Spike Lee talks about his best film in years, ‘Chi-Raq’

Sometimes interviews aren't always as strong as you'd like them to be
Spike Lee

One of the disadvantages of conducting interviews over the phone is when a chat isn’t going well it’s pretty hard to turn it around.  That doesn’t mean the subject is curt or angry with you but maybe they just aren’t that interested in yet another press commitment. Even talent that has a great reputation can have a bad afternoon or just be drained from constantly talking about the same thing. Honestly, there are only so many George Clooneys, Sandra Bullocks and Jennifer Lawrences in the world.  It was slightly disheartening then that my conversation with Spike Lee turned out to be something of a dud.

I chatted with Lee a few weeks ago about his new movie “Chi-Raq” which is currently playing in limited release in theaters before eventually transitioning to Amazon.  The stylized drama is absolutely Lee’s best non-fiction picture since “Inside Man” and, arguably, most “Spike Lee” movie since “He Got Game.”  It’s already landed on some critic’s top 10 lists and was no. 34 on Indiewire’s Annual Critic’s Poll of the top film of 2015.  It’s absolutely a movie you should see, but our conversation?  Well, it’s one reason this story is so late.

“Chi-Raq” is a modern re-telling of the classic Greek play, “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes.  It imagines a scenario where numerous women abstain from sexual relations in order to punish their men from fighting in war. Lee, and his co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott, take their version to the violet south side of Chicago.  In his version Lysistrata (a fantastic Teyonah Parris) organizes a similar revolt against her gangster boyfriend Chi-raq (an almost unrecognizable Nick Cannon) and his brothers.  The impressive cast includes Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Wesley Snipes (bringing some comic relief) and John Cusack.

Lee says Parris “was head and shoulders above everybody else for this role” and “she brought everything. She brought her humanity, her soul, her consciousness, her sexuality, her beauty. She brought everything she had in herself in full force.”

In fact, Parris so good you almost wish the picture could have been finished earlier or arrived in 2016 so she could gain more awards attention.  She would have been a shoe-in for a Spirit Award nomination if the picture had screened in time, but that wasn’t in the cards.

Lee originally worked on a different version of the picture that took place in a nondescript city years ago.  It was the continuing deterioration of life in the south side that convinced him to refashion it around this time last year.  By Sundance 2015 Lee and his producing partners were looking for financing and a new theatrical division of Amazon Studios stepped up to the plate.  The accelerated schedule had Lee filming from June 1 to July 9 and racing to get it out by December.

“I wanted the film to come out as quick as possible,” Lee says. “I also think, for example, the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina happened while we were shooting. I asked, ‘Can we get a line in the script that deals with this?’ So, there were certain incidents that happened while we were shooting that we incorporated into this film.”

One strange element to “Chi-Raq’s” accelerated marketing campaign was the initial reaction to the first teaser trailer on social medial.  The preview was as in your face and satirical as the film, but it was a turn off for much of its core audience.  Lee sounds like he wasn’t that surprised noting, “[It’s] not the first time. Everybody thinks that all my critics are only white. That’s ridiculous.”

He added, “I don’t like the fact that people didn’t understand what satire was because I felt that became a distraction from about what the film was about.  There are two [criticisms] on this film before it [came] it’s released. Number one, the title. Number two, that we were trivializing what’s taking place on the west and south side of Chicago.”

The picture hasn’t necessarily been the art house hit Lee might have hoped for, but its earned a steady $2.1 million in no more than 305 theaters so far.  That’s significantly better than Netflix’s “Beasts of No Nation” did in October with a simultaneous in theater and streaming rollout.  And, more importantly, it reminded the creative community that the recent honorary Academy Award winner still has a lot of great filmmaking left in him.  In fact, he’ll show up in Park City, Utah next month with his new documentary “Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall,” but after that?  Lee says he’s “got no idea.”

Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait as long the next time around for another Spike Lee joint.

“Chi-Raq” is still playing in limited release.

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With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios, has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times and co-founded HitFix, Inc. serving as its first Editor-in-Chief and President. Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.
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Awards Campaign provides commentary and insight on the movie industry. It's also the current online home of Gregory Ellwood, an industry veteran who has covered the movie business and Oscar campaigns for over a decade. For more information including partnerships and advertising opportunities please E-mail info@awardscampaign.com.