In 1989 a little film called Do the Right Thing was released, causing a seismic shift in Hollywood and American culture at large. It was unrelenting and unapologetic in its criticisms of race, class, gentrification and police brutality; Do the Right Thing used poetic language to tell the audience how beautiful the black experience could be, and it used striking visuals to show the audience just how ugly things could get when white supremacy is unfettered in modern times. But it was specifically designed to confront and hold a mirror up to racism and oppressive structures, not coddle and make white moviegoers feel better about pretending racism doesn’t exist. To put things into perspective: Driving Miss Daisy, a film that definitely falls into that latter category—safe, saccharine and smug—won the Oscar for Best Picture that same year. Do the Right Thing’s raw and razor-sharp honesty shattered the mirror, and used the glass shards to puncture Hollywood and society’s jugular. And it went home empty handed.
But there is always a silver lining. Do the Right Thing made a household name out of its writer-director-star Spike Lee, who became the first black man to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Spike would then spend the next 26 years rattling the rotting foundations of Old Hollywood, becoming an icon, a visionary and a singular filmmaker in his own right. Malcolm X simultaneously romanticized and deconstructed the biopic as it humanized—never lionized—a polarizing American hero. He Got Game infused the sports epic with unparalleled dramatic layers. Four Little Girls used the documentary format to break hearts and rebuild hope. Even his most financially successful movie to date, Inside Man, was a candid open letter to America’s moral decay from financial greed disguised as a slick blockbuster. Spike Lee has a point of view that infuriates yet informs, engages but never forgets to be entertaining.
In 2015, and Spike Lee is as provocative as ever. Chi-Raq, his latest feature, puts Chicago’s endemic gun violence under his lens. A broad satire, Chi-Raq updates Aristophanes’ Greek comedy “Lysistrata” and finds a modern day heroine leading an abstinence crusade in hopes of forming a permanent cease-fire in the Chicago streets. Many saw this satirical approach as trivializing the all-too-real pain coursing through Chicago’s veins. Spike Lee though hopes that once Chi-Raq hits theaters (and Amazon) on December 4th, his message and intention will be clear.
Fresh off his honorary Oscar win at the Governor Awards, I sat down with Spike to set the record straight on Chi-Raq and also talk Hollywood’s diversity problem, Black Lives Matter and what it will take to put down these guns.
I want to start off by congratulating you on your criminally overdue Oscar win over the weekend at the Governor’s Awards. How did it feel accepting filmmaking’s highest honor surrounded by day-one collaborators and friends?
It was a blessing. I've said many times that some of your blessings are blessings that you never saw coming. I wasn't really hip to what the whole Governor's Award is. But to have Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes—brothers who I dearly love, brothers who I've had in many of my films—present me my Oscar...I mean, wow. Now if we had Magic and MJ up there we would've really had the squad! [Laughs.]
To say your 16-minute acceptance speech was epic would be an understatement.
Luckily at the Governor's Award gala, you're not on the clock. The orchestra is not gonna start playing you off the stage with that music. I would've never had the chance to say what I said during the real Oscars. It would've been truncated. But I'm just happy I got it. I'm not gonna front on that.
You took Hollywood to task for it’s embarrassing lack of diversity, especially in the studio offices where the creative decisions live or die. The overwhelming whiteness of Hollywood’s workforce doesn’t reflect America’s multiculturalism—why is “liberal” Hollywood still so out of touch?
I even brought this up when I addressed the room [at the Governor's Awards]. I said, “a lot of you people in here probably voted for Obama. But go up to the offices on Monday and you won’t see any folk up in there at all!" But the reason that I said this wasn't to be mean. I just think sometimes white folks don't even know that is even something to consider. It doesn't even occur that there are no people of color in any positions of power in these studios or networks. So I had to bring that up.
The dialogue is stronger than ever, it seems. Effie Brown calling out Matt Damon for his tone-deaf comments on Project Greenlight, Ava DuVernay with her Array collective…
That's why I got crazy love for her and Ava. I applaud them. We need that. Keep doing it, keep doing it, keep doing it.
You’re no stranger to releasing films outside of the traditional studio structure. You used Kickstarter to fund Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, and now Amazon Studios is behind your newest film Chi-Raq. What attracted you to this alternative platform?
I'll be honest: Amazon was the one who said yes. I didn't have a choice! [Laughs.] It wasn't like I was gonna have to decide between Amazon or Universal, Amazon or Fox. Everyone else said no. And I understand their hesitation a bit because the entire script is written in verse. So even when Amazon got behind it to make Chi-Raq, there was still a condition: We had to have two table readings. They wanted to hear the actors say the words because it's written in verse.
