when decisions are made, and that directly affects the Academy Awards. Because if we're in the room, I think you'll see much more diversity in terms of roles and who is writing and directing.

So until that happens at the top, we're going to have the same discussion every year.

That's why I think they should come up with some form of the Rooney Rule, where if a head coaching position opens up in the NFL, a team cannot hire anybody before they interview minority candidates. And I think they should do that here.

Q: For hiring actors or directors?

A: No, I'm talking about when they hire executives. Because they're the gatekeepers who make those decisions.

Q: Well, except that the studios don't belong to a league.

A: There's no commissioner of Hollywood studios! But it has to be self-implemented.

People have to go look at the latest United States census figures. By the year 2043, white Americans are going to be a minority in this country. So, if you don't have that in mind, that's going to affect your bottom line. Sometimes that's how you have to appeal to people -- their bottom line.

Q: The Oscars are three weeks away, I wonder if the momentum …

A: It's not dying down. Did you see the cover of the NY Post today? There's a big snowstorm coming this weekend. (He pulls the image up on his phone: A photo of a woman stands in a blizzard with the headline: This weekend will be . whiter than the Oscars.) When I was at the airport this morning and saw this I screamed! Because this is the last thing you would think the NY Post would do.

Q: When you made the decision to not attend this year's ceremony, was there half a second when you also considered handing back your honorary Oscar?

A: (Big laugh.) No! That's the only one I'm getting! I ain't giving that back!

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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