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Spike Lee Defends 'Chiraq,' Says Naysayers Will 'Look Stupid' In Time

By  Andrea V. Watson and Mark Konkol | May 14, 2015 10:24am | Updated on May 14, 2015 5:27pm

 Spike Lee appears at a press conference with families of victims of Chicago violence.
Spike Lee appears at a press conference with families of victims of Chicago violence.
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DNAinfo/Andrea Watson

AUBURN GRESHAM — Before people pass judgment on Spike Lee’s upcoming film, reportedly to be called “Chiraq,” he said they need to watch it first.

“Wait to the movie comes out and if, you don’t like it, you don’t like it, but see it first,” the Academy Award-nominated director told reporters on Thursday outside of St. Sabina, 1210 W. 78th Place.

Details of the movie, which Lee never referred to by name, began to surface this week, with Screen Daily reporting it will be a musical comedy. And sources confirm it will be a remake of "Lysistrata," Aristophanes' ancient Greek comedy about how women withheld sex to try to stop the Peloponnesian War. In Lee's version, the women of the South Side try the same to end the violence.

Lee's project has stirred up controversy among some city politicians and residents, mainly because of the reported title that compares the city to a war zone. Mayor Rahm Emanuel made it known in a meeting with Lee that he didn't like the name.

But Lee said Thursday that the film was being criticized “by people who know nothing about this film, a lot of people have opinions about the so called title of the film, but again, know nothing about the film," Lee said.

"We felt it was appropriate that we say what the narrative is, the filmmakers, the people doing this, not the people judging from afar, and again, who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”

Lee took personal offense at the criticism.

"People act like they've never seen my films, like I was grabbed off the streets," he said. "Everything I've done led up to this film."

Even though the movie is a comedy, he said the city's violence problems are real.

"This is not a joke. This is not a game. This is real life and death. That's the way we're going to approach it," he said. "We must stop the madness. This is insane."

"... It has nothing to do with Chicago losing tourism. C'mon."

Lee scheduled the press conference, but wouldn’t take questions from media and never acknowledged the widely-reported title, "Chiraq." Actor John Cusack, co-writer, Kevin Willmott and Purpose Over Pain, a group for Chicago parents who have lost children to gun violence were also there.

“I know I hear a lot of energy being put towards the film, but what I want, what I’m asking, what I’m begging is that you put that same energy behind our children, our lives, save our children,” said Pam Bosley, the organization’s coordinator.

Jasmine Giles, 27, of Englewood, who's younger brother was gunned down in 2012, said no one should be offended by the title of the movie.

“I didn’t take it as offensive, and I feel like everyone is so opposed to 'Chiraq,' but the reality of the situation is, we’re in a war zone,” she said.

“When we step out of our front doors, we have to pray and hug and kiss and say, ‘I love you, I’ll see you soon, I pray everything goes okay when you leave out the door,’" she said of family members.

"It’s sad, it’s bad and a lot of people don’t understand it until it hits home.”

But despite Lee's remarks, Ald. Will Burns (4th) and others still believes the film’s title is offensive.

“I have no concerns at all about the content of Mr. Lee’s movie, it is the branding of these communities as ‘Chiraq’ that is deeply problematic to me," Burns said in a phone interview after the press conference. "And it’s offensive to people who play by the rules, who mow their lawns, take their kids to school, go to church, run Little Leagues, and are trying to build decent communities.”

Spike Lee watches Rev. Michael Pfleger give remarks at a Thursday press conference. [DNAinfo/Mark Konkol]

Resident Association of Greater Englewood president Aysha Butler told DNAinfo Chicago that although she is a Spike Lee fan, she was surprised to learn that his upcoming film is titled “Chiraq.”

She said that she is sure the content will reflect a conscious message, but the title needs to go.

“I don’t think it’s a controversial topic about the content of the movie, I just think it’s controversy in general about a name so many people want to bury and be done with it as a label for Chicago and a specific neighborhood.”

She said labeling Englewood as “Chiraq” will set groups like her’s back from the work they’re doing to highlight the community’s positive stories.

“I think people who don’t understand the life of people of Chicago will be mislead and perhaps will be leery about investing or touring or visiting a place that is labeled with the name that is basically saying you are in a war zone,” Butler said.

One of the concerns politicians like Burns has is the impact the film’s title will have on economic development.

But Lee took issue with worrying about economics that or fears his film could hurt tourism.

“Let’s not put property and profit over human life,” he said.

Lee said he faced criticism before his acclaimed "Do the Right Thing" film was released in 1989, with fears it would lead to rioting.

"They wrote a whole bunch of things," he said. "But those people ended up being on the wrong side of history. The same thing will happen in Chicago. They will look stupid."

Art is supposed to speak the “truth,” Lee said, which means artists can’t be “fearful.”

“They hold a mirror up to what is happening in the world and they do that with no fear,” he said.

Cusack also defended the project, which he said he got involved in after Lee called him. "He said: 'Johnny, the one reason to do this film is to help save lives.' "

Cusack called any criticism of the "Chiraq" name a "manufactured" controversy.

“A few people say it’s controversial and then the press repeat it, but controversial to who? Nobody that I’m talking to here,” Cusack said.

"I am 100 percent sure that the great city of Chicago can survive a film of conscience, just like it did 'Transformers,' " Cusack joked about the non-controversial action movie.

Rev. Michael Pfleger said that people shouldn’t turn away from reality.

“We’re not painting a city, we’re painting a reality that’s difficult and that’s hard,” he said.

Willmott said that the film is about “hope, peace and justice.” He said he hopes that it brings all cities together to address the problem.

Crews plan to film in Chicago in Englewood and other neighborhoods starting later this month and continuing through July.

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