Spike Lee, John Cusack and Nick Cannon came to the Berlinale today in support of Lee’s Chicago-set anti-gun-violence musical satire Chi-Raq. The Amazon-backed pic is making its international premiere out of competition in Berlin, a festival with a strong political bent. That was in evidence today with a press conference that saw the often outspoken Lee warmly welcomed by reporters who wanted to learn more about his views on the spread of violence in America, the Oscars diversity debate and the upcoming presidential election.
Asked at the start about the title of the film, a term coined by local rappers that’s a mix of “Chicago” and “Iraq,” Lee referred to his BlackBerry to read off a list of statistics. He said 53 people were shot and killed in Chicago in January, an 83% increase over last year. “The purpose of this film is to bring awareness to this war zone,” Lee said. Cusack, a Chicago native, had his own stats ready, adding the total shot during the current week is 17, “So that’s pretty much a war zone.”
“The United States of America is a very volatile country,” Lee said to a room full of largely non-American journalists here. “Every day, 99 Americans die due to gun violence, and two-thirds is a suicide. There’s a great battle going on. You must look at America and say, ‘What the f*ck is going on?’ And, ‘Donald Trump is going to be President?’” Lee called it “madness.”
Cannon said that youth in general “may now be desensitized to violence. It’s not just America but all over the world. Video games, music — a lot of it has been glorified so much that it’s glorified in a horrible way. They’re embracing ideas of being savage. In Chicago, when they shoot someone, it’s called scoring. So, like a video game, the value of life is no longer what it used to be.”
On the Oscars diversity debate, Lee said he and his wife “never called a boycott. We just said we’re not going.” Elaborating, he added comments similar to those he made in a mid-January statement. “Every year if you add up all the actor categories, there are 20 spots open and in the last two years not a single person of color has been nominated. So, if you’re a sports fan and added it up, it would be white folks: 40, people of color: zero. There were a lot of fine performances that I felt got overlooked, so my wife and I said mutually we’re not going to go.” Anyway, “the Knicks are playing the Miami Heat that night,” the die-hard fan said.
The “ruckus” that has been raised around the Oscars has been positive, Lee said. If it hadn’t happened, “I believe the Academy would not have made changes, so it was worth it.” But, “the Academy Awards is not the problem. The problem has been with our gatekeepers. At the executive level at studios and networks and cable, they sit in a room every quarter and decide what we’re going to make and not make. The majority of the people are white men, so if there’s not diversity there, that’s what’s in the movies.”
But don’t ask Lee if Chris Rock should host the Oscars. “He should do whatever he wants to do. He’s a grown-ass man,” he said.
The audience here is especially keen to get American filmmakers’ takes on what’s happening with the U.S. presidential election. Lee drew some huzzahs when he said he was for “Bernie Sanders from Brooklyn, New York.” Cusack, whose political leanings evidently differ from Lee’s, said he was interested in one thing. “If Bernie Sanders doesn’t get the nomination — because he’ll be outspent by Hillary and the Democratic establishment, which is the institutional favorite — will he fold all that momentum that he has back into the DNC or will he split off? It’s a tough question. If it is any democrat versus Trump, I think I’ll have to probably vote for a Democrat.” But, pointing to the refugee crisis in Europe, he said: “The West has blown up seven countries since 9/11. I don’t want to vote for a Democrat who’s going to continue legitimizing murder to solve problems.”
Lee also told a story about having held a benefit at his home for President Obama and said he was surprised to learn that there really is someone who travels with the president and a suitcase handcuffed to his wrist. “If you press the right numbers (inside the suitcase) it could be the end of us all. Do you want Donald Trump to hold that suitcase?”
On a positive note, he said: “We all want change, and most of us want peace. Hopefully we’ll see it in our grandchildren’s lives.”