Spike Lee has always been one to fight for his vision. While Lee’s upcoming film, Chi-raq, has been cloaked in secrecy, it’s also been engulfed in controversy. The filmmaker’s biggest opponent is Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel.
“To be honest, he’s a bully,” Lee said in a recent interview with Chicago Magazine.
Lee’s Chi-raq movie title derives from local residents and rappers’ descriptions of the gang culture and war zone-level of gun violence that have defined Chicago’s streets. Lee’s use of the word “bully” describes the political, public, and economic warfare he’s waged throughout production.
“A lot of stuff he might not have done directly, but I see his fingerprints,” Lee said of the mayor. “Like the [17th Ward] alderman, David Moore, who tried to stop us from having a block party for the neighborhood before we started to shoot.”
In June, Moore denied a request for a city permit for an annual party held outside St. Sabina. He later relented. Lee continues pointing out roadblocks he faced during filming.
“Will Burns [4th Ward Alderman], tried to pass a resolution [saying] that we would not be eligible for state tax refunds because of the title,” he says. ” His whole thing was, the title is going to hurt tourism, the title is going to hurt economic development.”
Despite this economic and political pressure to change the name, Lee has said Chicago residents have have been supportive of the name, even imploring him to keep it. For Chicago residents, Chi-raq isn’t just a fictional film title, it’s an unfortunate reality. It’s a last ditch effort for change, a desperate cry from broken hearts who can no longer tolerate horrific conditions.
According to a Chicago priest, Father Michael Pfleger, who’s worked close with Lee on the film, Chicago residents sometimes experience six shootings a day. A Daily Beast feature from earlier this month called Chicago “America’s Mass Shooting Capital,” confirming that reality.
“We finished July 9,” Lee said. “During that time, 331 people got wounded, 65 murdered. New York City has three times the population of Chicago; Chicago has more homicides than New York City. I’m not making this stuff up. So what’s there to argue then?”
For his part, Emanuel has spent his war chest on campaigning, not reforming. Emanuel is on record with his disdain for Chi-raq as the title for the film for obvious political and economic reasons. He’s also churned up his chatter in defending flagrant police misconduct and brutality. In a recent press conference, Emanuel blamed the release of recordings showing police misconduct as the reason officers haven’t been able to do their job.
“We have allowed our police department to get fetal and it is having a direct consequence,” he stated. “Officers themselves were telling me about how the news over the last 15 months have impacted their instincts — do they stop, or do they keep driving? When I stop here, is it going to be my career on the line?”
This oversimplification is alarming. These incidents have shown lives being taken and no one would have known if not for these recordings. Film as a political statement is nothing new but is effective when politicians do nothing. A film that speaks to a reality, no matter how unpleasant, doesn’t just speak to Chicago, but impoverished Black communities as a whole.
Lee understands what Emanuel refuses to see.
“This film is about more than Chicago,” Lee said. “This film is about the America we are living in today.”