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Spike Lee talks to Sarah Hoye

The director talks about his new movie, ‘Chi-Raq,’ and gun violence in America

Sarah Hoye: So talk to me a little bit about why "Chi-Raq," which [is about] Chicago — why now?

Spike Lee: Well, Chicago is — the Southwest Side of Chicago — is like the canary in the coal mine for gun violence. New York City is three times the population of Chicago, yet Chicago has more homicides. So Kevin Willmott, we co-wrote the script, and we knew that it had to be Chicago. But just by choosing Chicago, if you choose the biggest, then you can get everything underneath. Well, Kevin and I tried to do this film six years ago. Wasn't the time for it six years ago. Time is now.


Well, the film begins with those words "This is an emergency." And gun violence is something that affects every American. We have to get out of the thinking that it just affects any certain people, any certain neighborhoods. It goes across the board, gun violence.

And although there may be one type of life on the South Side or the West Side or another part downtown on the Magnificent Mile, you still have over 400 actual murders. This affects everybody. By going to Chicago, you being there, filming there, do you see a tale of two cities?

I mean those lines are said by Samuel L. Jackson in the open. That it is a tale of two cities. Those familiar with that, that's the Charles Dickens novel. And in fact the march that took place Black Friday was a clear indication of a tale of two cities, because the people being affected were furious about this tape that was released by the execution of Laquan [McDonald]. The murder of Laquan — 16 shots. 

Our first day of filming was June 1. Our last day of filming was July 9. During that time, from the first of June to July 9, while we're shooting, while we're filming "Chi-Raq," 331 people were wounded and shot, 65 gun murdered.

Three hundred thirty-one?

Wounded and shot, 65 gun murdered. And it's escalated since then. When 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee is lured into an alleyway and shot, I don't care what his father is, what his father did. If he's a gang or not. No 9-year-old should be executed anywhere, let alone in the world, especially not the United States of America, the so-called beacon of democracy, peace and all the other stuff.

Spike Lee with Sarah Hoye
‘If young white infants in kindergarten and first grade get slaughtered and nothing happens right away, then you know that it’s going to take a minute.’

"Do the Right Thing" — isn't it Radio Raheem who is killed by police?

Yes, but Radio Raheem was based upon a real murder, Michael Stewart. But here's the crazy thing. When the strangulation of Radio Raheem is based upon what the cops did to Michael Stewart at a train, subway station. And then to see Eric Garner — I mean, I fell out of my seat. So much, in fact, that I called my editor, Barry Brown, and we put something out on YouTube. We intercut both strangulations. Radio Raheem, which is fictional, which is based on fact, with the real-life strangulation murder of Eric Garner.

And we as a nation watched that.

The whole world watched it. And then look what happened. I don't think this is something that's new. I just think that with social media, because before, the general newspaper, they're not, you know, they might not cover it.

You look at this movement Black Lives Matter — is it working? Is it a true movement that can do something? Is this something that can actually make change?

Oh, it's making a lot of change. Now, we give shout-outs, much love to Black Lives Matter in this film, "Chi-Raq." But I have sort of a different approach, [which] is that — and Father Michael Pfleger, we talk about this all the time — it can't be just about what is the color, the complexion of the hand, the finger that pulls the trigger. So for me, it just can't be Black Lives Matter. Let's talk about the cops who are shooting us down like dogs in the street. Not all cops.


But look, people mothers and fathers are burying their sons and daughters. That's a fact. But we have to look amongst ourselves, what we're doing too. For me — and I'm not speaking on behalf of 45 million African-Americans — for me, you don't have a moral foundation if you're only talking about cops. We're killing ourselves. 

So it's just not these incidents of police brutality or officer-involved shootings. What you're saying is we also have to pay attention to this daily gun violence that's plaguing —

Our communities.

All these things.

So I think that it's a two-hand approach. And then also we still have to expand it and come back to this: Gun violence affects all Americans. I'm not asking, and I'm not trying anybody's Second Amendment rights. But we have to have tougher background checks — something I got from Father Pfleger out of Chicago. We should title guns like cars. There's no reason in the world why people should be able to walk into a gun store, a gun shop with an illegal ID and come out with an assault weapon.

Well, one of the things with Father Michael Pfleger — and Father Michael Pfleger, for those who don't know, is a priest in Chicago at St. Sabina's Church on the South Side. And he's also been an activist for the majority of his career.

Yes, let's make it clear, though. Father Pfleger is a white Roman Catholic priest. Runs this church, head of this church. 

Predominantly black congregation. 

Right in the hood.

They got a choirThey have, you know, the praise dancers. I mean, this is unlike any Catholic church you've seen. Especially in the Midwest.

