Spike Lee has built an astonishing career as a multigenerational filmmaker, crafting some of the most iconic cult classics of the past 40 years. From era-defining films like Do The Right Thing and School Daze, to Malcolm X and Bamboozled, the Brooklyn-bred director has consistently told compelling stories that personify the pulse of contemporary culture.
Respected for his fearlessness and unapologetic opinion, Lee has transcended his profession as a director, rising as a creative activist committed to teaching, provoking thought and igniting dialogue needed to elevate social consciousness. By commonly exploring the deep complexities of race, power, identity and sexuality through a very unique perspective, Spike Lee poses no opposition to playing the antagonist if, in turn, it challenges the status quo. As such, his most recent film has managed to accomplish all of the above.
The theatrical release of Chi-Raq has sparked heated debate and intense criticism since debuting in theaters December 4th. Starring a carefully-selected cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris and Angela Bassett, the movie presents a modern adaptation of the historic stage play Lysistrata, created in 400 B.C. by Greek dramatist and comedic playwright Aristophanes. In the play, amidst a vicious war, Lysistrata contrives the unorthodox idea to organize a collective of women from opposing sides to stage a sex strike in efforts to cease conflict and spark a revolution. By depriving these warrior men of sex, compassion and companionship, Lysistrata believed even the most barbaric of men would be stripped of their deepest power source — love. More tangibly, they would be without the unrelenting and unconditional love of a woman.
Lee’s bold and unconventional approach to attacking topics of gun violence, masculinity, sexual power and the politics of oppression pierced through the surface and placed many on edge. Setting Chicago’s South Side as the backdrop, Chi-Raq uses an artful blend of verse, performance art and satire to create a contemporary metaphor that serves to contextualize the systematic and socioeconomic plague paralyzing inner cities across America. The film’s fictional depiction of Chicago gives audiences an unrestricted glimpse into the trauma of an isolated area haunted by poverty, unemployment, gang violence and senseless killing.
Following the framework of previous works such as Bamboozled, Lee’s use of rhetoric functions as more disruptive and brash than harmless and hysterical. As a result, the presumed parody of the film shows up as negligent or insensitive toward a frequently targeted city, ultimately landing Lee at the center of excessive scrutiny. Yet, buried beneath the mountain of rocks thrown at the movie, exists a dark cave of inconvenient truths that address deeper issues of awareness and accountability that have seemingly evaded critical conversations about issues crippling the black community.
Although art is inherently subjective, the intention of Chi-Raq is not to perfectly depict the existing trauma infecting Chicago’s inner city. Instead, as with all expressions of art, the purpose of Chi-Raq is to challenge common perception, expose untapped information and spark the conversations needed to inspire action.
I spoke with Spike Lee about the intention driving his film, combatting violence in the black community, the conversation around gun control, and how he addresses skeptics who challenge his mission.
Julian Mitchell: What were some of the issues facing Chicago that you wanted to bring to the surface that aren’t being directly addressed or explored on the level that you believe they should be?
Spike Lee: Murder. It’s about murder, and the rate at which we’re killing ourselves. We can’t stand for this self-inflicted genocide. In fact, John Cusack, who delivers a memorable performance, says it in the eulogy, “We can’t stand for this self-inflicted genocide anymore.” We repeated that two or three times. Some people have an issue when I’m talking about Black Lives Matter. Yes, black lives do matter. I was out there on my bike marching with everybody in New York City. I was at Mike Brown’s funeral. I took my son there. So, for people who say I’m taking shots or being critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, know that I stand with the movement. But, I also must be true. I’m very aware of the systematic challenges we face as a people, and the realities of racism and oppression in this country. At the same time, I also have to be honest. We can’t talk about the police killing us and not speak about us killing us. One can’t negate the other.
JM: In your eyes, what makes that reality so hard for people within the black community to accept or begin to spark an honest dialogue around?
