Spike Lee Touts 'Chi-Raq' and Says Oscars 'Are a Smoke Screen'
Spike Lee discusses his decision to abstain from this year’s Oscar ceremony, as well as his thoughts about Chicago itself.
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!