An encounter with Spike Lee can be a fraught proposition—he can be aggressively in-your-face or monosyllabically dismissive. So when the director, wearing blazing-orange Air Jordans and a black beret with “Chi-Raq” stitched across it, shows up in the lobby of the W Chicago in Streeterville giving half a handshake and pointing toward the hotel’s restaurant with barely a word, it doesn’t bode well for our conversation. But from the moment he sits down, Lee, 58, seems fired up to talk about his new movie, which is slated for release by Amazon this December and, as most people surely know by now, tackles the violence plaguing Chicago. “Chi-Raq!” he says, rubbing his hands together. “Let’s go. I’m ready. Let’s get into it. Ask away.”
You’d barely announced the film when Mayor Emanuel went ballistic over the title and summoned you to City Hall in April. How did that go?
[Chuckles and shakes his head.] OK, so that’s where your mayor and I got off on the wrong foot, right away. What I didn’t like was him trying to paint me as this villain. I’m not the bad guy, but that’s how he was trying to portray it. Do I have the guns? Am I the one pulling the trigger? To be honest, he’s a bully.
So how did you handle it?
You know I’m from Brooklyn, so …
You don’t get bullied?
He’s not gonna bully me. My tactic with the mayor—any bully—is to come out swinging. I said, “Mayor, Your Honor, you’re gonna be on the wrong side of history.”
What was the mayor’s gripe?
That it’s gonna give Chicago a bad image. We started shooting Chi-Raq June 1. We finished July 9. During that time, 331 people got wounded, 65 murdered. New York City has three times the population of Chicago; Chicago has more homicides than New York City. Last week, The Daily Beast had a front-page story saying that Chicago is the No. 1 city in America for mass murders [actually, for mass shootings, defined as three or more people shot in a single incident]. Chicago is the poster boy [for violence]. I’m not making this stuff up. So what’s there to argue then?
His whole thing was, the title is going to hurt tourism, the title is going to hurt economic development. But what tourism is he talking about? While we were shooting the film, you had the NFL draft here. Quarter million people in Grant Park. Can’t get a hotel room, can’t get a reservation. I mean, it’s packed. Then the Grateful Dead. Then Lollapalooza. So this part of the city is booming. But there are no bulletproof double-decker buses going through the Wild Hundreds [the gang-infested area from 100th to 130th Streets] or through Terror Town [a two-by-four-block patch of South Shore]. What economic development is going on in the South Side?
The mayor is a well-educated man. He and my wife both went to Sarah Lawrence. So I know he read Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. It is a fact that Chicago is the most segregated big city in America. That’s not Spike Lee saying that. That’s a fact.
Were you surprised by the reaction to the title?
We knew it was a hot button. I didn’t make up [the term] “Chi-Raq.” It came from local Chicago rappers. But the mayor doesn’t want it to go worldwide because it’s on his watch. It reminds me of the reaction to [Lee’s 1989 movie] Do the Right Thing. That film was a litmus test, because when I read reviews and the critics lamented the loss of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria and never talked about the loss of life of Radio Raheem, that showed me they valued white-owned property over human life. I’ve seen the same thing here.
It’s like Father Pfleger [the outspoken priest at St. Sabina Catholic Church in Auburn Gresham] said: “God’s on our side.” This film is righteous. The No. 1 goal of anybody involved in this film—in front of the camera, behind the camera—was to save lives. Everybody involved knew that going in, and knew it even further while we were making the film. Save lives. This film is about more than Chicago. This film is about the America we are living in today.
Do you believe the mayor was behind other efforts to get the film shut down?
A lot of stuff he might not have done directly, but I see his fingerprints. Like the [17th Ward] alderman, David Moore, who tried to stop us from having a block party for the neighborhood before we started to shoot. [In June, Moore denied a request for a city permit for an annual party held outside St. Sabina; he later relented.] Like [4th Ward alderman] Will Burns, who tried to pass a resolution that we would not be eligible for state tax refunds because of the title.
