“I AM AN ARTIST,” Spike Lee tells N.U. Student Critics about “Chi-Raq”
By Taryn Galbreath
“If he had a movie strictly about violence, about people being killed and mothers crying, you wouldn’t have come to see It,” Annette Holt told an audience of some 400 attending a recent screening of Spike Lee’s controversial film, “Chi-Raq,” at Northwestern University in Evanston.
Holt is the mother of 16-year-old Blair Holt who was killed by gun-violence in 2007. She and several mothers of murdered children who appeared in the film also attended the March 2nd screening and discussion with Lee, the recent recipient of an Honorary Oscar for his body of work.
The 90-minute discussion entailed heated debate about whether or not the satirical component belittled black women, portrayed Chicago negatively, or distracted from the seriousness of the gun-violence issue. Without the sub-plots, “You wouldn’t have wanted to see it. You wouldn’t have cared to see it,” Hold maintained.
Lee himself spent a large portion of the discussion defending the controversial film.
“I am not immune to criticism but there was a lot of bulls— said about Chi-Raq,” the pioneering Hollywood director said.
Lee stressed that he was used to criticism, which he said began with his first film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” 30 years ago. Criticism also followed such subsequent films as “School Daze” and “Do the Right Thing,” he said, maintaining, “I’ve been criticized from day one.”
“Chi-Raq” was filmed in Chicago during summer 2015 and released in December to scathing criticism, including from Chicago rappers like Rhymefest and Chance the Rapper.
And Lee went in on those critics. “Chance the Rapper is a fraud,” Lee said, alleging the rapper had inherent bias because his father works for the mayor.
“You can blast the film but you can’t speak against the policies of the mayor. That’s lame. It’s weak and it’s a punk a—move,” Lee said.
In contrast to Lee’s less satirical, recent films like, “The Miracle of St. Anna,” and “Malcolm X,” “Chi-Raq” was definitely a ‘Spike Lee Joint’ reminiscent of the 80s and 90s, leaving the viewer profoundly impacted by its social justice elements, yet simultaneously puzzled, and possibly mysteriously troubled.
The film follows Chi-raq, played by Nick Cannon, the leader of a gang that is in escalating conflict with a rival gang; and how their conflict is halted when their women withhold sex to compel the men to cease gun violence. The women do so with their campaign: ‘No peace, no piece.” Satirical, the film is inspired by “Lysistrata,” a Greek play first performed in 411 BC.
Lee said of Rhymefest’s subsequent request that he issue a letter of apology to the people of Chicago, “I don’t think people understand what satire is. Satire has been used since 411 BC to deal with very serious subject matter.
Still, several of the audience felt the film exploited the sexuality of Black women.
Lee denied that, arguing there is no way the women in the film would participate in a movie that made a mockery of their lost loved ones, including Chicago’s Jennifer Hudson, who portrays a mother whose child is innocently shot and killed in the film. “Why would she be in a film that made a mockery of the murder of her mother and brother?” Lee asked, referring to the real-life tragedy that befell Hudson.
Lee said he was asked to meet with Mayor Emanuel, who told Lee he did not like the title of the film, and felt it would give Chicago a bad name and hurt economic development on the South Side. Other politicians had the same criticism, which Lee argued was baseless, considering the reality of Chicago’s violence statistics.
“Chicago is the largest segregated city in America,” Lee argued, calling it a “Tale of Two Cities,” well known for high rises and big shoulders, while simultaneously fighting poverty and death and struggling for education only blocks away.
Besides the mothers of murdered children, Lee brought with him two former gang members, Kurt Toler and Brandon Jackson, who shared their stories with the audience and answered questions about their experiences and thoughts on the film.
Many in the audience of graduate and undergraduate students voiced concerns over whether or not the film ‘stigmatized’ Chicago, whether or not Lee’s use of satire distracted from shedding light on the central issue of Black-on-Black gun violence across the country, and whether it exploited the sexuality of black women. However, other audience members appreciated both the representation of Black women’s sexuality as powerful, and the representation of a woman of a ‘darker hue.’
When asked whether or not satire was ideal for the serious subject matter, Lee answered, “I am an artist … It was my choice to do it as a satire… it’s done. Can’t go back. It’s done.”
Holt told the audience that Lee met with victims of gun violence before the movie.
“He asked us some questions about what happened to our loved ones and what we felt about the city, before he decided to make this movie,” she said.
“In no way would we ever let anyone take our children and misrepresent them. So, you have to be open-minded and know that he is an artist. We have to realize that there are a lot of ways to get to where we need to be … and realize that the only way to get there is together.”
About Blair Holt victim of gun Violence
Annette Nance-Holt (C) holds a picture of her son Blair during a gathering of gun violence victims and gun control advocates at Cornell Square Park on the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting December 14, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Thirteen people, including a three-year-old boy, were wounded when gunmen opened fire on a crowd gathered at the basketball courts in Cornell Square Park in September. Twenty children and 6 adults were killed when a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook School. Blair, 16, was killed riding a bus on his way to help out at his grandparents store in May 2007. His teenaged killer was sentenced to 100 years in prison.