What made you and screenwriter Kevin Willmott decide to use Aristophanes’ Lysistrata as the template for Chi-Raq?
It was originally his idea. He wrote the first edition, the first treatment, and it was called Got To Give It Up. We tried to get that off the ground but couldn’t get it done. So a year ago I gave him a call and I asked if he still owned that script. He told me yes, it's still free. So I said lets co-write it and let's make it take place in the Southside of Chicago. And here we are now. But it wasn't easy though.
You already got some backlash to the trailer, which you responded to. Don’t you think people are justified in feeling uneasy about such a tragic, traumatic subject like gun violence in Chicago being depicted as a comedy?
Here's the thing: I understand that people are very sensitive about where they live, especially people in Chicago. And I understand people identify me as Brooklyn. So there's a feeling like, "how's this Brooklyn motherfucker gonna know about Chicago's Southside?" I get that. But I think also that people should go to my IMDb if they've forgotten my body of work. And it's unfortunate that people made a judgment on Chi-Raq based upon a two-minutes-and-thirty-second trailer. And it's unfortunate that people still don't understand what satire is. So that's why I had to do the second trailer to try to calm things down and let people understand that I'm not making light or making fun of loss of life. This is serious business. But, still. Chi-Raq is not the first film in the history of American cinema to use satire to deal with sensitive subject matter. People went crazy over the trailer but I think that it's calming down now. Once they see the whole movie they’ll see how delicately I treated the subject matter.
I gotta ask about Kevon Carter’s song “WGDB (We Gotta Do Better).” Some of those lyrics seem to echo the “but what about black-on-black crime?” card that some white people pull to silence black protest against police brutality.
I understand people might have issues with those lyrics that I don't have. There's many triggers—not just white fingers on triggers—that are killing us. A lot of those fingers are black. Listen: I'm 100 percent with Black Lives Matter. One hundred percent behind it. Yet, we can't be silent when we're killing ourselves. That's not righteous. Why should it matter what color the finger is when somebody is being murdered?
But aren’t the black fingers arrested while the white fingers are pardoned because they’re often connected to the badge? We never hear about “white-on-white violence” when movie theaters and schools get shot up by white kids.
I understand there are many sociological, historical reasons that contribute to why we're even in this position. I touch on this in the movie as well. But at the end of the day we have to be on the side of righteousness. And when a 9-year-old kid like Tyshawn Lee is executed in a Southside Chicago alley, I'm sorry, I'm not for that. That's just wrong. It's a national tragedy and we should all be up in arms when children are being mowed down in drive-bys. We cannot be silent on that. And I don't think being vocal about that is a contradiction to Black Lives Matter. One does not negate the other. That's all I want people to understand.
On a lighter note, it was great to see the old Spike Lee guard like Samuel L. Jackson and Wesley Snipes alongside a younger generation of actors like Teyonah Parris and Nick Cannon in Chi-Raq. I truly believe Teyonah should be nominated for an Oscar for her performance.
She killed it. No question. But it's funny. Some of these cats from Chicago had things to say about me casting Nick Cannon on social media. "Nick Cannon ain't no gangster;" "Nick Cannon ain't killed anybody;” "Nick Cannon ain't no savage." Think about that logic. Robert De Niro is one of the greatest method actors that ever lived. Did he go out and kill people to prepare for Taxi Driver? Did he have to murder someone to get into the mindset to play Travis Bickle? These guys wanted me to cast local Chicago rappers like Lil Durk or—who's the other guy? Chief Keef. I'm not doing that. Plus, if you look at their lyrics, their lyrics are the opposite of what I want this film to be about! Acting in a movie is not the same as acting in a music video. Nick Cannon did his thing. People are going to be surprised. You might see Nick on America's Got Talent, you might see Nick in the Macy’s Day Parade, but he did his work for this role. He’s an actor. That’s what he’s supposed to do. He’s playing someone else, and he comes through.
Anything you want moviegoers to keep in mind when they go see Chi-Raq?
Number one, I’m happy that Amazon decided to back this film when everyone else said no. So that, again, goes back to what I tell my film students at NYU: It only takes one “yes.” Don’t let all the “nos” stop you from making what you want to make. Also, people—don’t let it trick you that that Chi-Raq is an Amazon production. Chi-Raq will be in theaters first on December 4. It’s not going straight to Amazon Prime.
And most importantly, we gotta do something about these guns in this country. There’s straight up just too many guns. Guns, guns, guns. We gotta confront the NRA and we cannot support politicians who get fat sums of money to support them. It’s gotta stop. It must end.