Spike Lee Doesn’t Hold Back: On ‘Chi-Raq,’ Laquan McDonald, and How Trump Is ‘Like Hitler’
The legendary filmmaker sat down with Marlow Stern in Brooklyn to discuss his excellent new film tackling gun violence in Chicago, the legacy of Kobe Bryant, and much more.
Spike Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, is named after a particularly shameful episode in American history. Back in 1865, after a closed-door meeting with black ministers in Savannah, Georgia, Union Army General William Sherman confiscated some 400,000 acres of land along the Southern Atlantic Coast. He then divided it into 40-acre parcels to distribute—along with mules—to the thousands of freed slave families, now refugees, who’d joined the general on his famous March to the Sea.
But, following the assassination of President Lincoln, his successor, President Andrew Johnson, had little time for aiding the former slaves, even going so far as to veto the Civil Rights Act of 1866. So he confiscated all of the land and mules that had been given to the freed slaves, returning it all to its previous white owners. He was, of course, later impeached.
The last time I’d visited Lee’s offices was back in January. It was the same day that the 2015 Academy Award nominations were announced, leaving many bewildered over the snubbing of Ava DuVernay’s Martin Luther King biopic Selma. Lee, with good reason, had harsh words for the Academy. Our meeting also occurred just over a week after gun-wielding jihadists stormed the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, leaving 12 people dead, and one month after tens of thousands of New Yorkers took to the streets to protest the NYPD’s slaying of Eric Garner.Today, we’re back at his office just two weeks after another series of terrorist attacks on Paris claimed the lives of 130 people, and less than a week after the city of Chicago released video of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black kid, being shot 16 times by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who is white.
Needless to say, Lee’s upcoming film Chi-Raq, which hits theaters on Dec. 4, couldn’t be timelier. Set in America’s mass-shooting capital, the South Side of Chicago, it’s an adaptation of Aristophanes’ Greek comedy Lysistrata. Following the gang shooting death of a young black girl, in order to quell the epidemic of gun violence, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) enlists each and every woman in Chicago to abide by the mantra: “No peace, no pussy.” In other words, they go on a sex strike until the violence stops. The film, which also stars Nick Cannon, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, John Cusack, Angela Bassett, and more, is Lee’s most provocative, vibrant, and urgent effort in years.
The Daily Beast sat down with Lee at his offices in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to discuss the film, the political landscape, police brutality, and much, much more.
It’s cool I’m speaking to you today because just yesterday, basketball legend Kobe Bryant announced he’ll be retiring at the end of the year. And you’re not only the biggest celebrity basketball fan, but also directed the documentary Kobe Doin’ Work.
Someone told me the news at the Knicks game yesterday, and as you know, when you’re playing in the West you only come to the East one time. There was much talk when the Lakers were here that it might be Kobe’s last game at Madison Square Garden, the World’s Most Famous Arena. You hoped it wasn’t true, but I guess it is. I was at that game where he dropped 61 on us. In fact, Kobe did the commentary for Kobe Doin’ Work that night. He was like walkin’ on air.
Where do you think he stands, legacy-wise? Does he belong on basketball’s Mount Rushmore?
He’s one of the greatest of all time. But nobody’s better than Michael Jordan. Kobe isn’t better than Jordan, and LeBron isn’t better than Jordan. Nobody is.
So is he Top 5 all-time?
[Laughs] Let’s… the man’s not retired yet, so let’s give it some time. Let me show you something real quick.
At this point, Lee walks me over to his wall of cool-as-hell memorabilia, and points out a scorecard from Bryant’s epic 61-point performance against his beloved Knicks at MSG. It’s signed, “To Spike, You’re the best. P.S. This shit was your fault!!”
As far as the Knicks go, Porzingis looks great, man.
Love him! That little kid who cried when he was selected on draft night is definitely questioning himself.
I need to find that kid, and take him to a game! Get him a Porzingis jersey. They need to meet!
Let’s talk Chi-Raq. I was very impressed by the film. You’re a New York guy who’s set most of his films in the Big Apple. Why did you choose to focus your lens on Chicago?
