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Why Spike Lee Set Chi-Raq in Chicago

The original script had the setting of a “nondescript urban area.”

Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, Spike Lee, and John Cusack at Monday’s press conference for “Chi-Raq”   Photo: Whet Moser

Since Spike Lee announced that he was doing a movie about violence in Chicago, residents have been grappling with the questions: Why him, and why here?

As Lee tells it, it started on social media, with a refrain that anyone who spends time there (or in various comments sections) will recognize as the familiar chorus following any high-profile violence in America.

“I’m active on social media,” Lee said today, less than 24 hours after the film’s Chicago premiere. "And I have an artist friend named Adrian Franks. Every time an African American got killed by a private citizen, a white private citizen, or a cop, he would do a portrait. And I would post it on my social media.

“And every time I posted something, I had a constant stream of people posting from Chicago, saying, ‘What about us, what about us, what about us.’ And that made me start to think. I called Kevin and said, ‘I hope you haven’t sold that script.’”

The script in question was an adaptation of Lysistrata by Kevin Wilmott, the writer/director behind the 2004 indie C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. Wilmott adapted Chi-Raq with Lee from a script he had written several years ago, which was set in a “nondescript urban area,” according to Lee. But his connection to the play itself goes back decades.

“I was in the play in undergrad a long time ago. The translation was a kind of Southern translation of Lysistrata; it really spoke to African Americans,” Wilmott says. “We both agreed that the style and verse that’s in the original play connects in many ways to a long tradition of African-Americans—Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, early in their careers were in the play Lysistrata, and it was a key to their success as actors later on.” (Poitier made his Broadway debut in a 1946 all-black Broadway production of the play.)

“The verse from Aristophanes has a lot of connections to rap, spoken word, a whole tradition of African American traditions in literature,” Wilmott says. "There’s no reason people won’t really connect with it.”

Father Michael Pfleger, the activist St. Sabina’s priest who Lee describes as the film’s “adviser and spiritual mentor,” says such connections have already been made.

“I had some brothers there from the block. One of them, who’s facing a court case right now, said to me afterwards, ‘I wish I had seen this two years ago,’” Pfleger says. “They encouraged me to go on the opening weekend. We’re going to take about 40 brothers together, and then come back and talk about it. They said, ‘We have to get more brothers to see this.’”

“When Kevin and I got together,” Lee adds, “that was the goal of this film.”

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