Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind The Making Of Chi-Raq
Spike Lee’s controversial satire film Chi-Raq is a modern-day adaptation of the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, penned by Aristophanes. Lysistrata is the story of a woman who plans to end the Peloponnesian War by encouraging fellow Athenian women to abstain from sex. Released in December 2015 as the first feature-length film on the Amazon Studios roster, Chi-Raq stars Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Wesley Snipes and Samuel L. Jackson. Written in rhymed verse, Chi-Raq, which had a limited theatrical release prior to screening on Amazon, was met with countless positive and negative critiques from politicians, critics, and Chicago-bred rappers. From concern over the film’s title to Lee’s comments about rape on college campuses, and all of the chatter pre and post-premiere, controversy for Lee is not at all unusual. That much we know. But click on to read some lesser-known facts and details about veteran writer/filmmaker Spike Lee’s contentious joint.
Artist Adrian Franks created portraits of Eric Garner and other Black men and women wrongfully killed by police. Spike Lee posted these portraits on his social media and was often met with a response from his Chicago followers demanding more attention be paid to gun violence there. That’s when Lee decided to reach out to writer/director Kevin Willmott about developing a project on the subject.
Kevin Willmott wrote a script that was an adaptation of Lysistrata. Lee turned to fellow NY alum Willmott and together, they reworked his script and transformed it into Chi-Raq.
Walking the Line
Kevin Willmott likened Chi-Raq to director Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 political satire, Dr. Strangelove. “It doesn’t get much more serious than atomic warfare,” he told the Chicago Tribune, “but you’re able to see the serious side of the point and also laugh at the absurdity of the problem to some degree. Spike’s made a lot of movies that straddle that line and he’s very good at that. We spent a lot of time trying to structure a script that could walk that line.”
They Said Yes
When Spike Lee shopped Chi-Raq at Sundance, he said that Amazon Studios was the sole company to express interest in the film.
Initially, Chi-Raq (before it had that title) was set in a nondescript urban area, but Lee decided to base it in Chicago.
Roger Guenveur Smith
If you don’t know the name Roger Guenveur Smith, you should. He’s been in more Spike Lee films than Denzel Washington. The phenomenal actor is synonymous with the name Spike Lee, and shares a short scene with Angela Bassett in Chi-Raq (he plays an insurance salesman).
Samuel L. Jackson
Sam plays Dolmedes, the bright suit-wearing narrator who breaks the fourth wall. He represents the Greek chorus, an essential component to ancient Greek theater.
Prior to Chi-Raq’s release – in fact, while the film was shooting – many Chicago-area residents expressed concern over the film’s title, especially Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who thought the title did more harm than good.
“Pray 4 My City”
Nick Cannon co-wrote the song “Pray 4 My City,” which is played in full at the beginning of Chi-Raq.
Chi-Raq is the 14th film that trumpeter extraordinaire Terence Blanchard composed for Lee.
Most of Chi-Raq was filmed in nearly 20 different locations in or around the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago where a lot of gun violence has taken place.
St. Sabina Peacekeepers
St. Sabina is a Chicago-based church. Monoleto Wilborn was Chi-Raq’s location manager and he confirmed that six St. Sabina-affiliated men, all former gang members, served as security guards for the film and kept the peace when potential security issues arose.
Father Mike Corridan
John Cusack’s character Father Mike Corridan was based on Father Pfleger, priest of St. Sabina Catholic Church, who serves a predominantly Black congregation.
Kanye, Common and Jeremy Piven were all supposedly in talks to star in Chi-Raq, but none of them ended up appearing in the film.
How Spike Approaches Casting
Of course, Lee used a sports analogy when explaining how he casts his films to Deadline: “I approach casting a movie the same way a GM will put together his team in sports. You’ve got to have veterans there, but you can’t get too old. You’ve got to have your youth. You’ve got to have the right combination of experience and youthfulness because you can’t have everybody out there that’s doing their first film. You just got to get the right mixture. We definitely had it on Chi-Raq. There’s not a weak performance in this film.”
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“I’m in support of Black Lives Matter, at the same time, I’m not gonna be silent when a 9-year-old, Tyshawn Lee, gets executed after being lured into an alleyway. I don’t think I’m doing Black Lives Matter if I’m only gonna talk about the cops and George Zimmerman and not talk about what we’re doing to ourselves.” ~ Spike Lee Own ChiRaqTheMovie today on Digital HD > Link in Bio
Throughout production and even in post-production, Lee made changes to Chi-Raq to include contemporary references to victims of police brutality, like Sandra Bland.