I have to give credit to my wife, but Chicago is like the canary in a coal mine. It is the zenith of guns and gun violence—the Southwest Side of Chicago. If you’re tackling a subject, you have to go after the big dog. Chicago is a global city, but it’s also a tale of two cities. For example, while we were in Chicago doing this film, you had the NFL Draft, a quarter of a million people in Grant Park for the five last concerts of The Grateful Dead, and Lollapalooza. They all happened in Chicago while we were filming. And then the mayor [Rahm Emanuel] said our film hurt tourism? You couldn’t get a hotel or a restaurant reservation while those events were going on! Tourism was at a peak. Plus, no one is coming to Chicago to tour the South Side. And there are no hotels or economic development there, so what the hell is he talking about?
It does seem like the South Side of Chicago is being neglected when it comes to economic development and government programs.
There’s food deserts, many of the schools are no good, there’s no trauma center. There’s no trauma center on the South Side of Chicago! I’m positive there are people who are dead today that could be alive if there was a trauma center in the South Side, and they didn’t have to travel downtown or somewhere else. I’m positive.
So is it Mayor Rahm Emanuel who’s culpable here?
Well, you could go back to Mayor Daley. And right now, the Republican governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, is cutting programs. The summer before last, Father Pfleger had funds allocated and had 3,000 summer jobs to get kids off the streets. I don’t know the exact number, but it was significantly cut. And those jobs are a matter of life and death.
Gun violence, of course, plays a big role in Chi-Raq. And the movie couldn’t be more timely when you have the horrible video of Laquan McDonald’s murder by a white police officer released just last week.
I mean, we could go on. I’ll tell you, that scene about the massacre in Charleston, Dylann Roof, that was not in the script. When that happened, I thought we have to write a scene about this. We were in the middle of filming and thought we couldn’t overlook it. And there are many lines in the film that we put in during the ADR process because things just kept happening—there’s a lot about Sandra Bland, a lot about Ben Carson that we put in.
Back to Laquan McDonald, which is the most recent high-profile case of a young black man being struck down by a white police officer, of course the shooting itself is horrifying, but also the way it was handled was terrible.
Here’s the thing: They gave us it in dribs-and-drabs. You hear about it, then it takes a year, then we get the sound-less version, and now they released versions with some audio. You can see that the last five or six gunshots, he’s dead already on the ground! And now there’s talk from people who worked at the Burger King that the cops came in and tampered with their video. Here’s the thing: I’m not doing a Tarantino. I know cops, and that’s a hard motherfuckin’ job. And most of the cops do well, and mean well. But when you have rogue cops like this guy, he may be from Chicago, but it affects every cop in every police department all across America, and it just widens the gap between the community and the police. So the people are like, “Why am I going to help you when you guys are wildin’ out?”There also seems to be an alarming lack of accountability when it comes to disciplining police officers. A reporter even had to file a FOIA lawsuit to get the Laquan McDonald video released.
Somebody or some people made the initial decision of we’re not letting this motherfucker out. And they’re not going to make this decision unless they saw the tape. Now, if my business is on the Magnificent Mile, I’m not mad at the people; I’m mad at the powers that be that held up the release of the video for a year so that it worked out. They didn’t want to release the video in the summer because they felt there would be a riot, so when was the best time for them to release it? They chose days before Thanksgiving, in the evening, with Black Friday coming up. And it was a very peaceful, diverse march.
You’re a longtime gun control advocate. And it does seem like the situation has gotten out of control in America. There are restaurants in open carry states where you can literally enter with an AR-15 assault rifle slung over your shoulder.
What’s the purpose of that?
Overcompensation? I’m not sure.
Who hunts with a semi-automatic weapon? Is it for hunting human beings? I don’t understand that! There’s a scene in the film where John Cusack’s character delivers a sermon/eulogy about the NRA, and government officials. That scene is really the manifesto for the whole film. [Co-writer] Kevin Willmott and I wrote it with Father Pfleger and Cusack in mind, and instead of saying, “Patti could have been this and that,” let’s deal with why this little girl ended up dead. Let’s deal with the systemic issues in society that led to us being here at this eulogy for this 11-year-old girl.
I’ve never understood how it’s far more difficult to get a driver’s license in America than it is to be a gun owner.
