Spike Lee believes Chi-Raq will save lives on the south side of Chicago and beyond—but so far he’s done a poor job of articulating how that will happen.
Chi-Raq, which opens nationwide on Friday (and which Leor Galil wrote about in a long review we published last week), is a satire loosely based on Aristophanes’s Lysistrata. Set on Chicago’s south side, it portrays the murder of a child and how a group of women decide to go on a “sex strike” until the gun violence ends. The Brooklyn-based filmmaker proclaimed his latest work a “lifesaver” during a panel and Q&A that was sponsored by Apple and took place in the tech giant’s SoHo-neighborhood store in Manhattan on Wednesday night. I was one of roughly 120 attendees.
“We told everyone involved . . . that we wanted to save lives with this film,” Lee said. “That was the goal from the get-go. We think we’re going to do that. This film comes from a righteous place, a spiritual place. We put value on human lives.”
Perhaps because that statement sounded so boldly hubristic, Chicago actor John Cusack—one of Chi-Raq‘s stars and a copanelist—assured us that it wasn’t.
“I don’t think that comes from a messianic point of view,” Cusack said. “But if Spike or other artists didn’t believe that art didn’t have the possibility for a voice for change, then we wouldn’t do it. There’s a part of us that believes art is supposed to effect change.”
The hour-long conversation with Lee and Cusack led to some incisive commentary on Chicago and the nation’s gun-violence problem—but it did little to illuminate us on why Chi-Raq was part of the answer, even when the question was posed to Lee. One of the first questions came from a woman sitting next to me, who asked Lee why he thinks his satire about gun violence could “spark a revolution” instead of apathy or a backlash.
“Number one, I believe in my craft, my storytelling, and I believe in the actors we cast,” he replied. “And we have a righteous cause.”
That’s it. It was such a truncated, empty answer that it led to an awkward pause while we waited for an elaboration that never came. Another audience member asked if Chi-Raq would address the broader structural issues that exacerbate the violent conditions in Chicago—racism, segregation, and classism. Lee responded by referencing a sermon delivered in the movie by Cusack, who plays a Catholic priest and social activist based on Father Michael Pfleger.
“A lot of stuff you just talked about, he deals with that.”
And when asked by a former Chicagoan how “a New York cat is going to tell Chicago’s story,” Lee went on the defensive.
“Let me ask you a question, have you seen my documentary about four little girls? I’m not from Birmingham, Alabama. Do you see my documentaries about Katrina? I’m not from New Orleans. But I’m smart enough to know to get with the people that are from there,” said Lee. “It’s a legit concern, but go to my IMDB and look at my body of work, it speaks for itself.”
But Spike, you’re here to speak for your work, not let it speak for you.
To be fair to Lee, it’s true that too many critics rushed to condemn Chi-Raq in advance, whether based on its title (“Rahm asked me to change the title because it could hurt tourism or economic development, and I said no,” said Lee) or the three-minute trailer. And it’s possible that Chi-Raq, as Cusack noted, could be a part of a larger conversation about gun violence that leads to productive change.
But in the end, it’s hard to take seriously the claim that Chi-Raq will directly save lives when Lee’s explanation is basically: “Check out my IDMB, guys. I’m awesome.”