“Chi-Raq,” Spike Lee’s controversial film spin on Chicago violence, opened in theaters Friday. Good or bad, Lee’s adaptation of the Greek comedy play ‘Lysistrata’ — in which the women of Greece withhold sex from their men to end the Peloponnesian War — has built up buzz.
This could be good at the box office for its cast, which includes big names like Nick Cannon (Spartans gang leader Chi-Raq) and Wesley Snipes (Trojans gang leader Cyclops); and lesser-knowns, like Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq’s girlfriend Lysistrata) and Michelle Mitchenor, who plays Cyclops’ girlfriend, Indigo.
Lee invited Mitchenor, 27, to audition for the role after working with her on NBA2K16, a motion-capture film accompanying that video game. Mitchenor says “Chi-Raq” does what it’s supposed to: evoke strong emotions about gang violence. A dancer who’s worked with such artists as Beyonce, Rihanna and Alicia Keys, she recently met with students at South Shore International College Prep High School and spoke with reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika. A condensed transcript follows.
“I grew up in a family of seven kids. My father was in the military so we moved around. I say I’m from New Jersey because that’s where I went to high school. I got my B.F.A. in dance at Towson University.
“My first real job in the industry was dancing with Ashante at age 20. I’ve danced with Beyonce, CeeLo Green, Rihanna; toured with Alicia Keys — and this year danced on the Grammy stage with Pharrell Williams and at the BET Awards with Janelle Monae.
“I didn’t want to only be a background dancer, so I dove into acting classes, got an agent, and did two Spike Lee joints this year. In ‘Livin’ Da Dream,’ the feature-length film for NBA2K16, I got the role of Cece, the lead character’s sister. I didn’t find out Spike was director until the night before. Afterward, he reached back out, and said, ‘Have her come in and audition for Chi-Raq.’
“Luckily, when I got to Chicago, I already knew what he expects from his actors. He expects you to take artistic freedom and see where the character leads you; to be ready at any moment in time; come prepared, and come with your own ideas. I love that about Spike. This is definitely a breakthrough role for me, and I’m so honored he trusted me with it. He demands a lot, but helps you grow as an actor.
“I understand why people don’t like the ‘Chi-Raq’ name, but when you see it, you’ll have a better understanding. It’s a powerful name. Art is absolutely supposed to evoke emotion and opinion, so this film is doing its job.
“We take you on an emotional roller coaster, give you a grasp of the impact of the violence — all these shootings, killings, in a small part of town. You have this incredible city that’s like two different worlds, and there are so many cities just like it — where the center is laced with the best of the best architecture, restaurants, museums; and only a few miles down the road, children are being shot.
“Chi-Raq brings attention to that, and hopefully leaves you wanting to do more to address those issues in whatever city you’re in. I hope you’ll also leave with an appreciation for the artistic approach Spike brought to this play. It’s such an artistic film. It doesn’t spoon-feed you. You have to pay attention, listen. I’m proud to be a part of its controversy.
“Hanging with the South Shore students was incredible. What I love about our teens is they’re really opinionated. They were very transparent with me as far as their thoughts on ‘Chi-Raq,’ but way more excited about meeting Cece from NBA2K16. They had great questions. ‘How do you feel when you’re rejected?’ ‘What’s your back-up plan in this unstable business?’ Better than some of these press meets where they ask the same old questions.
“I tell young people interested in performing arts: Your passion, your ambition, your walk for that, has to be greater than your fear of what others think. You can’t be afraid to suck sometimes. You have to understand you’re going to be horrible at some point, but the thing is, you can never be more horrible than you’ve already been.
“To young people wreaking the havoc, I ask, ‘Is it worth it?’ You gotta know that even if you’re the toughest gang-banger, your child, your mom, brother, cousin, could be killed the next day. Everything comes back around. It’s just not worth it.