Sunday, October 25, 2015

hizzoner rahm objected to the truthtelling of Chi-Raq...,

rsn | In his first in-depth interview for his upcoming film, the outspoken director discusses Chicago and how the mayor tried—and failed—to “bully” him. 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.