"This is an emergency." That’s what the title card flashing across the opening credits of Spike Lee’s new film "Chi-Raq" tells the audience before detailing how, since 2001, there have been more gun-related homicides in the city of Chicago than American casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. The film itself is a bold, sexy, sometimes raunchy satire of how a gangster’s girlfriend (Teyonah Parris) leads a sex strike ("no peace, no pussy") against gun violence, complete with dialogue written in verse, a roaming narrator (Samuel L. Jackson) and choreographed dance numbers.
While "Chi-Raq" is very much set in the here and now, its origins date back to screenwriter Kevin Willmott acting in the ancient greek play "Lysistrata," which "Chi-Raq" is based upon, back in college and a screenplay he wrote over a decade ago.
Indiewire recently talked to Willmott, a filmmaker and film professor at the University of Kansas, about his collaboration with director Spike Lee and how their research trips to Chicago changed both men and made making “Chi-Raq” feel like an emergency.
What were the origins of "Chi-Raq" and how did you come to work with Spike Lee?
I made a film, "C.S.A: The Confederate States of America," and Spike really liked it and signed on as the presenter of the film, so it became "presented by Spike Lee." That was in 2004-2005 and at that time I gave him my script "Got To Give It Up," which was the basis of what is now "Chi-Raq."
He really liked it and we tried to get it made. We went to all the major studios and it didn’t quite happen, so we both went on to other things, until he called me last October, or around then, and said, "I still have that script. Let’s set it in Chicago and call it ‘Chi-Raq.’"
From there we started rewriting the script and went to Chicago to do research about the specific situation and made more changes.
Obviously adapting it to Chicago and incorporating more current events were some changes, but was the rhyming dialogue and comedic tone part of your original script, or was that something Spike wanted?
The was in the original script. Actually, it was all in verse in the beginning. Dolmedes, the narrator played by Samuel L. Jackson, was in the original script. We actually had to take comedic things out of the script. It was always a satire, but when you deal with such specific serious issues like the gun violence in Chicago you have to remove some comedy from it.
The more comedic things, the things that weren’t exactly embedded within the point of the film — trying to deal with gun violence and gangs — we removed that and brought in more dramatic elements.
One of the big changes is we brought in the Father Corridan [John Cusack] character, who was based Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina’s Church and that was a huge change because his character, along with developing what became the Chi-Raq character [a gang leader played by Nick Cannon], is the real through line in terms of what the specific Chicago problems are all about.
Why write in verse? It definitely seems like you had some fun with it.
I was the funnest thing, but it was also the hardest thing to make people understand. That was the thing that hurt us 13 years ago. Fortunately, we had a reading for Amazon and they got it. It was the reading that sold them, I’m sure.
I was in the play "Lysistrata" in college and I realized how much it had an African American kind of cadence, it really sounded like black people. I’m talking about literally the Greek Aristophanes B.C. thing. It really lent itself to spoken word, to rap and rhyme. I just thought don’t take the verse away, embrace the verse and Spike got that. I don’t think there’s anybody else in the country that would have gotten it [laughs], but Spike got that and loved that from the very beginning. We’re from the same generation and I just think the jokes, the references and all things that verse can give you is one of the things he embraced and he just added more elements.
How much of the "this is an emergency" detailed in the opening credits was a guiding force in your collaboration with Spike? How much of the discussion was focused on how the film needed to make an impact and make people aware of the epidemic of gun violence, rather than more typical screenwriting shop talk about things like character arc and narrative structure?
I think when you go to Chicago and you get in the world of St. Sabina Church and you get into the world of Father Pfleger and you get into the world of the mothers and fathers who have lost children, you are changed forever. You just come out of there with this feeling it is an emergency and if the rest of the country doesn’t know it’s an emergency they really need to know. Ultimately that was it.
We always knew gun violence in this country was bad, but when you hear so many stories and you see the normalcy of violence like it is in Chicago you are changed forever. You can’t come out of there and not see the world a little different. I think it affected Spike the way it affected most of us and that this was an emergency and there’s an urgency to this.
In the bigger picture, Chicago is just America. America loves to kill people. America loves to murder people and you just have to say it like that. That’s what we do here, we kill people. And we make it easy for people to kill people. Guns are readily available for anybody.
"Lysistrata" was always based on trying to stop war and there’s war going on inside America right now and its with each other. You just can’t make it up, it’s so insane. You just try to can make a film that makes people stop and reassess and hope that maybe some gang members will stop and reevaluate their lives.
I’m sure you know from your own writing and teaching career that exposition can be the death of most screenplays and stories.
This film has a great deal of information it wants to get across, not just what is going on in our cities, but telling us why it is going on. Is it just the fact that this is an emergency and you’re going to put this out there, screw trying to be subtle about it?
Yeah, that’s Spike’s kind of appoach. When you are honest about American life, subtle doesn’t work for us, we’re too stupid for subtle. If we were smarter than we are there wouldn’t be all these murders. If we were smarter we would say, "oh, I get it, we should do something about that." People don’t understand satire any more, Hollywood doesn’t make satire much any more, the only satire you see is something like "The Daily Show" where they show the film clip before they tell the joke. They have to educate the audience before they tell the joke because they can’t rely on the audience to know history and the news like you could in the ’60s with "Dr Strangelove."
It’s harder to do satire now and I think the problems of Chicago are such that there’s an educational component to the film, and I think when you balance it out with funny and dramatic [elements] the information in the movie becomes educational.
I don’t like exposition as much as the next guy, but when we live in such a stupid country I don’t know how else you get around it. Subtle has not worked well for us. Sophisticated people think they get it and say, "oh, this is great," but that is such a small percentage of the people out there that we want to reach with the film. The sophisticated people aren’t the ones we want to reach with the film, I mean the sophisticated people aren’t the victims of what’s going on.