CHICAGO — It was the best of times and worst of times — a real tale of two Mondays for Spike Lee and me.
At lunchtime, the New York City filmmaker praised my news organization for documenting violence in Chicago and doing “a great service for getting the word out.”
Lee called me “Mr. DNA” and even gave me a fist bump.
At suppertime, Lee screamed at me over the phone — dropping f-bombs and everything. I screamed back, sometimes using language I wouldn’t use in front of my mother.
He was ticked off that I criticized his decision to have the “Chi-Raq” world premiere in “the rich part of town” at the “stately Chicago Theatre on State Street in the heart of the Loop” instead of, say, a South Side venue closer to where he shot the film.
That struck a raw nerve with the “Chi-Raq” director.
"You're saying he comes to the South Side, he shoots his movie and then he has his premiere downtown, that’s f------ b-------,” Lee said. “You’re saying I turned my back on the community? … Get out of here with that m---------- b-------.”
On the phone in a high-pitched squeal, Lee demanded to know where he was supposed to find a theater on the South Side that could accommodate 1,800 people.
He also wanted to know if I thought he was supposed to delay the world premiere until a suitable place — the now-closed New Regal Theater on 79th Street for instance — magically reopened. Or, Lee sarcastically wondered out loud, maybe I thought he should have told locals who worked on the film that there just wouldn’t be room for them attend the movie’s first official screening.
“People busted they m------------ ass in the movie. They should have the privilege to go the world premiere. There’s no theater. … You’re from Chicago, tell me a theater on the South Side that holds 1,800 people.”
In my column I offered a few options, including a 14-screen multiplex in Chatham and the House of Hope in Pullman.
I even wrote, “Some people might say it’s not fair to criticize Lee for celebrating 'Chi-Raq' in the rich part of town, and maybe they’re right.”
But I also took a jab at Lee that apparently stung the famous director when it landed.
I wrote that it’s not fair “when people in power — and Lee has plenty of star power — feel compelled to highlight certain neighborhoods as the embodiment of evil in Chicago but fail to show off the pockets of potential and opportunities for hope when it's time to celebrate. Don’t worry Spike, folks won’t complain too much. The people of Chi-Raq have never gotten to host the party. They don’t even know what they’re missing.”
To be fair to myself, something Lee said on national TV ticked me off, too. The “Chi-Raq” director made a point to tell “The Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon that Chicago’s violence was on “The South Side.”
As a guy who lives on the far South Side in an area some people call “The Wild Hundreds” due to the long history of gang violence there, there’s nothing worse than hearing people say Chicago’s shooting problem is confined to desolate, poverty-stricken parts of town when that’s not entirely true.
To me, Lee’s pitter-pat with Fallon suggested violence is an issue that can be easily avoided and shouldn’t be of a concern to tourists, conventioneers, visiting dignitaries and Fortune 500 corporations with world headquarters in the Loop.
After all, it’s safe to assume one of the reasons Mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted Lee to change the name of his film to anything but “Chi-Raq” is to maintain the false perception that the gang wars that count innocent children in the body counts are a safe distance from the wealthy part of town.
One thing Lee and I agree on is that there’s A Tale of Two Cities narrative playing out in Chicago that keeps this town divided by class and race.
Lee took exception to, how did he put it, “m----------- chastising me for not having the premiere on the South Side” and using him and his movie to advance that point.
Yes, I did that.
The poke about the "Chi-Raq" premiere aimed to show the consistent inequities suffered by people in certain parts of my town.
Instead, it ended up being a distraction from my point, just a critical stick jabbed into a celebrity director's eye. Too often debates on serious issues get derailed when hurt feelings put the focus on minute points rather than the bigger issues.
So, my bad, Spike. Seriously.
You know, some people say Lee used Chicago’s shooting problem and picked a provacative title to make his film and advance his social commentary on the injustice of what’s going on in black and brown communities all across America, too.
That's yet another example of how conversations about such serious issues can easily be derailed by taking aim at one person, one perspective or one minor detail rather than coming together to start a real dialogue about finding solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems.
It’s like Lee said at a Monday news conference about the mayor’s unhappiness with the title of his film.
“It’s unfortunate that a lot of angst and dialogue was really a distraction. I’m a sports fan. It’s like the misdirection play in football. You fake it this way. You run this way to tackle the guy, the guy’s running 80 yards to the house,” Lee told reporters. “Let’s not get distracted on whether or not the mayor liked the title.
"That’s not important in my opinion.”
Before Lee headed to the airport, I told him what I wrote came from a good place in my heart that wants to see the rich and powerful side of my city — our government, our philanthropists and our corporate stakeholders — acknowledge that generations of bad policies, predatory lending, racist real estate redlining, corrupt policing and, maybe worst of all, neglect, contributed to the underground economy and cultivated the violent gang culture that continues to steal innocent lives and leaves good people imprisoned by fear. And that it’s time to rebuild, reinvest and restore parts of Chicago that for far too long have been abandoned.
The famous director said he understood.
“Sorry for my outburst. I apologize to you, too,” he said. “We’re on the same team. We got the same philosophy. We’re both trying to do our thing. You doing journalism. Me doing film. I just didn’t appreciate you using me to prove a point.”
Lee is right, and I'm glad we got to talk it out.
In the end, we share a mutual frustration over the senseless shooting in Chicago and poverty-stricken pockets of other big cities across America.
And if my screaming match with Spike Lee taught me anything is this: If a couple of guys who care as much as we do are going to drop a bunch of f-bombs, it should probably be about that.
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