Chi-Raq: Interview with Director Spike Lee

chi-raq_posterIn three decades as a filmmaker, Spike Lee has tackled topics as diverse as College fraternities, Jazz music, the Son of Sam murder spree, and influential Black Nationalist Malcolm X.  But but his latest film, Chi-Raq, represents uncharted territory even for the prolific writer and director.

From its incendiary title — a street-slang sobriquet that combines “Chicago” and “Iraq” in a grimly satirical reminder of the rampant violence currently plaguing the city — to its classical roots, Chi-Raq depicts life in a community that has become a combat zone.


“I first heard the term ‘Chi-Raq’ about two years ago,” recalls Spike Lee. “After the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and so many other people of color, I started to post portraits of African-Americans slain by civilians or law enforcement on Instagram.  I got so many responses from people in Chicago saying, you need to look what’s happening here.”

Chicago as War Zone

chi-raq_5_cannonLee learned that Chicago was undergoing a wave of violence that surpassed any other city in the U.S., with statistics that rival those of a war-torn country.  In the first 10 months of 2015, more than 2,500 people had been shot in Chicago. The same period saw 430 homicides. The city had become the poster child for urban violence.

“How is it possible that New York City has three times the population of Chicago, yet Chicago has more homicides than New York City?” asks Lee. “How is it possible that Los Angeles has maybe one and a half times the population of Chicago and Chicago has more homicides than L.A.? It doesn’t bring me joy to say that. But a greater crime would be to duck my head in the sand and not acknowledge what’s going on.”

Baltimore, Maryland, known as ‘BodyMore, Murderland

Lee grapples with violence in America head-on in Chi-Raq, focusing on the sensitive subject of black-on-black crime. “It is like a war out there,” he says. “It’s not just Chicago or New York — Baltimore, Maryland, is known as ‘BodyMore, Murderland’— but it’s on another level in Chicago because of the gangs. And it’s not just an urban issue. Right now, all across America, there are mass shootings. People are being gunned down left and right. This film is not only a declaration against the violence in Chicago, but the violence all across America.”

Ancient Greece to Chicago’s South Side

chi-raq_4Lee and his Co-writer Kevin Willmott have taken the inspiration for Chi-Raq from a play written almost 2,500 years ago, transferring the action of Aristophanes’ satirical masterpiece “Lysistrata” from ancient Greece to the South Side of Chicago. As in the original play, an audacious woman ends a war by organizing a sex strike that forces the powerful men around her to put down their weapons.

“It was Kevin who came up with the idea of taking the play and making a contemporary version of it,” says Lee. “We just went back to the original source and took the conceit of women on a sex strike and placed it on the South Side of Chicago.”

Willmott, a writer-director as well as a professor of film studies at the University of Kansas, impressed Lee with his critically acclaimed 2004 mockumentary CSA: The Confederate States of America, a satirical history of the United States — written as if the South had won the Civil War.

Willmott had read “Lysistrata” in college and even appeared in a production of it. “Aristophanes, the great Greek playwright, wrote the play in 411 BC,” he says. “In it, a group of women who are tired of their men going to war all the time decide to bring them to their senses in the only way they know how. We held on to the structure of the play and incorporated the realities that Chicago and other cities are facing today. It speaks not just to war, but to violence in general.”

chi-raq_3If Lysistrata’s solution sounds like wishful thinking, Willmott can cite plenty of evidence to demonstrate its effectiveness in the real world. “The best known example is Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian peace activist,” he notes. “She led a sex strike there that helped mend the divide between Christians and Muslims in a civil war. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.”

Script in Verse

Chi-Raq is emulating the original text in more than just plot. Like the play, the script is composed in verse. In addition to honoring Aristophanes, the writers believe that a generation brought up on Rap and Spoken-word performance will be comfortable with the meter and rhyme of their dialogue. Also, as in classical Greek theater, the filmmakers place the most violent events offstage, preferring to concentrate on the horror of the aftermath rather than glorify the mayhem.