Here’s the thing: There’s this perception that all of Chicago didn’t want me here. “Spike, get the fuck out of here, go back to New York.” But everywhere I went—North Side, West Side, South Side, black people, white people—I got nothing but love our entire time here. Love.
Except from the mayor.
And a couple of his aldermen. Bootlickers. Yeah, I said it. But as I’d be walking the streets, going to games, the airports, everybody would say, “Keep Chi-Raq. Don’t change the title. Fuck him.” I swear on my mother’s grave. They are coming up to me. I’m not soliciting it.
There were other grumblings—namely, how can Spike Lee, famously of Brooklyn, presume to tell the story of one of the most complicated aspects of Chicago?
There was this perception like: He doesn’t live here. How is he gonna come in and make this film? I’m like: People, have you seen my body of work? I’ve been making films since ’86. Being from New York did not stop me from making two definitive pieces on Katrina that won a Peabody Award and Emmys. I’ve been traveling since I was in college. I’m a global citizen. And the key is, I don’t come into another place saying I’m a fucking expert. I’m gonna get with the people who know what the fuck’s going on. That’s why me and Father Pfleger are so tight. I ask a lot of questions, and I listen.
How did you and Father Pfleger connect?
Three years ago, he invited me to speak here, during [St. Sabina’s] speaker series. I’d never heard of him. I looked and said, “Wait a minute, a white Roman Catholic priest has this church for 40 years in the hood? And his congregation is all black? I gotta check this guy out.”
And what did you find?
He’s one of the most amazing Americans I’ve ever met. Father Pfleger is about the truth. His stance on violence, the battles he’s had with the NRA, with the gun stores—there are very few people who are doing what he’s doing. I’m not just talking about Chicago. I’m talking nationwide. People in Chicago should be proud of him. He’s a hero, in my eyes. John Cusack’s character in the film is loosely based on him.
How did Father Pfleger help?
He was able to point me to two guys—Brandon Jackson and Curtis Toler. Former gang members. I mean, really, really gang members. They changed their lives. They work for Father Pfleger now, running his PeaceMakers. The first day I got here, while in preproduction, Brandon’s younger brother got murdered. So one of the first things I had to do here was go to a funeral.
And then Father Pfleger introduced me to this organization called Purpose Over Pain. These are the mothers here who have lost their children to gun violence. They’re in the movie. And when you see these mothers—I’m not saying it’s not equally painful for fathers, but mothers, there’s just a hole in their soul that’ll never be replaced.
What did you get from the moms?
It’s not good. Many of them attempted to take their lives. I had a similar feeling when I was doing 4 Little Girls, the documentary about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. My daughter was about those girls’ age. And I would have nightmares about her being killed. It is—it should be—the natural way of life that your child outlives you. No one wants to bury their child. Especially behind some bullshit. And so this film deals with the loss of human life.
There has been a lot of speculation about what form this movie would take—that it employs spoken-word poetry, that it’s a musical, that it’s based on the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata. What’s the truth?
[Grins.] OK, so here’s the thing: People who were talking about the film don’t know what they’re talking about. We had a gag order. Like Emily right there [points to the restaurant hostess]—she’s in the film. I told her, “You speak about this film and I’m gonna stab you with a knife.” [Laughs loud enough to make heads turn.] So no one’s talked. I wasn’t even talking.
Well, can you lift your own gag order just a little? Is it a musical?
[Grins coyly.] Music is an integral part of every film I make. I would not classify it as a musical, though.
Yeah, a lot of it.
Are you familiar with the play?
Yes. It seems kind of a quirky conceit for such a serious subject.
Well, this play was written by the Greek playwright Aristophanes, 411 B.C. The lead character was tired of the war between the Trojans [actually, the Athenians] and the Spartans. So she came up with this amazing idea: We could make our men put down their spears, their knives, whatever, if we get all the women together and withhold sex, have a sex strike.
Kevin Willmott—he’s the cowriter—he wrote that version of the script six years ago. We tried to get it done, couldn’t. So we put it down. And then when there was this upsurge of Trayvon [Martin], Mike Brown, Eric Garner—you could go on forever—I said, “Kevin, you still have that script? We should rewrite it together. We’ll keep the premise, Lysistrata, but move it to Chicago, today, South Side.”
