“When Spike Lee asks you to be in one of his films, you don’t ask a lot of questions,” says D.B. Sweeney, western suburbs resident and cast member in Lee’s controversial new film Chi-Raq. “You know that you’re going to be part of something great.”
Released this December, Chi-Raq (written by Lee and Kevin Willmott) is described as a satire that is focused on the gang violence prevalent in some neighborhoods of Chicago’s South Side, particularly, Englewood. The film is based on Lysistrata, a Greek comedy by Aristophanes, where one woman persuades the women of Greece to deny their husbands and lovers any physical intimacy until the Peloponnesian War has ended. Chi-Raq’s dialogue is all done in verse, with some musical numbers mixed in. Nick Canon, Wesley Snipes, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jennifer Hudson are some of the movie’s headliners.
It’s the film’s title—a mash up of Chicago and Iraq—rather than the content that has caused the controversy. Members of Chicago’s city council and city residents have requested that Lee change the name of the film, going as far as to threaten the tax credits that the film maker will receive from the city. “Chi-Raq” is a common term used by South Side residents to describe the area as a war zone due to its high crime rates.
Lee has been quoted calling Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel a bully and several Chicago aldermen “bootlickers” for their criticisms. “The controversy around Chi-Raq feels like a false one to me,” explains Sweeney, who has been cast as Mayor McCloud. “Spike, like many of us are, is really appalled by the level of violence in our cities, especially here in Chicago. I think politicians getting upset about the title of this movie is insulting. What about the fact that we have young people getting killed everyday? Let’s not grandstand about the title of a movie. Spike knows what’s he’s doing. This movie takes us back to prime time Spike Lee, when he directed Do the Right Thing. This is his sweet spot and will surprise a lot of people in a good way.”
D.B. Sweeney’s character in the movie is fictional, loosely based on research Sweeney did of several of Chicago’s last mayors. “When I was preparing for this role, I thought my character would have this ‘every guy’ angle on life, sound more ‘Chicago’ than me. Not necessarily the Mayor Daley of recent years, but maybe his son,” Sweeney says. “But when I got to the table read and learned that Spike had cast this beautiful African American woman as my wife, I realized this character would be entirely different.”
One of the joys of working with Lee, in Amazon’s first original film, is that he empowers his cast to create the characters. “When Spike hired me, he had an idea for who the mayor could be be. But then he believes in the actors he casts to bring the character to life. He wants to see what we can do.”
Chi-Raq came to Chicago with at $20 million budget. “Spike was clear that this was a Chicago movie. He cast as many local actors as he could and used a Chicago crew. He’s even hosting the premiere here [on December 4]. Who knows what this money and focus on Englewood could do for the city?” asks Sweeney. This is the second movie that Sweeney has made with Lee—the first was The Miracle at St. Anna, a film about a Buffalo Soldier in World War II Italy. “I spent a month in Tuscany with Spike. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Sweeney, who made his own directorial debut with Two Tickets to Paradise—a film that scored more than a dozen awards at major film festivals—appreciates working with Lee both as an actor and an emerging director. “Spike is one of the most efficient directors I’ve ever worked with,” he says. “He knows what he’s looking for before he arrives on set. He doesn’t spend time rethinking his choices. He knows exactly how he wants things done. And I’ve never witnessed him being unfair in how
he makes this happen.”
Lee is often categorized with fellow directors Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese, iconic New York filmmakers. “I hear people say this all the time and I think it’s too narrow. Spike is a great American director, asking the nation as a whole to examine certain issues and see what they can do to make it better. He’s a true master.”