The Backstory on Lee’s Chiraq
The term “Chi-raq” is not highly regarded in Chicago and though the media has painted a picture that Spike Lee’s film is shrouded in mystery since news of the project first leaked in the spring. Behind the scenes conversation on director Spike Lee’s film set last week revealed that much speculation about the movie — sparked largely by the title itself — has not been on point.
The truth is that this is not so out of the ordinary. Most films are filmed without much discussion beforehand. With Chiraq as a title most can imagine what the film s about especially since it’s based on the violence in Chicago. Though not an actually documentary it is slated to tell the story of Chicago’s Black on black Crime reign.
That’s the problem, most Black Chicagoans fear what will Lee’s creative license leave the audiences with. Black people in Chicago are not all angry, filled with rage kind-of people but some are. . . for good reason. “They have been made to feel like outsiders,” said Marti Worell, “And it’s all because the system in place supports Whites but was never meant to benefit Blacks.” Marian Brown from the south side says, “We just want to make sure that our story is told right. I’m not sure Spike can do that. He ain’t from Chicago.”
It came to the public’s surprise that Lee’s film will be not be a theatrical release but instead the first feature-length film project from Amazon Studios, which is expanding beyond its library of original TV programming. But other than that, not much about the film has been said , including how the movie would approach the subject of violence in Chicago, particularly Black-on-Black violence in the city’s Englewood neighborhood. This concerns Black folk.
Before a single filming began, the question around the use of the term Chiraq turned off people, some high some low from the Mayor to the teenager at DuSable High. Would it be the title of the film or what? The term or moniker Chiraq has been around for a few years now, equating inner city gun violence in the city with that of the war zone in Iraq. The emotions around it has been intense.
Chicagoans are protective of the Chicago image even though they may kill one another. How crazy it sounds. Right? Many politicians are more concerned about how it can hurt the safety credibility of the city and impact new business that can potentially help the City.
Despite what may have felt like an unfriendly explosive atmosphere, “I don’t worry about that much,” Lee said from the set.
The filming wrapped up and the actors left returning to their various homes away from Chicago. Even homeboy Harry Lennix, who lives in L.A.,. said,” I understand why Chicagoans are doubtful, but I trust Spike’s integrity as a storyteller and director. His films have taught us that he get’s it right.”
Throughout the five-week shoot Lee remained silent granting no interviews. Even at press conferences little was said about the film itself. It’s human nature it seems that when nothing is said, people take on the task filling the void with imaginative guesswork and speculation that spill out into the airwaves and then it’s on.
Spike Lee is seasoned and can handle the handful of local politicians, Mayor Rahm Emanuel included, who have not shied away from expressing their opinions. None of them likely wants his or her legacy pegged to a nickname shift from Chitown to Chiraq.
The assumption has been that the movie would be a harsh judgement on Chicagoans or worse, a praise, of gang violence, but screenwriter Kevin Willmott explains that the challenge is to find some humor in what is actually a very grim subject. “I think that’s the element we’re interested in — laughing at the absurdity of the problem to some degree. Spike’s made a lot of movies that straddle that line and he’s very good at that. We spent a lot of time trying to structure a script that could walk that line.”
Lee’s style isn’t to invite journalists on-set but he stepped outside his norm, maybe, to slay the the preconceived notions that turned- up the fire around the movie.
Filming was done in Bronzeville, Englewood, and elsewhere over a two-day set visit there was no observable evidence of pushback regarding the title — or anything else, for that matter— from people who live and work in the area.
Passerbys screamed out their availability as extras and kept moving as the crew set up outside a storefront on 63rd Street.
The wait, not knowing the title is killing everyone and is the catalyst for all the backstory chat about the film.
The cast features Angela Bassett, Nick Cannon, D.B. Sweeney, Wesley Snipes and a number of Chicago-area natives: Jennifer Hudson, John Cusack, Steve Harris (“The Practice”) and Harry Lennix (“The Blacklist”). Common and Jeremy Piven are not in the film as rumored.
In keeping with the ‘Spike Lee Way’ Teyonah Parris is the star, and her credits include “Dear White People” and the Starz series “Survivor’s Remorse.” Lee is known for taking the obscure talented actor and transforming him or her into a high profile star. In “Chi-raq” she plays a woman so fed up with gun violence that she launches a sex strike.
Chiraq is not a romantic gangster story evolved out of someone’s imagination. It’s adapted from reality. But the inquisitive minds want to know is it a it a musical or a documentary, what?
Digging deeper into Lee’s mind we asked about his finding the right tone and level of dark comedy in the story’s satiric roots, Lee points to one of his earlier and best-known films,
“‘Do the Right Thing’ is funny as a motherf—–. And it’s still a serious film. I did that 26 years ago. I’ve been doing that. I have no problems doing a film with several different tones. So it’s not a problem. I’m not saying it’s easy to do, because you go from one spectrum to another. But we have experience doing these things.”
On the set, Lee’s calm in-control presence is all about getting the work done and nothing distracts him.
Late into the day Lee walked into the crowd fearless and focused. It spawned the chaos and phone photo frenzy. Lee was friendly and in his element. What independent filmmaker doesn’t welcome the fan fare.
It was infesting to learn that Lee keeps it real and mixes it up a little. Flowing with the organic nature of the film, they had six peacemakers from St. Sabrina on the crew who had lived the life as ex-gang bangers. Today they work to keep the peace in their communities.
Prior to filming Lee’s exploration and research of Chicago led him to Father Pfleger who has become more or less a consultant. Just one more thing about to feed the fire. Who does he think he is and why is he suddenly the protector and or spokesperson for Blacks? Chicago Black folks are about tired of the priest that would speak for them.
The peacekeepers as it turns out were important to the smooth run of the production, stomping out any outside riffraff. They were alb to talk to the would-be agitators and keep it civil. Things got more serious when crews parked their trucks in the neighborhood the night before a shoot. So they had no incidents.
Interestingly the film’s title has really ruffled the feathers and brought out the worse of people’s fears out. The original script, was written by Willmott 13 years ago and was not set in Chicago. Originally when Willmont and Lee came together last year to work on the script Lee who proposed a new setting.
He put the term “Chiraq”‘ on the table. Willmont was not shocked once he familiarized himself with the term and yet it was as it remains shocking. When magnetized you realize that it’s an American problem, Chicago is just the city. The phenomena is American.
Chiraq is about Chicago as the focus of gun violence. That can’t be denied. So the film is about confronting it and dealing with it.
Neither Willmott or Spike anticipated the passionate surge from the people. What the idea of using the term Chiraq conjured up in the native Chiacgoans is what makes Chicago the powerful magnetic city it is.
What makes it problematic is that Spike Lee strolled into town, a New Yorker an failed to ‘recognize,’. Chicago demands respect. And in its eyes he did go and kiss the ring because he came with the New York is king frame of reference. It didn’t matter that he track record or repertoire of films have proven him to be a great filmmaker. His film history is one that has lift Black folks up.
So the real question is, do we trust Lee that he won’t do anything less than what he’s always done?
For Lee,the title is not the problem. And it’s not just a Chicago thing. He explained, “People are going to think what they want to think, and that’s it,” adding that “no Brooklynites had a problem with the title ‘Crooklyn,’” referring to his 1994 semi-autobiographical film, a nostalgia piece about growing up in 1970s Brooklyn.
Lee admitted that he kept details of the film close because “People gonna find out, so you don’t have to announce it. I mean, there’s no way we’re gonna be able to sneak into Chicago and do a film this big and people not know about it.
Lee may be New York but he revealed that he spent 2 years of his life in Chicago as a toddler so that explains it all.