So how do you answer those who question the use of an ancient sex farce to tell such a deeply painful, deeply serious story as gun violence?
That’s why we couldn’t get it done at first. People didn’t get it. When we went to Sundance, everybody said no but Amazon. And we had to have two readings for Amazon. They had to hear the words, not read it, and that’s when we got the green light.
But what about the tone?
It is possible to address a very serious subject matter and still have humor. I’ve done it before. Do the Right Thing was serious as hell. It was so serious you can still show that film today—it’s still contemporary. But Do the Right Thing was also funny as a motherfucker. Another example—one of my favorite films, one of my favorite filmmakers: Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove. What’s more serious than the planet’s destruction? But that movie was hilarious. There are many examples—music, plays, novels, movies—where humor has been injected into very serious subject matter.
So people need to relax. They need to stop thinking I’m gonna make light of the loss of life. Please. Calm down. Father Pfleger would have kicked me. He would have damned me to hell a long time ago. C’mon, that’s not who I am. Why would I do that?
Have your views on Chicago changed since getting to know the city more intimately?
First of all, you have to come with an open mind. You have to. You can’t come in thinking, I know more shit than you, and you motherfuckers are stupid. Father Pfleger arranged for me to meet over 100 gang members. Ten blocks away they might shoot each other. They wouldn’t let me film them, but they let me record them. That was a 15-hour day. That was the first day I started doing research. I didn’t know it was this bad. I did not know that a lot of these murders are spurred on by social media. That’s something that hit me.
Gangs posting on Twitter?
Yeah. “I’m in front of your house, come and get me.” That’s just crazy. And then here’s the thing: I have yet to fully comprehend the gang culture here. See, there were gangs growing up in New York, in Brooklyn. But the gang culture here? [Whistles.] It’s on another level here. Another level.
Back in the day, if you killed a kid, you either turned yourself in or you would be killed. Even though gangsters were criminals, they had a code. If you wanted to kill somebody, you’d wait till he was alone and walk up and shoot him. Today, squeeze the trigger of these automatic weapons and you’ve got all this collateral damage. It’s like, “Oh, I’m sorry, all you other people who got shot. It’s just your bad luck you happened to be standing next to the guy I wanted to get.” They don’t care if 50 people gotta get shot to get the one. They’re all right with that. These guys have nothing to live for, so their street cred is how many bodies they got. You change families, lives, for generations. And over some dumb shit.
Given the movie’s theme, what’s your take on recent incidents of unarmed black men being killed by police and the movements that have sprung from that?
I’ve never tried to present myself as a motherfucking spokesperson for 45 million black folks. This is my opinion: We as a people can’t talk only about Black Lives Matter, I Can’t Breathe, Don’t Shoot, and then not talk about this self-inflicted genocide we’re doing to ourselves. For me, it goes hand in hand. Only by talking about both and addressing both can we bring change. Cops ain’t just killing us. We’re killing ourselves, too.
Do you see any solution?
Here’s the thing: One of the biggest criticisms of Do the Right Thing was that Spike didn’t have the answer for racism or prejudice at the end. So I hope you don’t think that Spike has answers for all this stuff. We do have some, but it’s not like A, B, C, D, you do this and everything will be all right. It’s not that simple. But I do hope, and I’m confident, that this will raise the awareness of the situation we have in this country.
It all goes back to guns. We have to have some strong legislation to do something about the gun problem in this country. And it has to be on a city, state, and federal level. What Father Pfleger says—and I agree with him—is we need to title guns like we do cars. There’s no reason in the world for anybody to be able to drive over to Indiana—and this is in the movie, too, guns coming from Indiana—use a fake ID, go to gun shows or to gun shops, and come out with an automatic weapon.
As my man President Obama said after the Oregon shootings, we’re becoming so numb, but we gotta do something. People around the world must be looking at America like, “You running around here saying you’re the moral force of the world, but your actions are doing something different ’cause you people are insane.”