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Rhymefest to Spike Lee: ‘You owe Chicago an apology’

Chicago rapper Rhymefest — a k a Cheland Smith — does not mince words when it comes to Spike Lee’s upcoming film “Chi-Raq.” He took to Twitter on Wednesday with this message: “Spike Lee exploited poor people.”

Rhymefest had plenty to say about the trailer for the controversial film opening Dec. 4, as well as the celebrated filmmaker, during an interview late Wednesday afternoon.

“I’d say [Spike Lee], you owe Chicago an apology. And you owe Chicago your presence to repair the damage. I would like you to come to Chicago and speak to more community leaders and Father [Michael] Pfleger [of St. Sabina Church]. Get with the people who have programs in the community that are effective, and support those programs.”

The singer said his tweet was sparked by his reaction to the film’s trailer, released earlier this week, and to a script of the movie he received from a Chicago actor, whom he would not identify, who was asked to be in the film and then booted in favor of an out-of-towner. Whether the script was the final shooting version, Rhymefest did not know, but said the trailer supported pretty much what he read in the script he received.

Spike Lee at the St Sabina block party Saturday, June 13, 2015 (Brian Jackson/For the Chicago Sun-Times)

Spike Lee at the St. Sabina block party Saturday, June 13, 2015. | Brian Jackson/For the Chicago Sun-Times

“I saw the trailer. It looks just like the script I read, and it verified everything I thought. I was more shocked when I saw the trailer than when I was reading the script. I grieved for the 9-year-old little boy who was shot [Tyshawn Lee], and now a comedy [“Chi-Raq”] is being made about death in Chicago.”

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The film, whose star-studded cast includes Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett and Wesley Snipes, among others, is directed by Lee and co-written by Lee and Kevin Willmott. The satire puts a contemporary spin on the mythological Greek comedic tale of Lysistrata, who gets the women of ancient Greece to withhold sex from their husbands and boyfriends as a way to end the Peloponnesian War. The trailer depicts a group of African-American women joining forces to do just that in Chicago’s toughest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods as a means of ending the violence.

Samuel L. Jackson in "Chi-Raq." | Amazon Studios

Samuel L. Jackson in “Chi-Raq.” | Amazon Studios

“THAT’S how we want to depict our community? THAT’S the answer?” Rhymefest said.

Rhymefest said the idea of the violence in Chicago being compared to a war — hence the film’s title — angers him perhaps most of all.

“Spike Lee should have used Chicago writers. None of them were from Chicago. This movie is not about a war. This is not a war. Wars are fought for a reason generally. People fight over land, over money. . . . That’s not what’s happening on Chicago’s South Side . . . . People like to say its gangs fighting over turf. That’s not it. It’s senseless violence. People feel disrespected and not validated. They’re poor. Guns are cheap. Drugs are cheap. Because guns and drugs are cheap senseless violence happens. The guns and drugs get into the hands of children. . . . You can pick up the story of this film and drop it into any [city]. Chicago was used because of the media’s portrayal of the violence and it was used as a way for [Lee] to sell tickets. We were used. We were exploited. This story is not specific to Chicago.”

But Rhymefest also said the crime stems from the disintegration of the family unit that’s prevalent in society.

“Where do we start [to fix the problem]? With our families. No doubt with our families. If the family can’t be healed then we cannot begin to quell the violence. [Rhymefest recently reconnected with his own father after 25 years, which was depicted in the film “In My Father’s House”]. We have to begin by finding the fathers, the mothers, because some of these children don’t have mothers either. We need to find foster parenting. . . . The mayor is blaming police for not cracking down enough [on the violence] for fear of losing their jobs or being sued. Gov. Rauner cuts off funding to after school programs and free mental health clinics. Preachers are losing their congregations — that’s the best movie I’ve never seen.”

Rhymefest, who refers to Pfleger as “my brother, my mentor,” said he and the priest/community activist do not see eye-to-eye on Lee’s film, which Pfleger has openly supported.

“I love Father Pfleger,” Rhymefest said. “I speak to him once a week. But my brother, my friend, my mentor was used [by Lee]. I told him that. . . . We’re still on good terms. You can disagree with a friend. . . . It’s unfortunate that someone as revered as Spike Lee used his reputation to come in and act like he was gonna help the community and then just leave with the money. I hope he’ll come back and make good on the community. But the money [he’ll make on the film] can’t take back the mockery. It can’t take back opportunity that was missed” by Lee to create a film that truly reflects the violence plaguing Chicago.

“If I were to go to Brooklyn [Lee lives in New York] and grab one community leader and say I’m gonna make a movie called ‘Blacks Kill Blacks All Day in Brooklyn,’ and this movie is written by somebody from Chicago, I don’t think Spike Lee would like that. At the end of the day, I take issue with the name ‘Chi-Raq.’ The way the film was made in secrecy, and then Lee tells us to just trust him. That’s the story of Chicago. Everything’s done in Chicago in secrecy. That’s the politics of Chicago.

“He learned Chicago politics quick,” he said with a laugh.

“I just want to say I’m a fan of Spike Lee, and also fan of some of the films he has made,” Rhymefest continued. “But this is a perfect example of somebody not from Chicago who comes to Chicago and exploits the violence and the situation without leaving anything sustainable in its place.”

Rhymefest said he plans to see the film, and, if it’s “better than what’s in the script or the trailer,” he’s “willing to shake Spike Lee’s hand and apologize.”

Posted on Nov. 5, 2015.

Watch the trailer for “Chi-Raq” here.