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An Evening with Spike Lee

Applause and jeers.  

Praise and contempt.

For the acclaimed and controversial filmmaker Spike Lee, however, it was just another day.

“I am not immune to criticism,” Lee told an audience of 800 in Cahn Auditorium on March 2. “I’ve been criticized from day one.”

Lee was on campus at the invitation of the Department of Political Science and the student-run Contemporary Thought Speaker Series for a private screening of his provocative film “Chi-Raq,” followed by a heated Q&A. 

The film, which likens violence-ridden Chicago neighborhoods to war zones in Iraq, is structured as an adaptation of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata.” In both Lee’s film and the ancient Greek comic drama, women stage a sex strike to force men to make peace. 

At the outset, Lee, dressed in all-black save for a pair of crisp white sneakers, promised to “drop some jewels” of truth on the crowd. Unfiltered and raw, he blasted Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations; criticized Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for his handling of the police shooting death of Laquan McDonald; and commended members of Northwestern’s football team for their unionization efforts.

Some in the crowd praised Lee for navigating Hollywood’s “whiteness” and giving voice to black narratives in film. Others questioned his motives with “Chi-Raq” and the film’s portrayal of African-American females. One audience member charged that the movie “belittled” black women.

Lee countered that a strong African-American actress like Angela Bassett would not have been involved in “Chi-Raq” if it had minimized the role of women in society. The film’s main female characters, he said, leveraged their sexuality to liberate black people.

“Use whatever means possible to achieve your goal,” said Lee, who was joined on the stage by two South Side men who had been caught up in gang violence from childhood and are now working as peacemakers. 

In “Chi-Raq,” Lee used satire as his weapon of choice. “I’m an artist. It’s my artistic vision,” he said. “We’re not making light of a serious subject.” 

Political science chair Sara Monoson said the movie was remarkably faithful to the spirit of the original play while being “fiercely in the moment today.”  

“The ancient play was full of obscenities and hilarious antics, and also deadly serious about male violence,” said Monoson, who is also a professor of philosophy and classics. “The way the evening brought antiquity into the 21st century was electrifying.” 

Student Trevia Daniels, who grew up on Chicago’s South and West sides, said she is very familiar with the issues that plague those communities. She encouraged the Northwestern community to pay attention to the concerns raised by Lee’s film and to get involved. 

“We are living in a perilous time, for not only our city, but for our nation and our world,” Daniels said. “I expect Northwestern Wildcats, or wherever you come from, to be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

— Additional reporting by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

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