Lee asked Jennifer Hudson to play a Chicago mother angrily mourning her young daughter, shot in the street by a stray bullet; she agreed to channel her own grief and loss of three family members, to moving effect. The rhyming stops only for John Cusack as an outraged neighborhood priest presiding at her child’s funeral, complete with soaring gospel choir and white-robed dancing girls, who delivers a passionate sermon to his black congregation and tries to broker peace.
Lee seeks to provoke and challenge and make change, he says. And keep us entertained, too. Lysistrata organizes a large group of Chicago women to vow to “deny all rights of access or entrance” to their men (among them, Wesley Snipes and Dave Chapelle) until they agree to stop killing. Lee portrays the women as provocative sex objects sporting the purple or orange colors of Troy and Sparta, waving their chastity-belted booties in the air en masse at the armory they have overtaken; sex is their weapon of change, and the dim-witted men around them driving gaudy vintage vehicles are besotted and bereft.
In some ways, the extent to which Lee sticks to the original Greek text bogs him down; some of the transpositions to urban Chicago work better than others. Writer Kevin Wilmott brought him the script and they developed it together. The movie demands concentration to parse the rhyming language which ranges from catchy to dense, from “this shit is whack” to “your nigga is invincible.”
Lee has worked for the studios (“Malcolm X,”
“25th Hour,” and “Inside Man”) as well as supporting young
filmmakers (“Cronies”) and raising indie financing on Kickstarter for
VOD vampire flick “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.” Now he enters the Amazon
Studios universe. “Chi-Raq” came to Instant Video within a month of
its release, and is available today at no extra cost to Prime members — marking
a different, more theater-friendly model from Netflix’s recent day-and-date
opening of “Beasts of No Nation” via Bleecker Street, which
predictably yielded few folks in national Landmark theaters. While it’s
expensive to open a movie in December at the height of the crowded award
season, Amazon is following the filmmaker’s lead.
Press-savvy Lee has been in the news regularly since
accepting his honorary Oscar at the November 14 Governors Awards: defending
‘Chi-Raq’ against accusations that it makes light its subject matter, penning
an open letter about the #OscarsSoWhite nominations controversy, and debuting
his new documentary, “Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off
Wall,” at Sundance in advance of its Showtime premiere February 5.
Anne Thompson: I loved your gold Air Jordans at the Governors Awards.
Spike Lee: The Oscar edition. [Laughs]
What is your goal with this movie?
The goal is to save lives. Save lives. Hopefully spark
discussion, a movement, of what we can do as a country. Do something about
guns. I’m not talking about taking away people’s Second Amendment rights; I’m
talking about more diligent, thoughtful legislation. More stringent background
checks. Start to title guns like cars. Vote for politicians who aren’t in the
pocket of the NRA and gun manufacturers. We need all the things we can do.
Was there ever a thought of doing this as a documentary?
No. I’m not done with documentaries, but that was not the approach
we wanted to take with this film.
You deploy your characters as mouthpieces for your ideas. Is this is an agitprop movie?
Well, I don’t want to use one word to describe it, but I would
say we hope this film spurs people to conversation and action.
Watch: “Spike Lee Addresses Critics with Second ‘Chi-Raq’ Trailer, as Amazon Studios Tries New Release Model”
What happened with your spat with Rahm Emanuel? That seemed intense.
Well, not really. I respect the mayor; he has his opinion about the title of the film and I have a different opinion. I think it became more of a distraction. This film’s not about what differences I have with the mayor; that’s not what this film’s about.
You’ve got Sam Jackson as the narrator. Is he playing the same role as the chorus in “Lysistrata”?
Greek chorus. Like in “Do the Right Thing.”
You’ve also got musical numbers in this, which is a genre hybrid. Did you consider mounting a musical? You have that wonderful gospel scene, with dancers.
They’re called “faith dancers,” and that’s something I’d never seen before…It’s not a musical; it’s musical elements…Well, maybe on Broadway. But music’s always been a big part of my films. I mean, that’s not anything new.
What’s the opening number?
The opening number that Nick performs is called “My City.” We have the old Chi-Lites song “Old Girl.” That’s the only stuff that’s performed, really.
There’s a really theatrical element about it. And the way you use words. I love “Payback is a motha.”
[Laughs] That’s the old godfather of soul, James Brown.
The use of language is striking and daring. Did this stylized rhyming allow you to go for broke with the language? It’s vivid and colorful.
We’d have gone broke regardless. [Laughs] I don’t think the language has anything to do with it. We’re trying to save lives, so you’ve got to go for broke. We didn’t want to be tied into one specific genre. I like to mix stuff up…I think people are having this, “Should I laugh? I know it’s serious, but…” That’s what satire does, and I think some people have a hard time understanding the difference between humor and comedy. There’s a big difference. This is not a comedy; this is a satire.
I was on alert! It’s a challenging, dense movie.
You know what, I would say that some movies you’ve got to see more than once. I mean, that happens to me. I can watch “On the Waterfront” for the 100th time and see stuff I haven’t seen before.
Do you think about who your target audience is? They have to be smart and pay attention to the words.
Well, that’s good, though! I mean, it’s good sometimes when you have to work when you come to the movie theater. [Laughs] I’m sorry to make you work a little bit. [Laughs] There’s an audience out there that doesn’t get to see a lot of these films. So I think there’s an audience for this film — that’s had enough of people flying through the air and stuff like that. I’m not trying to disrespect anybody’s film. We hope there’s an audience out there that’s been underserved, that wants to see provocative stuff that has humor in it, too.
At the Academy Governors Awards you lined up
this amazing trio of guys to present you with your honorary Oscar.
The Academy said, “Pick one person.” I said, “I can’t do that. I
want Denzel, I want Samuel L. Jackson, and I want Wesley.” I asked each one of
them and they all said yes.
And they were all charming, and none read the teleprompter.
We didn’t have a teleprompter! [Laughs] It was all off-the-cuff.
But it was an amazing night, and people really see how we feel about
each other up there; I hope that came across.
It did. I like what Edward Norton said: “Every Spike Lee film is a personal film.”
Well, thank you, Mr. Norton. [Laughs]
Now Amazon has come through for you. They’re releasing your movie in this new way. How do you feel about their distribution system?
Well, we’re going to be in theaters first, and then we go to Amazon Prime. I just hope that we get as many people as we can get into the theaters, in the theater seats — butts in the seats before we go to Prime.
Is there a timeframe? It’s like a month, right?
Yeah. It depends upon how we play.
So it’ll be organic. If you hold on to screens. It’s real distribution.
Then they’ll push it back. I’m not complaining at all. I’m not complaining.
How old are your kids now?
20 and 18. They go to NYU film school.
How do you feel about that? Do you want them to be in the same business as you?
They’re a talented two, so there’s nothing wrong with having generational… whether they be lawyers or doctors or dentists or filmmakers.
But you like writing.
Hard to do, though.
It’s a bitch.
You could say that again. You could say that again. You’re not going to say it? Why not?
It’s a bitch!
Thank you! [Laughs]
What else are you working on nowadays?