Yeah … like, the pope ain't seen a church like this. I like the pope. 

He's in it. He's in the middle of it.

Yes, he's in the middle of them … 

Another thing is that we need a national law, because, for example, the state of Illinois … the city of Chicago have very, very, very tight gun laws.

They do.

But what's next? Indiana.

Just across the border, 15-, 20-minute ride.

Twenty minutes, you get — you get mad guns, crazy guns … That's where the guns are coming from.

Similar in Philadelphia as well.

‘The film begins with those words ‘This is an emergency.’ And gun violence is something that affects every American. We have to get out of the thinking that it just affects any certain people, any certain neighborhoods. It goes across the board.’

And in New York. Guns coming from Philly, the state of Pennsylvania, through Virginia. Further south, in Georgia. So you can have a very, very tight tight [laws], but if your neighboring states, if their thing is lax, it still affects you.

But I will say this, is that we go around the world saying we're the beacon of democracy, of the most civilized country on this earth. But I know for sure, because I travel a lot, people look at us like we're barbarians … I mean, it's amazing … How long will we bow down before the tyranny of the NRA, the gun manufacturers and the politicians, you know, which are in their pocket? You know, that we have to have a greater love of human beings than money?

We cannot kneel down on all fours and pray at the altar of the almighty dollar. I'm sorry. Money does not rule over human life. And this stuff, it's the NRA and the gun manufacturers that are keeping this thing going because they're making money.

One of the big complaints is that, listen, you can even have a mass shooting, whether it's, you know, Sandy Hook or it's the Aurora theater. The question that they always say is, what will it take to actually change the laws or actually change the discussion in terms of these lobbies? And in your opinion, what will it take to make change?

We got to keep fighting. I mean there's many things that are wrong with America that through years, through legislation, through federal courts. Because, let's be honest. If young white infants in kindergarten and first grade get slaughtered and nothing happens right away, then you know that it's going to take a minute. Because I thought for sure the president — I would put money on it — President [Barack] Obama felt the same thing. But it hasn't been the case. Eighty-eight people die every day in the United States of America due to gun violence.

Eighty-eight people.

Every single day. Which adds up to, like, I think 32,000. I never was good, that good in math.

Hey, I was told there'd be no math on this exam. But no, around 30,000, 33,000 people a year die from guns.

And it's profit. Profit. And tomorrow is going to be the 60th anniversary of the start of the Montgomery bus boycott.

Right. It's the anniversary of the Rosa Park arrest.

But eventually — black people made so much a part of the people used the buses — eventually they had to cave in because they were going out of business.

You could no longer ignore it.

Yeah, that worked in 60 years ago. And it worked last Friday in the Magnificent Mile in Chicago. And sometimes you can't depend on — you can't explain to people what's right, what's wrong, what's just. Then … after that tactic works, then it's about the bottom line. The bottom line.

One of your biggest critics was the mayor of Chicago himself, Rahm Emanuel.

Well, I wouldn't say he was the biggest critic. Look, we had a difference, but in no way did Mayor Rahm Emanuel say, "Spike, I don't want you to make this film." He never said that. He said, "Spike, I like your films." He said, "My problem is is that I don't like the title," which I didn't come up with. The term "Chi-Raq" came off local Chicago rappers who thought, and I think rightfully so, where they live on the Southwest Side of Chicago, is a war zone.

Spike Lee

And the numbers confirm it.

Yes. The dubious numbers. And then he also said that this film will hurt tourism and economic development. Well, I would like to tell you this. While we were filming "Chi-Raq" in Chicago, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had the NFL draft.

Talk to me about diversity in Hollywood. There's another disconnect also in Hollywood.

Through the good graces of Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the Board of Governors, they voted for me to have an Oscar, honorary Oscar. And during my speech, I made a couple statements. One's that the entertainment industry is way behind sports, as far as diversity goes. Then I also said that it is easier for African-American person to be president of the United States of America than president of a Hollywood studio or TV or cable network.

But here you are, you know, all these years later. Does it still frustrate you that nothing's changed?

I can't say nothing's changed. But here's the thing … A whole world, people … felt that when President Barack Hussein Obama put his right hand on Abraham Lincoln's Bible, it's gonna be — abracadabra, presto-chango, poof! — we're in the postracial [society].

So, I have heard that — since we're speaking of the president — that the president took his wife to see "Do the Right Thing" —

Now wife.

When they were first dating, they went on their first date to —

First date.

"Do the Right Thing."

I always say, thank God he didn't take Michelle to see "Driving Miss Motherfucking Daisy." Or that have been the last date! 



This interview has been edited and condensed. 


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