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Women take a stand against violence in Spike Lee’s ‘Chi-Raq’

"Chi-Raq," the latest film from Spike Lee, uses satire to explore the problem of gun violence in America. The movie is set in Chicago, a city that's been wracked by tensions with police as well as a very high number of murders. The director sits down with Jeffrey Brown.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Finally tonight: A new film opening today uses satire to explore the problem of gun violence in urban America. It is set in Chicago, which has not only seen tensions with police, but is struggling to deal with a high number of murders.

    The movie is the latest from director Spike Lee, who is not known to shy away from charged subjects and the controversy that sometimes comes with them.

    Jeffrey Brown has our story.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The urgency behind Spike Lee's new film is announced right at the top.

  • MAN:

    Homicides in Chicago, Illinois, have surpassed the death toll of American special forces in Iraq.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's called "Chi-Raq."

  • MAN:

    Welcome to Chi-Raq.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The title mixes Chicago and Iraq. The film mixes social satire and deadly serious issues of gang violence.

    In a Washington, D.C., movie theater recently, Lee told me why he felt compelled to make the film.

    SPIKE LEE, Director, "Chi-Raq": We, as Americans, shouldn't be OK with our young people being shot down in the street.

    The South Side of Chicago is a mass murder capital of the United States of America. Chicago is the canary in the coal mine.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The emergency Lee sees, guns in America used by black men to kill other black men, while the gap grows between rich and poor communities even within the same city.

    In fact, you're telling a sort of tale of two cities, aren't you, because it is?

  • SPIKE LEE:

    Charles Dickens.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. You're conscious — I mean, you're aware of that, looking at Chicago?

  • SPIKE LEE:

    Oh, I have been making movies since 1986. So, nothing I do is just by happenstance or let's try this. No, I'm very in command of my craft. I know what I want to do. I know how to do it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    If Lee had Charles Dickens in mind, he looked most directly to an ancient Greek play, Aristophanes' "Lysistrata," in which women band together to abstain from sex to persuade their men to end the Peloponnesian War.

    In "Chi-Raq," the girlfriend of a gang leader — she's played by actress Teyonah Parris — decides the only way rival gangs will lay down their arms is if women take a stand.

  • ACTRESS:

    You really think something that like could bring peace? You all know the power we have over them withholding just a day, a week. Imagine a month, a year. Oh, they're going to bring the peace.

  • SPIKE LEE:

    Satire is a great way to deal with serious subject matter.

    And with Aristophanes, who many of his plays satirized ancient Greece, it worked for one of my favorite filmmakers, Stanley Kubrick, with "Dr. Strangelove," which is about the destruction, nuclear destruction, nuclear holocaust.

    What could be more serious than that? But that's a very, very funny film.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Blending serious subject matters with touches of humor and satire is a hallmark of Spike Lee's films.

    His first, "She's Gotta Have It," came out in 1986 and focused on a sexually independent young Brooklyn woman balancing three suitors, one of whom was played by Lee himself.

    You can do what you want to do.

  • ACTOR:

    You want brothers on the wall? Get your own place. You can do what you want to do.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    He examined complexities of racial tension in this 1989 breakout film "Do the right Thing" and the life and struggle of Malcolm X in 1992.

    He's continued to turn out films almost yearly, though most recent films have struggled to find commercial success.

  • DENZEL WASHINGTON, Actor:

    Let's let everybody stay calm. OK?

  • CLIVE OWEN, Actor:

    Don't I seem calm to you?

  • DENZEL WASHINGTON:

    Yes, you do. JEFFREY BROWN: His last box office hit came in 2006 with "Inside Man," a more traditional Hollywood crime thriller.

    Often enough, Lee's films have brought controversy.

  • MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL, Chicago:

    I was clear that I was not happy about the title.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    With "Chi-Raq," the criticism came from local Chicagoans, most notably Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who chafed at having their city compared to Iraq.

  • SPIKE LEE:

    I respectfully told the mayor I was not going to change the title of the film.

    I mean, the mayor never said, Spike, don't make this film, so that needs to be stated. He did say that he did not like the title and that the title, he felt, would harm tourism and economic development, which is not true.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It won't?

  • SPIKE LEE:

    It hasn't.

    So, again, we go back to Charles Dickens.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The tale of two cities.

  • SPIKE LEE:

    The tale of two cities. There's two Chicagos. And tourism, there are no tour buses going through the South Side of Chicago.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    People go to the movies, and we think about the movies often just as entertainment, as escape. But is this art as a call to action, as a kind of witness?

  • SPIKE LEE:

    There are many different audiences.

    So, you can have a very entertaining film that has — that makes you think, too. So, it's not — it doesn't have to be one or the other. And I think that, in that same vein, "Chi-Raq" is a film that is going to have humor in it, but it deals with very, very serious subject matter.

    And everybody is not going to want to go see "Star Wars" this Christmas. I'm going to see it, but there's a million different audiences.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Lee has also been critical of his own industry for its lack of diversity, including a recent rebuke when he was awarded an honorary Oscar.

  • SPIKE LEE:

    This industry is so behind sports, it's ridiculous. It's easier to be the president of the United States as a black person than be the head of studio. Honest.

    When you have a lack of diversity amongst a group, the people with the green light, then that directly affects what we see, because these are the people who say, we're making this, we're not making this.

    So I had an opportunity to speak to — directly to the heads of studios, and I chose to take that opportunity.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    At 58, Spike Lee shows no signs of slowing down. And when asked where that drive comes from, he has a simple answer.

  • SPIKE LEE:

    From Brooklyn, New York, sir.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • SPIKE LEE:

    From Brooklyn.

    I mean, if you take the time and look at everybody who came out of Brooklyn, something's in the water.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Something's there, and it drives people forward to a larger stage.

  • SPIKE LEE:

    The republic of Brooklyn, New York.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, Spike Lee, thanks so much.

  • SPIKE LEE:

    Thank you, my man.

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