Talking Chi-Raq With Nick Cannon

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Chi-Raq isn’t the kind of movie you think it’s going to be. It is clearly a product of the creative and progressive mind of Spike Lee—probably one of his recent best. It also continues Lee’s knack for casting some of today’s most talented actors, both veteran and new. But there is one thing that makes this film about frustrated women holding a sex strike in order to end gang violence in the southside of Chicago unique: It’s based on the Greek play Lysistrata. It’s a detail that not only caught me off guard, but made me like the film even more. From Chi-Raq’s rhyming dialogue to its setting, the 56-year-old director definitely takes the story in a different artistic direction—and actor Nick Cannon was onboard from the get-go.

“When I heard that [Spike] was taking Aristophanes’ play from over 2,000 years ago and putting it in modern day times, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s brave! That’s bold!’” Cannon told Paste. “The movie takes something that comes from the core of what fear is all about and places it in today in a way that only Spike Lee could.”

Come to think of it, Chi-Raq is so theatrical, it has the potential to be a musical (something I’d definitely want to see). Cannon likens Lee’s artistic direction of the film to the Broadway behemoth Hamilton, a play the pair had recently seen when he spoke to Paste. The similarities between the two projects is something Cannon thinks is a new way of storytelling that audiences will love.

“[Chi-Raq] is told in a very stylized theater-type of approach as well, that you don’t get an opportunity to see in cinema,” said Cannon. “When you think that you can use verse and music and all of these things to deliver your message, it just opens up so many doors.”

We had a chance to speak with Cannon more about Chi-Raq, how he went all-in for his character in the movie, and his thoughts on progress for people of color in Hollywood.

Paste: What was the first Spike Lee movie you saw?
Nick Cannon: School Daze. Spike is the reason why I’m in entertainment—specifically film. It was great to see a young brother having a vision and doing it his way. Honestly, to be able to work with this guy, it’s a dream come true. I tell Spike all the time, “You’re the reason why I’m here—continue to mold me. You molded me from afar.” I was a fan and now to be able to work with the man is truly a great experience.

Paste: What was your emotional reaction to the script for Chi-Raq when you first read it?
Cannon: Honestly, before there was a script, before Spike told me the storyline, he came to me and said, “I want to save lives in the southside of Chicago.” I said, “I’m in.”

Paste: Your character is a rapper named Chi-raq—and it’s a character that seems out of the norm for you.
Cannon: I mean, to me, I consider myself an entertainer. I consider myself an artist. I’ve done various things. Sometimes my public persona can overshadow many things, but at my core I’m an actor. I’m an artist. All I want to do is kind of embody what the craft is all about. It’s the greatest compliment to have someone say, “Man, I didn’t expect that” about one of my roles. That means I did my job.

Paste: He definitely has a specific swagger to him. Did you look to anyone to help create and inform the character?
Cannon: I went into the community. As soon as I landed in Chicago, Spike and a gentleman by the name of Father Michael Pfleger introduced me to some peacekeepers at a community—some guys who are really, really about that life, who really care about their community in Chicago and had that life and get the utmost respect in their community. They took me under their wing and they said, “Forget the hotels and stuff, you’re coming to the ’hood.” I didn’t leave. I was with them the whole time—picking up their swag, their jargon and the way they move. They introduced me to people who have real, powerful stories of why they do what they do and how they have to abide by a certain ideology and a certain structure.

I want to say code, but I feel like we’ve gotten to a point where there is no code and that’s what’s really sad is that these young guys—they’re yearning for something. They’re crying out. It’s a lot of pain that’s going on in this community. I always say something resonated with me when I say, “Hurt people hurt people,” and “Violence begets violence.” At their core, they are just people who are in pain, and it’s a community that’s in pain. The world is in pain. I just focused in on that.

Paste: It looks like Spike Lee used real people and stories from the Chicago area in the movie.
Cannon: Yeah, those are real people. They are from an organization called Purpose Over Pain. They’re mothers and loved ones of people who have been lost to this senseless violence in Chicago. Every picture you saw in the film is someone that has died an untimely death in Chicago due to violence. Those are the real mothers. There’s real people from that community throughout the entire film.

Paste: What kind of changes have you seen for people of color in Hollywood during your acting career?
Cannon: It’s more of an even playing field now because of technology. We’re finding so many diverse voices. We’re finding so many amazing new visionaries that are telling stories.

Paste: Do you think it’s easier to sell these stories?
Cannon: People want to hear these stories—and there are also a lot more buyers out there.
Before, you had to play the studio game. You don’t necessarily have to do that anymore. There was also a formula or a mode of operations that you had to follow in order to get to where you wanted. Now, you can be a filmmaker with your camera and upload it online and, all of a sudden, the world is recognizing the work that you’ve done.

Paste: That’s true. With self-made projects, films like Chi-Raq and other films and TV shows, it’s a very interesting time for minorities. Entertainment is finally starting to reflect what is going on in society.
Cannon: Yeah. That’s what it is, man. It’s a lot of conversations that need to be had and art is a reflection of that. I truly get excited when I see others doing things that have never been done and
seeing people getting opportunities that weren’t necessarily there for them before—all the way to old man Spike getting an award from the Academy.

Paste: That was long overdue!
Cannon: Seeing Spike hold that Oscar in his hand was beautiful.

Paste: But it does seem like now is a better time than any for people of color to tell their stories, considering the social climate. We are seeing that in television with shows like Master of None, Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish—people are able to see minorities in a totally different light than before.
Cannon: Spike said it during his Oscar speech the best. He said, “The Census Bureau said at 2043 that Caucasians will be the minority.” Our business is to reflect that in that same sense. It’s beautiful because America is supposed to be a melting pot and it actually is becoming that and our art and everything is really reflecting that. It’s amazing when we can all be minorities. There’s no real majority. Just everyone is a minority.

Chi-Raq opens in theaters December 4.

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