America’s had a long love affair with guns. Look at the art, the TV shows, the movies, the video games. We need to title guns like cars, which is something that Father Pfleger talks about a lot. There are many different things that can be done that will not injure American citizens’ Second Amendment rights. Even hard-line NRA guys know that it has to be harder to get a gun. They even admit it.
The NRA argument would be that the gun laws are very strict in Chicago, and yet there’s still this massive proliferation of firearms. In the film, there’s a line about how easy it is for people to travel to Indiana, purchase a gun at a gun show, and then transport it back to Chicago.
Chicago, Illinois, has very strict gun laws—the same thing with New York. But if the neighboring states’ laws aren’t on-point, then you’re at the mercy of them, where the guns are flowing from.
You’re of course a longtime New Yorker, and I wanted to talk to you about Donald Trump, who’s currently the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president. As New Yorkers, we’ve had to put up with this guy for a long time. And he’s been stoking the racial fires since the Central Park Five, and of course those kids turned out to be innocent.
I’m from Brooklyn… I’m not claiming him! But people forget that he put up a million-dollar reward! A million-dollar reward. Has he ever apologized for that? Because he should. Someone should bring that up. If you’re running for president, people have a right to question your past.
Did you happen to catch the video of the Black Lives Matter protester being stomped and beaten by Trump’s supporters at one of his rallies?
Oh, they beat his ass. And then after he said, “He needed to be roughed up!” Donald might as well just said, “Fuck his black ass up!” It’s very scary. I don’t know how… he still thinks he can get the Hispanic vote. He’s supposedly meeting today with some black ministers. I don’t know, man.
Plus, there’s his recent claim—for which there is no hard evidence—that he saw “thousands of Muslims” cheering in Jersey City as the Twin Towers fell on 9/11.
That was a bald-faced lie. And now he’s saying he read it in The Washington Post, and it just said that a few Muslims were rounded out. Shit, Muslims were getting their asses kicked in this country when that happened! That’s why we put that scene in Inside Man where they grab the guy, and he’s yelling, “I’m a Sikh! I’m a Sikh!” Here’s the thing: the United States has perfected the science of “the boogeyman.” Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, Nazis, Soviets, Chinese, and now it’s the Muslims. They’re the new boogeymen.
Right. And Trump—along with the majority of the GOP’s presidential candidates—are against allowing Syrian refugees into the United States for fear that some of them might be terrorists, when it’s a two-year vetting process for them to even get into the country.
Let me ask you a question: If you blow up a federal building, is that a terrorist act? Yes. So is Timothy McVeigh a terrorist? Would Donald Trump label Timothy McVeigh a terrorist? I don’t think so. And it was a federal building! And the Planned Parenthood shooter, that guy is a terrorist, too. That’s not the first time some Planned Parenthood building has been shot up. That’s terrorism. So if we want to talk about terrorist, you can’t have this myopic view that all terrorists are Muslims!
Also, everybody in the United States is a motherfuckin’ immigrant except Native Americans. And another thing—Christopher Columbus Day is gonna be out of here in a couple of years. He was lost! How are you gonna claim to find something when there are people already there? And then the things we did to them.
And since the 9/11 attacks, out of the 780,000-plus refugees that have been let into the U.S., only three have been linked to terrorism, which is a staggeringly low percentage.
But you know what Trump’s saying: “They’re thinking about it!” [Laughs] And he wants to close down mosques now. That’s like the Nazis. That’s like Hitler, Mussolini, the Axis Powers. You can’t do that!
Let’s circle back to Chi-Raq. Why do you think Aristophanes’ Lysistrata was the way to go in tackling the epidemic of gun violence in Chicago?
Well, that wasn’t my idea, it was [co-writer] Kevin Willmot’s. He did this “documentary” called CSA: The Confederate States of America, which asked the question of where we would be today if the South had won the Civil War. So I presented the film, and we became friendly. He said, “Spike, I got this script I want you to read.” At the time, it was called Gotta Give It Up. It was his idea to adapt Lysistrata to modern times. That version was set in a nondescript urban area, and we tried to get it done but couldn’t get it done. Thank god we didn’t do it six years ago. This is the time for it. I called Kevin up and said, “You still got that script? Let’s revisit it, let’s co-write it, and it’s gotta be set in the South Side of Chicago, because that’s where shit is jumping off now.” We wrote it, went to Sundance almost a year ago to try to get it set up, and everybody said no but Amazon. And we got it done.
