Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” arrives in Washington theaters on Dec. 4 on a skeptical tide. The movie, a modern retelling of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” follows a young woman of the same name (played by a stellar Teyonah Parris) who launches a sex strike to urge Chicago’s young men to put down their guns after a 7-year-old named Patti is killed in a drive-by shooting. The trailers for the movie suggested that “Chi-Raq” focused narrowly on black-on-black crime, a theme that some critics suggested was out of touch with the movement against police violence.
“Chi-Raq” is a more unusual — and nuanced — movie than those early sneak peeks might suggest. But as a conversation between Spike Lee and The Washington Post’s Soraya Nadia McDonald, Wesley Lowery and Alyssa Rosenberg suggests, it’s still a film that will spark fierce debate.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Wesley Lowery: A lot of the critique that has come of this [film], largely before people have seen it yet . . . is the idea that Spike, the person who brought us the definitive piece on police brutality, [“Do the Right Thing”], is now doing this piece that must be about black-on-black crime, and therefore it must be unfair given the moment we’re having.
Spike Lee: Well, my young brother, criticism’s not new. It started with “She’s Gotta Have It,” the first film, where black women felt that it was liberating, other black women felt it was a stereotypical image of a sexual black woman. “School Daze,” I was criticized for airing dirty laundry with the stuff that goes with light skin, dark skin, that kind of stuff. “Do The Right Thing,” critics said it was going to cause black folks to riot across the United States of America. “Mo’ Better Blues” it was anti-Semitic. “Jungle Fever,” I was against interracial marriage, so this is not new. Old hat.
Alyssa Rosenberg: I wanted to ask about [the scene where Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) eulogizes Patti in a long speech, because I think one thing that struck the three of us about the movie is that the eulogy really lays out the structural critique that puts gang shootings and police brutality and economic underdevelopment all in the same conversation.
Spike Lee: That was by design. That wasn’t a mistake.
Alyssa Rosenberg: I could tell. But it also comes from a white character [rather than a black one].
Spike Lee: Well, John Cusack’s character is based on a real-life person. You should Google him. Reverend Michael Pfleger. He’s a white, Roman Catholic priest. He’s been the head of St. Sabina church for the last 40 years. His congregation is all black, on Chicago’s South Side. He’s a living saint. . . . He’s the one who opened up the door for me to meet the people I needed to meet in Chicago. . . . Cusack hung out with him.
And that scene was written by myself, Kevin Willmott, the co-writer, and Father Pfleger and Cusack. So by design, we wanted to end this, I think it’s a 16-minute scene, to let people understand why this 7-year-old, why are we here, why am I eulogizing a 7-year-old girl, black girl, from the South Side, who got murdered in a drive-by? It’s bigger than just some gang guy pulling the trigger. Really, that scene lays out the moral conscience of the film.
Wesley Lowery: I was going to say, that scene was so powerful because that does deliver the structural critique of the movie, the backbone of the message here. But the movie is also very clear about the individual personal responsibility that several of the characters have to take upon themselves if they want to see this type of structural change.
Spike Lee: It’s got to be both. And I’ll give another example, sir. I was on the streets of New York, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, so I believe in Black Lives Matter. I was chanting ‘Don’t shoot,’ I was chanting ‘I can’t breathe.’ But you can’t be silent on the other hand when we’re killing ourselves. It’s not just the cops. So, I think morally, you gotta speak out on both sides, and that’s what this film’s about.
Soraya Nadia McDonald: I think the thing that we all noticed was the way this movie very smartly seems to anticipate a lot of its criticism. . . . Particularly in relation to Lysistrata and making this a modern story.
Spike Lee: Well, it is a modern story! Sister Leymah Gbowee, she won a Nobel Peace Prize for using this tactic in Liberia. She organized a sex strike which stopped the second Liberian Civil War. I’ve read that it’s been used in the Philippines. A couple of days ago a woman in Chicago said she’s going to start a sex strike on the South Side, she was inspired by the trailer. So, but I’ve been thinking about this, especially since what happened at the University of Missouri. If I was a woman, and I went to a college or university where there’s been ongoing sexual harassment and date rapes, I would start a strike there. Now’s the time to do it. Missouri, stuff is jumping off at colleges and universities all over this country.
Soraya Nadia McDonald: I will say there’s probably a very common feminist critique of that, which is that it’s unfair to sort of put this weight on women, to sort of be the keepers of sexuality.
Spike Lee: Aristophanes. He got it right way back in 411 B.C. He knew that when you’re trying to stop a problem, or trying to have an effect, you have to come up with some kind of strategy. . . . If you’re trying to do something, you have to revert to the tactics you have at hand. . . . This feminist thing. So let me ask a question, are you going to stand behind that feminist stance and say why should we women do it? Or are you going to save your children? You don’t want your child to get shot. You don’t want your child to be another Tyshawn Lee, who gets lured into an alleyway and gets executed with two shots to the back of the head.
So what are you going to do? Stand behind this feminism? [Changes his voice to a parodic tone] “Well, as a feminist, I don’t think that women should — ” [Back to his normal voice] No. Uh-uh. As a feminist, you should want, I think correctly, that you should want for murders to stop. As a feminist, you don’t want your daughter, or your son, or any mother to have their children murdered. That’s not part of feminism? I would like to hear the argument from feminists why they should not be asked to do that. In the black community, it’s all hands on deck. It’s all hands on deck. That’s nothing. We get sidetracked into arguments about feminism, or this or that. That’s a distraction.
Alyssa Rosenberg: You said earlier that you think audiences don’t understand satire.
Spike Lee: Some. Shooting “Bamboozled,” the character, the first thing he says is to give the Webster’s definition. Go back to the beginning of “Bamboozled.” Damon Wayans as Pierre Delacroix. He starts the movie with giving the Webster’s definition of satire. I thought I didn’t have to do that anymore!
Alyssa Rosenberg: Do you think audiences have become more rigid and less nuanced in their reading of satire?
Spike Lee: They’re just seeing the same movies all the time. Hollywood, there’s less variety of the films that are being made today versus in the past. So they’re seeing the same thing again and again, being spoon-fed the same thing again and again. And more explosions. Louder explosions. More special effects. And so when something, here’s an analogy: If you’re eating the same thing every day, and someone places something in front of you that’s not the same diet you’ve been eating, your palate, it’s different.