SL: First of all, white people know what divides us, because they’re the ones who put these systems in place — socially, politically, and so forth. You can trace that back to the house Negroes and the field Negroes – what do you think that was about? So, white people knew that way before I started making movies. But, I understand it. I understand the anger you feel when you’re beat down by the system and you know it’s set up for us not to succeed. I know the frustration. We know the public school system is a direct pipeline to prisons, more specifically, privatized prisons. So, I understand it’s hard for us to be honest, because we’re beat down. As black people, we’re broken, and I understand. But, even despite that, the truth is the truth. The guns that are killing black lives in this country are not just in white hands. It’s not just policeman who are killing our people in the United States of America. I don’t think it’s blasphemous to say that.
JM: How important is it to have Teyonah Parris as the heartbeat of this film when so much attention is publicly placed on the young men who are at war in these inner cities?
SL: The play that this film is based upon is called Lysistrata, written by the great playwright Aristophrones in 400 B.C. I simply wanted to stay true to the play, which is about a strong woman. If you were to flip that, it would be defeating the purpose, and the main character would have been killed too. We always knew, and took pride in knowing that the heroine in this movie was going to be a woman; a strong, black woman. The main premise of the play is the lead character, Lysistrata, organizing women to have a sex strike. It’s about how their bodies are being used as a tool or a strategy to stop the killing. That play has been done a million times on stages, and I felt like, in this highly sexualized world we live in today, this would be something that would effectively deliver the message and attract people’s attention.
JM: With the play being written over two centuries ago, when today’s generation thinks of Lysistrata, they will think of Teyonah Pharris – how significant is portraying that image of a black woman as a leader of such a revolution in today’s times?
SL: Imagery is very important. Imagery has been really important in the dehumanization of our people. That’s why I made the film Bamboozled 15 years ago. It’s critical that we tell new stories and present more diverse images of ourselves as a people, and a community. We need to see ourselves in many different ways, not just one way. We wanted to paint the picture that our women have so much power and influence — with our men, with authority figures, and simply embody everything needed to change society.
JM: One underlying message within the film is individual accountability, beyond overcoming the systematic and socioeconomic obstacles that stand in the way of progression in our communities — do you feel that is the essential takeaway?
SL: I’ve been saying it since School Daze. What are the last two words of School Daze, delivered by Laurence Fishburne? Wake up. What are the first two words of Do The Right Thing, delivered by Samuel L. Jackson? Wake up! What are the last two words of Chi-Raq, delivered by Samuel L. Jackson? Wake Up! I’ve been saying those two words in my films for years, but people still aren’t awake.
JM: The films you’ve created throughout your career have reached so many people and been presented on such a massive platform — what does that then say about how we can enlighten the current and future generations?
SL: It means that we have to keep saying it. We have to stand for truth and keep speaking up. We have to keep telling these stories and keep telling the truth. But, it looks like we’re losing it. It looks like we’re losing hope for waking up when young brothers think it’s acceptable to murder 9-year-olds like Tyshawn Lee in Chicago. That’s just crazy. I don’t care what his father did, or any supposed gang affiliation he had, no child should be executed. That’s just not acceptable. We have to be honest and say this is just not ok. We have failed our young black men if they that is ok. We have failed our young black men if they feel completely comfortable with dying without living past 18 years old. Young brothers feel like nobody loves them, and nobody cares about them, they don’t see the options and they don’t value their lives. If they don’t value their own lives, then you know they don’t value somebody else’s life.
JM: You’ve stated the emphasis on addressing the staggering number of murders in Chicago and the need for individual accountability — what other key issues in particular are you hoping to spark honest discussion around?
SL: We really need to talk about guns in this country. Let’s really address this deadly issue that we’re dealing with. We can’t keep running from it. We have not really had a serious discussion about guns, in my opinion, because it hasn’t led to any legislation. It hasn’t impacted the areas that matter most. It hasn’t led to having stricter background checks. You can buy guns in this country with the title of a car. We’re also still supporting politicians that are being funded by the NRA and gun manufacturers. So, I hope we start seeing real dialogue and movement around this issue. This isn’t meant to be a pun, or a double entendre, but it’s seriously killing us. Whether people are comfortable and shocked by it, my intention is to take it there and have the conversation.