Spike Lee defends ‘Chiraq’ title for movie about Chicago

 Spike Lee defends ‘Chiraq’ title for movie about Chicago
Spike Lee at a press conference about his film 'Chiraq' on May 14. WBEZ/Natalie Moore
 Spike Lee defends ‘Chiraq’ title for movie about Chicago
Spike Lee at a press conference about his film 'Chiraq' on May 14. WBEZ/Natalie Moore

Spike Lee defends ‘Chiraq’ title for movie about Chicago

Filmmaker Spike Lee says people judging his new Chicago movie from afar “don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”

Controversy has swirled around Lee’s film “Chiraq,” a slang term for Chicago violence. Flanked by dozens of residents who’ve lost loved ones to gun violence, Lee addressed those concerns on Thursday at St. Sabina Catholic Church in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood.

“A lot of things have been said about this film by people who know nothing about the film. A lot of people have opinions about the so-called title of the film, again, know nothing about the film,” Lee said. “People act like they’ve never seen none of my films, like I got pulled off the street. I’ve been doing this since 1986. In fact, everything I’ve done has led up to this film.”

Lee didn’t take questions or give details about the film, which reportedly is a musical that riffs off of a Greek tragicomedy. While the city is often perceived as the national posterchild for violence, Lee said the story is bigger than Chicago because it’s about violence in America.

Much of the criticism is directed at the name “Chiraq,” which combines parts of the names Chicago and violence-torn Iraq. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has told the director that it was unfair to the people in the Englewood neighborhood where the film takes place.

But Lee said that it’s an artist’s job to hold a mirror up to what is happening in the world without fear in order to tell the truth.

“This is not a joke. This is not a game,” Lee said. “This is real life and death and that’s the way we’re going to approach this.”

He noted that 14 people were shot overnight in Chicago, and three of them were killed.

One of the parents standing alongside Lee was Sarah Turner, whose 42-year-old son, Michael, was shot four times in the back in 2013. No one was ever arrested in the killing.

She said the movie title “Chiraq” was appropriate.

“Because it is what it is; it’s a war zone,” she said. “You can’t feel comfortable all over and even in your own homes. Every time you turn on the news somebody’s being shot. Babies are being shot right in their own homes.”

Father Michael Pfleger, the priest of St. Sabina, has been a staunch supporter of Lee and last weekend allowed auditions for movie extras at his parish.

Actor John Cusack, a Chicago native appearing in the upcoming movie, said art must be courageous.

“There really is no controversy around this film except for a bit of manufactured political controversy. A few people say it’s controversial and then the press repeats it. But controversial to whom?” Cusack said. “I am 100 percent sure that the great city of Chicago can survive a film of conscience just as it did Transformers. I love my city Chicago and would never do anything to hurt it.”

Lee recalled receiving similar criticism in 1989 when he released Do the Right Thing about race in urban America.

“There were people who said this film would cause riots all across America. And black people are going run amok. People wrote that this film would stop David Dinkins from being the first African-American mayor of New York. But those people ended up on the wrong side of history,” Lee said.

He thinks the same thing will happen with his latest film set in Chicago.

“They are going to look stupid and be on the wrong side of history. We’re here for peace,” Lee said.

Filming is expected to begin this month.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

is WBEZ’s South Side Bureau reporter. nmoore@wbez.org. Follow Natalie on Google+, Twitter