A day after the star-studded world premiere of “Chi-Raq” at the Chicago Theatre, during one of the most controversial pre-release sagas in recent film history, Spike Lee can’t help but raise his voice when he addresses critics who (without seeing the movie) expressed outrage, believing the movie wouldn’t be a serious and respectful treatment of the carnage in Englewood.
“Why would Jennifer Hudson be part of a film that made a mockery, a travesty of her murdered mother, brother, nephew. Why would Jennifer Hudson be part of a Spike Lee film that trivialized her three family members that got murdered?”
Hudson plays a grieving mother of a young girl who was taken by a stray bullet, caught in the gang wars between the Spartan and Trojans, two longtime South Side rivals. (The Greek references are indicative of the original inspiration for “Chi-Raq”: the satire “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes.
There’s a key scene in the movie where Hudson’s character is joined by dozens of parents holding up posters of their murdered children.
“Those are [actual parents from Chicago] holding up posters of their real sons and daughters that got murdered by gun violence on the South and West Sides of Chicago,” says Lee. “Why would they desecrate the memory of their children in some bull—- by Spike Lee? Why would they do that? They wouldn’t.”
If the script wasn’t respectful, I say, Jennifer Hudson would have throw it across the room.
“She would have slapped the s— out of me,” says Lee. “And you know what? I would have deserved it. If I had done that, every mother in pain should have lined up and slapped the s— out of me.”
From the moment it was announced Lee was making a film about Chicago gang wars and a unique effort by women to put an end to the violence, there was resistance, with some elected officials trying (in vain) to stop the film from receiving tax credits, Lee calling Mayor Rahm Emanuel a “bully” and the aforementioned outcry when the first trailer for the film highlighted the music and the satire over the heavy dramatic scenes.
“It’s unfortunate some people think I’m some robber baron coming to Chicago, to this great city, and take advantage of a brutal situation — but think once people see the full movie and not a two-minute, 30-second trailer, they will see that the love for Chicago is still there and never left.
“In [my critics’] defense, people are very sensitive about this situation, and I understand that.”
As for the world premiere, Lee was gratified at the reaction.
“Oh it was great, it was great. People were with it … they were hip to the satire. They knew when to laugh, they knew when it was humorous — but when it got serious no one was laughing.”
Lee said virtually every time he promotes a film, he’s asked, “What do you want people to think when they leave the theater?” and he almost always declines to answer because he doesn’t want to tell audiences what to think—but he’s making an exception with this film.
“[I hope] people talk about how we really have to do something about guns. Now I don’t want people blowing up your email about this, Richard — I’m not talking about taking away people’s Second Amendment rights.
“Chicago has tight, tight gun laws, but as John Cusack’s character [playing a priest very similar to St. Sabina’s Rev. Michael Pfleger] says in his sermon, you’re 20 minutes from Indiana, where [someone using a fake ID can buy a gun] and that gun ends up being used for senseless violence.
“Father Pfleger is my Catholic brother, my Roman Catholic brother. He is a great American, a living saint, and he is the moral spirit of this movie. And if you listen to him, why can’t we title guns like cars? What’s the objection to that?
“Common sense. Why can’t we have tougher background checks?”
Lee’s parting words: When it comes to Chicago, other than the sports rivalries his beloved Knicks et al have with our teams:
“I love Chicago. I’ve always loved Chicago. Don’t get it twisted.”