Even as his films become subject to parody, Spike Lee can still upset the powerful. That’s what happened when Chicago mayor and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel tried to stop the director from naming his upcoming film “Chiraq,” slang that refers to the city’s gang problems. Lee shot the film in the city’s South Side over the summer amid criticism from Emanuel and other politicians. In a Chicago Magazine story, he accuses the mayor of coercion.
What I didn’t like was him trying to paint me as this villain. I’m not the bad guy, but that’s how he was trying to portray it. Do I have the guns? Am I the one pulling the trigger? To be honest, he’s a bully.
The director went on to explain that Emanuel was concerned about the bad reputation the film might engender for the city—a reputation backed up by numbers and the city’s obvious residential segregation:
We started shooting Chi-Raq June 1. We finished July 9. 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.
His whole thing was, ‘The title is going to hurt tourism. The title is going to hurt economic development.’ But what tourism is he talking about? While we were shooting the film, you had the NFL draft here. [A] quarter million people in Grant Park. Can’t get a hotel room, can’t get a reservation. I mean, it’s packed. Then the Grateful Dead. Then Lollapalooza. So this part of the city is booming. But there are no bulletproof double-decker buses going through the Wild Hundreds [the gang-infested area from 100th to 130th Streets] or through Terror Town [a two-by-four-block patch of South Shore]. What economic development is going on in the South Side?
The mayor is a well-educated man. He and my wife both went to Sarah Lawrence. So I know he read Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Starring Teyonah Harris, John Cusack, Nick Cannon and Dave Chappelle among others, “Chiraq” is based on the Greek comedy “Lysistrata” and set in contemporary Chicago. Amazon Studios will distribute the film.