Director Spike Lee is no stranger to controversy -- but usually the backlash he faces comes once his films have seen the light of day.
His new project, with the working title of "Chiraq," is ruffling feathers before a single frame has even been shown in theaters. From its title to its emotionally charged subject matter -- rampant gun violence in Chicago -- the movie has already struck a nerve.
"A lot of things have been said about the film by people who know nothing about the film,” Lee said during a press conference Thursday at St. Sabina Catholic Church on Chicago's South Side. “We felt it was appropriate that we say what the narrative is, the filmmakers, the people who are doing this. Not the people that’s judging from afar.”
The film's title, which, according to Lee, is not final, is an intentional conflation of the Windy City with the war zones of Iraq -- an artistic choice that had already drawn the ire of local city officials. According to NBC Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel reached out to Lee about changing the name.
"We had an honest, frank conversation," Emanuel said last month. "He said that while the movie is about the neighborhood of Englewood, I said that I was not happy about the title."
The term "Chiraq" has been frequently used by rappers who hail from the city, including Chief Keef and Kanye West, who was once rumored to be in the film's cast.
"I told [Lee] also that there are very good people that live in Englewood who are raising their family," the mayor added. "There's a lot of positive things."
For his part, Lee insists he loves the city of Chicago and pleaded with critics to "wait until the movie comes out. You don’t like it, you don’t like, but wait, see it first.”
Still, some local officials have no patience with the "Malcolm X" auteur. Last week, Alderman Will Burns proposed a measure to the Chicago City Council to deny Lee a $3 million tax break for shooting the film on location in Illinois. "I'm really concerned about the brand 'Chiraq' being applied to neighborhoods where people are trying to do the right thing," Burns said.
"Chiraq" does have its defenders in the city, such as Father Michael Pfleger. "He's filming in the community," Pfleger told NBC Chicago. "He's hiring from the community, and he's dealing with issues in the community. What's the problem?" Local residents lined up around the block to audition for roles in the film in an open casting call for extras earlier this month.
Details of the plot are not known at this time, but Lee has said the film's focus is "black-on-black violence." John Cusack is attached to star and Chicago native rapper Common, Jeremy Piven and Samuel L. Jackson are rumored to be circling the project as well.
“I am 100% sure that the great city of Chicago can survive a film of conscience, just like it did 'Transformers,'" quipped Cusack alongside Lee on Thursday. "I love my city of Chicago, all of Chicago, and I would never do anything to hurt it.”
Cusack said that when Lee approached him about the project he told him the purpose of the film was to "help save lives." Clearly, the 58-year-old filmmaker feels he has a lot riding on the movie, which is being produced by AmazonStudios.
“Everything I’ve done has led up to this film," Lee said in his remarks Thursday.