Director Spike Lee is infamous for his feuds with his fellow filmmakers, but now a prominent politician is drawing his ire: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Their beef has been brewing for months because the "Malcolm X" director's latest project takes a deep dive into the topic of gun violence in the windy city and has a provocative title attached to it: "Chi-raq." The term, which was first coined by Chicago-era rappers, is meant to draw a link between the city's crime rate and the war zones of the Middle Eastern nation. Lee's production, which is set to debut in theaters and on Amazon Prime this December, has been criticized by some local politicians, including the mayor.
In a recent interview with Chicago Magazine, Lee defended his film and accused Emanuel of trying to misrepresent his intentions. “What I didn’t like was him trying to paint me as this villain. I’m not the bad guy, but that’s how he was trying to portray it,” Lee said. “Do I have the guns? Am I the one pulling the trigger? To be honest, he’s a bully ... He’s not gonna bully me. My tactic with the mayor—any bully—is to come out swinging. I said,' Mayor, Your Honor, you’re gonna be on the wrong side of history.'”
Lee and Emanuel held a closed door meeting earlier this year to try to find common ground. However, according to Lee, the mayor only had reservations that the film would give his city a "bad image."
“His whole thing was, the title is going to hurt tourism, the title is going to hurt economic development. But what tourism is he talking about? While we were shooting the film, you had the NFL draft here. Quarter million people in Grant Park … So this part of the city is booming,” Lee told Chicago Magazine. “But there are no bulletproof double-decker buses going through the Wild Hundreds [the gang-infested area from 100th to 130th Streets] or through Terror Town [a two-by-four-block patch of South Shore]. What economic development is going on in the South Side?”
Emanuel was more sanguine about their sit-down earlier this year. “We had an honest, frank conversation,” the mayor said in April. “He said that while the movie is about the neighborhood of Englewood, I said that I was not happy about the title.”
Meanwhile, city Alderman William Burns has called the film's title a “slap in the face” of the city's residents.
"I have no issue with filmmakers wanting to make movies about the city of Chicago," Burns said in July. "What I do have issue with is using a title for a movie that offends many people on the South Side, makes it harder to bring economic development to those neighborhoods and to give someone a tax subsidy to do it." Lee reportedly has sought a $3 million tax break for filming on location in Chicago.
Over 1,000 people have been shot in Chicago this year, which tops 2014 (933) and 2013 (817). The city has also seen over 500 homicides twice in the last 10 years.
Lee says that he has seen nothing but support for the project and its title from members of the community. “As I’d be walking the streets, going to games, the airports, everybody would say, ‘Keep 'Chi-raq.' Don’t change the title. F--k him.'”