Sidney Poitier

Willmott points to “Lysistrata’s” long history in the African-American theatrical community. “Sidney Poitier got one of his first breaks in a production of ‘Lysistrata,’ as did Harry Belafonte,” says the writer, who believes the play’s popularity is partly due to the fact that it’s written in verse. “It links to both Rap and Spoken Word, which grew directly out of African-American Traditions and Folktales. The play has held up for so long because the language is so clever and funny and right. To remove it would be sacrilege. Embracing it makes this a unique movie.”

Lee and Willmott’s writing was also influenced by “party records” of the 1960s, popular comedy albums that helped make black performers like Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor and Rudy Ray Moore (Dolemite) into stars across the racial divide. “They often had rhymes, almost raps, that were funny and insightful,” says Willmott.

Mixing Genres

chi-raq_2Like many of Lee’s films, Chi-raq isn’t easily categorized, shifting between intense drama and scathing satire, even incorporating a musical production number. “I don’t do films that can be whittled down to one word or one sentence,” says Lee. “People have been programmed to think you can’t mix elements or tones or genres, that everything has to fit into the Cookie-Cutter Movie Factory. This is not one of those films. If you look at my body of work, I don’t make those types of films.

“Some people have asked how I dare use humor in a movie when blood is running on the streets of Chicago,” Lee adds. “Mixing humor with very serious subject matter has been done time and time again. Look at the great Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. What could be more serious than the destruction of this God’s planet? But that film is hilarious. Aristophanes was one of the great satirists. He dealt with profound themes and looked at them in a new way, which can heighten the point you’re trying to make. We have nothing but respect for the people of Chicago and especially for the Families who have lost loved ones due to senseless violence. But there are many different ways to tell a story and injecting humor into a serious subject is one of them.”

chi-raq_1_jacksonLee’s films have often straddled the line between tragedy and comedy, engaging an audience without overwhelming them with the weight of the serious issues they deal with. “I hope people will come into this film knowing that this is very important subject matter,” he says. “Guns are destroying this country. People are dying. Families are being changed forever. And once again, it comes down to money. The gun manufacturers propel the NRA and the Gun-rights lobby.
“Human life has been devalued, and that’s something this film addresses,” the filmmaker continues. “Why are so many young people accustomed to having friends or family members killed? We don’t talk about post-traumatic stress syndrome in this setting, but what happens when these kids go to school, look to their left and to their right, and suddenly a chair is empty. We have to apply the same standards to our Children that are applied to Children in War-torn countries. We’re supposedly the most civilized country on God’s planet, but we don’t look like that to the rest of the world if every time they pick up a paper they see that some crazy American went into a School or a Movie Theater or a Church and killed people with automatic weapons.”

First Amazon Original Movie

Chi-Raq is the first production of Amazon Original Movies, which plans to produce about a dozen feature films each year that will be released in theaters before running exclusively on the company’s streaming service. “Kevin and I took the finished script to Sundance and had meeting after meeting after meeting,” Lee says. “Amazon showed real interest in making the movie we wanted to make. The script can be challenging to read, since it’s written in verse, so we had two readings for Amazon in Los Angeles.”

Willmott adds that the support of Ted Hope, head of production for Amazon Original Movies, was key to getting the film made. “Ted Hope of Amazon is a legendary filmmaker in his own right,” says the screenwriter. “He and Amazon are the perfect partners for this film because they’re interested in making relevant and artistic films. It’s been a great combination.”

Lee has created acclaimed documentaries about the destruction of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the notorious 1963 murder of four young girls in a firebombing in an Alabama church. But he says he chose a narrative approach to tackling the subject of gun violence for a simple reason: “We thought that we could reach more people with a feature film than with a documentary. The goal has always been to try and save some lives. The people who are doing all this crazy stuff, they’re not going to watch a documentary.”

Willmott and Lee hope to convey the emotional toll of Chicago’s unrelenting violence in a film that is challenging and insightful, but also engaging. “Both Spike and I are concerned with Black-on-Black crime,” says Willmott. “Everybody’s frustrated by it, but not much is said, because most people don’t know what to say. We were trying to find a way to re-focus attention with a movie. It’s a new way of talking about the problem.”