Reggae Music News

Spike Lee on his bold and brash ‘Chi raq’: ‘Art can change the world’

By Cassandra Szklarski


Chi Raq' soundtrack

TORONTO _ Spike Lee’s satirical big-screen musical about gun violence in Chicago certainly isn’t subtle.

And the provocative director isn’t surprised “Chi-raq” has elicited sustained controversy since before he even began filming.

After all, Lee says he was out to make a statement _ or “go for broke,” as he puts it.

“I understand that people are very sensitive about their cities and neighbourhoods and that’s not new to me, I will continue to make films and present the truth as I see it,” Lee says in a recent phone interview.

“I know going in there are going to be people who do not agree.”

Criticism has dogged Lee since word emerged he was tackling black-on-black gun violence and calling the project “Chi-raq,” a slang reference to the city of Chicago and the thousands of shootings that take place there every year.

Immediately, some observers raised concerns: that such a bold approach stigmatized Chicago, that using satire wasn’t appropriate for so serious an issue, and that the story and skimpy outfits exploited women.

There has been praise, too, for the film’s eye-popping cinematography, its daring commitment to verse, its experiments with visual style _ not to mention its undeniable topicality.

Nevertheless, Lee has found himself on the defensive.

“I would ask women specifically, black women, who had problems with imagery of this film, I would ask them point blank: Did you have problems with the imagery of black women in Beyonce’s music video ‘Formation’? I think it’s very similar,” he says.

“My film and Beyonce’s, they portray women as very strong and independent and in charge of their sexuality.”

Inspired by the Aristophanes play “Lysistrata,” first performed in 411 BC, the story centres on a woman named Lysistrata, played by Teyonah Parris, who is fed up with a bloody gang war involving her rapper boyfriend Chi-raq, played by Cannon.

Lysistrata moves in with her peace activist neighbour, played by Angela Bassett, and grows increasingly outspoken after an 11-year-old neighbourhood girl is caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting.

She persuades the wives and girlfriends of each gang member to swear off sex with their men until the fighting stops.

Jennifer Hudson plays the young victim’s mother, and Lee notes her tragic personal history adds powerful dimension to the storyline.

Hudson’s mother, brother, and nephew were killed by gun violence in the south side of Chicago in 2008.

Lee says he was reluctant to approach Hudson for the role, but that ultimately “she wanted to do it.”

“At the same time it was very painful,” he says, citing a tough scene in which her character scrubs the child’s blood from the pavement with a brush and bucket.

But there’s no sense holding back with Lee, who acknowledges feeling a sense of urgency in making this film.

“America historically is a very violent country _ it glorifies violence through TV, film, whatever and we have to do something about it,” he says.

The film’s sprawling storyline allows the film to tackle broader political arguments including unemployment, poverty and mass incarceration.

Lee makes no bones about his goal: changing the world.

“There always will be debate about whether art can change the world and put me on the side that raises their hand and says, ‘Art can change the world’,” says Lee.

“Art can have an impact, I’m on that side. And I’ll always be on that side.”

“Chi-raq” opens Friday in Toronto, and on iTunes. It heads to Vancouver and Calgary on April 1.

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