chi raq premiere gun violence protest
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The fact that Chicago’s police superintendent was fired hours before the premiere of Spike Lee’s latest feature, “Chi-Raq,” only reinforced the timeliness of the movie’s message about the senselessness of gun violence and racial discrimination. And instead of an after-party, Lee led many attendees out of Manhattan’s Ziegfeld Theater on a march down Broadway to Times Square.

The movie, the first feature produced by Amazon Studios, is a loose adaptation of the ancient Greek drama “Lysistrata.” In Lee’s telling, a group of determined women in Chicago band together to demand that their husbands and lovers put down their weapons, or lose their intimate privileges.

“It was great in 411 B.C. — it’ll work today,” Lee said of the source material Tuesday night. “This film is about changing lives.”

Chicago is among the big U.S. cities that is suffering through a spike in violence and homicides, particularly among African-Americans. Protests have rocked the city in the past few days following the release of a video showing the police shooting a 17-year-old black teenager some 16 times last year. Lee said he hoped “Chi-Raq” would help inspire others to “work harder to make America safer.”

Kevin Willmott, who co-wrote the script with Lee, said the events of the day made for a “surreal” experience at the premiere. The movie was shot in Chicago last summer over a six-week period, which allowed cast members to see first-hand the issues depicted in the story. Chicago is the “epicenter” of violence at present but these issues are hardly isolated to one city, Willmott said. “It’s an American problem,” he noted. “It’s about guns, it’s about race, it’s about jobs. There’s nothing new about the problem.”

Lee and Willmott credited Amazon for stepping up with financing after many others passed. The two had tried to work together nearly a decade ago on a similar project, also based on “Lysistrata,” but couldn’t get it off the ground. After Amazon connected with Lee in its hunt for feature talent, the filmmaker called Willmott about 18 months ago to ask “You still got that script?” Willmott recalled.

Among the “Chi-Raq” stars on hand for Tuesday’s premiere were Wesley Snipes, John Cusack, Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, LaLa Anthony, Michelle Mitchenor and Harry Lennix. The movie is particularly meaningful to Lennix, a Chicago native and former schoolteacher. “It’s telling people there that we do care. We are listening,” Lennix said. “These people are not invisible.”

Longtime Lee friend John Turturro also came out for the screening — he gave Lee some advice on the pic as he had experience in doing the play on stage — along with the Rev. Al Sharpton and others.

After the screening, Lee passed out knit hats and orange-colored American flag pins and led the crowd on a “march in solidarity” with Chicago down Broadway to Times Square.

“Chi-Raq” opens in limited release in theaters via Roadside Attractions on Dec. 4. There’s no word yet on when it will be available for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

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