I saw you on Late Show with Colbert, and you said sex strikes could work on college campuses to combat campus rape. Now, were you being facetious there, or do you actually think they could work?
Here’s the thing: Sister Leymah Gbowee, who’s in the film, she won a Nobel Peace Prize for using that tactic—women withholding their sex—to stop the Second Liberian Civil War.
But even she’s come forward and said that the sex strike’s only real effect was garnering the movement media attention—which, don’t get me wrong, is important in an area of the world that’s criminally underreported by the media.
I mean, that’s part of it. If people know what you’re doing, then you’re doing your job. And I think that with the rise of activism on college campuses, I think that there would be no Black Lives Matter without having Missouri. You’ve got the University of Missouri, then you have Ferguson. A lot of those people at that school have got to be from St. Louis, and the University of Missouri has a history of racism, so the kids on that campus are all involved in that. Ferguson sparked Black Lives Matter which sparked the University of Missouri which has sparked activism on college campuses that we haven’t seen since the ’60s. I was half-joking, but I’m half-serious, too. Forget about Columbia University, which is in New York City, but on a confined college campus, I think a sex strike could pop up!
Don’t you think that’s putting too much of the onus on women, though? When it comes to rape, that’s more about men exerting power and control over another person, and when you talk about rape on campus, it’s also about these institutions that foster an atmosphere where rapists, most of whom are serial rapists, can operate with impunity.
Here’s the thing, though: What’s the goal? If there’s something women can do that’s going to affect who they are in this world, if I was a woman, I wouldn’t just fold my arms and say, “Why does it have to be us women?” If you start something, and it’s crackin’, you’re going to get the men, and you don’t need men to help you start a movement.
I think the central message here—and in Lysistrata—is that women are central to maintaining peace in society. In the Middle East, for example, women are subjugated and covered up, and you have men losing their minds and killing indiscriminately. If you have a society without women, you’re in trouble.
Angela Bassett says it in the film: Women are the smarter sex.
Right. It’s like if you have a school playground, and you removed all the girls and just let it be all boys, it would eventually devolve into complete chaos.
Aristophanes knew this, too. He’s of course not here, and wrote the play in 411 B.C., but he knew what he was talking about. He saw men killing each other during the Peloponnesian War, and thought, “OK, women are smarter. What could they do to stop the war?” and he came up with this idea of a sex strike, because what do human beings do? They eat, breathe, sleep, and… that. You gotta get down to the basics. Now, in no way, shape, or form is Spike Lee or Kevin Willmott saying that the way to end gun violence in America is to have a sex strike. I’m not sayin’ that. It’s a way in.
Speaking of the power of women, we may potentially have a woman in the White House for the first time in 2016. Are you a Hillary Clinton supporter?
Right now, I like Bernie [Sanders]. He’s from Brooklyn. But did you see the debate? Hillary kind of killed him on guns, and being pro-guns. She’s going to kill him on that more. She can just bring up the guns, and it could be over. I spoke to Bernie on the phone one time.
What did you guys talk about?
This thing with the guns, I didn’t know his stance before. It was, like, a 10-minute conversation. I’d never heard of him before, but he’s a Brooklyn guy, so we just chatted. Bernie’s made a solid effort to reach out to the black community.
I mean, he has to. Trump’s meeting these pastors, too, so… but Trump probably should’ve just said he was meeting with some black pastors. When he used the word “endorsement”? They backed up and were like, “Whoa, wait a minute now!” They knew they’d get the wrath of their congregations on Sunday. We’ll see what happens. But I think this film is really timely. We cannot be the great country we claim to be with 88 people getting killed every day due to gun violence, and babies shot down in the streets. That’s not acceptable. That number should not be acceptable even for gun manufacturers, and the NRA. It’s shameful, it’s a disgrace, and again, it’s another example of capitalism on steroids where profits are valued over human life.