How Spike Lee landed Jennifer Hudson for 'Chi-Raq'
Spike Lee and Jennifer Hudson attend a rally to end gun violence and film a scene for “Chiraq” in June in Chicago.
Spike Lee desperately wanted to do the right thing.
The Brooklyn-based filmmaker felt Jennifer Hudson would be the perfect choice to play a grieving mother whose daughter is killed by a stray bullet in his new movie, “Chi-Raq,” but the pall of the 2008 shooting deaths of the Oscar-winning actress’ mother, brother and 7-year-old nephew seemed too big to overcome.
“I didn’t want to seem like I was exploiting the tragedy,” Lee told the Daily News ahead of Friday’s release of his dramedy about gun violence in Chicago, where Hudson’s family suffered so much. “It took me a while, like a week or so to get enough courage to call her.
“We finally met and I was walking on eggshells. And she sat down, I said, ‘I know this might bring back some horrible memories.’ She said, ‘Spike, those horrible memories are with me every day and we have got to stop this killing — so let’s make this film.’”
Stop the killing is what the 58-year-old filmmaker aspires to do. During the month and a half the film was shooting on location in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, there were 65 murders in the area.
On the surface, “Chi-Raq” — released by Amazon Studios in select theaters before later hitting the company’s streaming site — seems full of humor. It’s a reimagining of the 2,500-year-old Greek satire, “Lysistrata,” recast about a present-day woman (Teyonah Parris) who organizes a sex strike to force her boyfriend (Nick Cannon) and other gangsters to stop the violence.
But the film also boasts some powerful moments — like Hudson’s raw emotional crime scene sequence, shot in just one take.
“I wasn’t going to ask her to do it again,” recalled Lee at the Brooklyn offices of his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule. “ She wasn’t acting.”
The usually unflappable Lee was nearly overcome with emotion himself when members of the group Purpose Over Pain were recruited for a scene where they held up pictures of their children, all real-life murder victims.
“Everyone else was crying,” he said. “I couldn’t cry since I was directing.”
Not everyone was moved by what Lee was trying to accomplish.
Before cameras even started filming last summer, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and local politicians gave a thumb’s down to the production, claiming the title, a play off the bloody Iraq War, made the city look bad.
Lee scoffed at that outrage.
Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” is a reimagining of the 2,500-year-old Greek satire, “Lysistrata,” recast about a present-day woman (Teyonah Parris) who organizes a sex strike to force her boyfriend (Nick Cannon) and other gangsters to stop the violence.
“There are no tour buses going to the South Side of Chicago,” the filmmaker said. “There are no hotels in the South Side of Chicago.”
Lee had an even tougher time convincing Hollywood studios to take a chance on the film — which features dialogue almost entirely in verse. Amazon took that chance in part because it’s a fledgling force in the business, trying to compete with traditional studios and rival Netflix.
That Lee still has to struggle to get funding for his movies may surprise some given a 30-year track record that includes “Do the Right Thing (1989),” “Malcolm X (1992)” and “Inside Man (2006),” which earned an impressive $ 88 million at the box office.
Yet Lee still feels like an outsider in a film industry that he says lacks racial and gender diversity.
“Let me ask you a question: If ‘Inside Man’ was such a huge hit, how come it’s never had a sequel? Universal was the studio on that film,” he said. “What number are they up to in ‘Fast and Furious?’ ”
Lee stirred up controversy when he accepted an honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards on Nov. 14, telling the audience of industry insiders that it’s easier for a black person to become President of the United States than the head of a Hollywood studio. A recent UCLA report shows 94% of studio heads are white and all of them are male.
“I always say stuff that people think, but my wife sometimes says, ‘You shouldn’t say it. You got that movie you want to get made,’ ” Lee said. “But the truth is the truth.”