Artist, writer, and actor Tony Fitzpatrick has spent his career transcribing his affection for Chicago. Whether it's in the form of his Newcity column, Dime Stories, or as a monologue from his 2014 play, Midnight City, Fitzpatrick weaves detailed stories of life in Chicago. Fitzpatrick is an outspoken critic of the mayor—in 2014 he told this magazine, “Rahm Emanuel is the worst person we’ve ever elected”—a budding ornithologist, and an enduring White Sox fan. He is, by all accounts, an orator of the Third Coast.
That’s why when Fitzpatrick announced (on Facebook) that he was playing Chief Riptide, the chief of police in Spike Lee’s controversial film Chi-Raq, I had questions. So in anticipation of the film’s December 4 premiere, Fitzpatrick and I chatted about the movie, Chicago’s reaction, and what it was like to audition for Lee.
When you announced that your role as Chief Riptide in Chi-Raq, you mentioned that Spike Lee told you the film would make a difference. What did he say exactly?
How do you think this film can save lives?
I think when people witness the fallout, the collateral damage, the absolute genocide on the streets of Chicago for years, it’ll perhaps lead to some soul searching. The kids that this movie is primarily about, they’ll go see it. I think it’ll embolden the community and bring people forward and not just embrace this code of silence.
What was it like to audition for Spike Lee?
Easiest audition I’ve ever had. I originally read for the part of the Mayor. John Cusack had told Spike about my column and I got called for an audition. When people say you’re going to go read for Spike Lee, you don't know what to think. But he was really warm. I was a little nervous and he was cognizant of that. It was a great experience.
Is Chief Riptide modeled after Garry McCarthy?
He’s really not based on McCarthy at all. That wasn’t at all what I was thinking when I played the part. Playing the chief of police, I made it a point not to be cartoonish or in anyway a caricature. As far as the action, this is definitely a guy from the outside looking in. I just sensed a guy who was a law and order guy, somebody with a military bearing. The refreshing thing about this film is that the police are not the bad guys.
Let’s talk about all the backlash against the film.
I think it’s the same political forces—same people carrying the water for Emanuel—who have been badmouthing this from the beginning. It bears mentioning that there were no incidences of violence surrounding the shooting of Chi-Raq—none at all.
There was never a tone of screwing around or goofiness on this film. Spike would remind everybody that this film is for the people who are no longer here and those who experience constant loss. Everybody on set knew that there was a mission. Spike also hired hundreds of people to be extras in a neighborhood where unemployment is like 35 percent. There was a summer jobs program this year—it was Chi-Raq.
What was it like working with Spike Lee?
Great. He started shooting June 1st and finished July 9th. And he got all of it. He was like a field general. He’s generous, decent, and when I first got the part, I didn’t have a whole lot of lines, but he told me to just try things out. He’s a Knicks fan, though, and I tried to disavow him of that.
When Spike Lee responded to the criticism of Chi-Raq, he emphasized that the film is a satire and does not, in any way, make light of the gun violence epidemic. What, in your opinion, rings true about the film?
What rings true is the huge loss of what’s happened here. I think it’s high time this conversation happened. And someday, we’ll probably thank Spike for this. This conversation demands a reckoning. About violence. About race. About class. And how ridiculously easy it is to get handguns in this city.
Chi-Raq opens on December 4. What do you want to communicate to audiences before they see the film?
See the film and talk about it. This is a discussion that should be had around every dinner table in the city. What can we do to make things better? What I like about the film is that is asks something of us as citizens. It asks us to be responsible. You are your bother’s keeper. There’s something wrong in your city, there’s something wrong in your life. It's going to make people love Chicago more because when we have to take into account how much we’ve lost, you have to come to a reckoning about how you feel about a place.
Want to know more about Chi-Raq before the movie comes out on December 4? Read Lee’s in-depth interview with Chicago magazine about the film, what he hopes to convey, and how he handled Mayor Emanuel.