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Interview Tue Nov 24 2015

Interview with Michelle Mitchenor in her Breakout Role as Indigo in the Controversial New Film Chi-Raq

Michelle Mitchenor (second from right) in Chi-Raq
Michelle Mitchenor (second from right) in Chi-Raq.

I sat down with the fresh-faced, charming and up-and-coming actor Michelle Mitchenor the night before her debut in the feature film Chi-Raq as Indigo, the leader of the Trojan women. Although I couldn't get a word out of her about what dress she would wear to the premiere or what her next film project might be, she had some great insights in to the controversy surrounding Chi-Raq and the intentions of the filmmaker Spike Lee. As we sipped rooibos tea with her multitasking and knowledgeable publicist Leigha, Michelle told me how she discovered the tea during a recent trip to Uganda where she went to be part of an outreach Breakdance Project Uganda to enrich children's lives with dance.

She explained how in Uganda education isn't free and many kids don't even go to school. She loved the experience and even missed the chance to go to the opening of NBA2K16, a video game with a capture motion film in which she played Cece. It was her first project with Spike Lee. But she explained, although she was sad to miss it, she realized life is about opportunities to experience and do good work and what she was gaining by experiencing life in Uganda was well worth it. The rest of my talk with Cece was just as full of talk about her desire to make a change in the world with her art, which is a versatile mix of acting, dancing and singing.

Tell me about the character you play in Chi-Raq.

I play Indigo. She's the leader of the Trojan women, as well as the girlfriend of the male Trojan leader who is played by Wesley Snipes (Cyclops). She's kind of like the badass of the film, the boss chick. She's very much down for her man, if you will. She's very much about the organization and upholding it in her own way as a female. Eventually Lysistrata, played by Teyonah Parris, comes to our side of town with this proposition like, "Hey, I have this idea. I think we can end violence in the city." So she comes to my side of town and through some talking about it we say, "Let's do this." And we team up.

What did you like about working in Chicago?

Honestly, it was really interesting learning the dynamics of the city. The film was shot on the South Side but the hotel was in the Gold Coast area. It's beautiful and you see all of Chicago and the lights and then you go to the South Side and you see the people there--there's a lot of culture and community there which I loved, but there's definitely a difference. It almost seems like two different worlds. It's very segregated and that surprised me. Aside from that, I enjoyed the culture and museums and the food and the music were great. I enjoyed myself here.

Tell us about your acting history.

I started as a dancer in high school and college. My background is in modern, jazz, ballet although I started with tap. Concert dancing was my foundation. Eventually, I went to dance for artists doing background dancing. I have toured as a background singer as well. But acting is my ultimate passion. I want to be my own version of Debbie Allen from Fame. She's a dancer, an actor, singer, philanthropist and director.

The premise of the movie is sparking some controversy before it is even released. Why do you think people have a concern about it?

I visited a school recently, and kids are very honest! They were like, "I saw the trailer and that doesn't look like Chi-Raq." So I posed the question, "Well, what is Chi-Raq?" They said things like killing, people getting shot and no one really caring unless it's a child. So I said, "OK, is there currently any art being done in the city that provides maybe a solution about the gun violence that's happening?" And they were like...crickets. So I told them that's what Spike Lee is doing; he is using satire to propose some sort of solution to the crime rate here in this portion of Chicago. He's mixing fantasy and reality to prove a point. He's exaggerating to prove a point. This is the severity of the situation and something needs to be done. Just by explaining it to them--they suddenly get it.

Something that I also tell people is that it is not a biopic on the city of Chicago. It just brings attention to what is going on here. The fact that they've had over 2,500 shootings in one part of town--not even the whole city-- that's a problem, and more people should know about this. It's unfortunate that people don't. We highlight that in the film. Children used to be able to go out and play, and you could just be in the house as a mom or parent knowing that everything's OK. That's not the case any more. It's unfortunate that people are turning away because of the name but that name is sparking controversy and interest too. That's why I love Spike Lee, because he's so fearless.

To what extent is the movie based on the Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes in 400 BCE?

It is a modern adaptation of the play. He just placed it on the South Side of Chicago. It's very much the same premise. Spike actually gave me the play to read. In the film to honor the play we speak in verses. So towards the end of a sentence or a short monologue you will notice a rhythmic pattern. It's like urban Shakespeare. That's what makes it so genius. We could easily just give you surface film of people killing each other and shooting and someone crying and then that's the end of the movie. But that's not it. That's not the type of director he is. For this to be my first feature film, I couldn't have asked for anything better. He made me have to go back and do research and make sense of these verses and rhymes and still be true to my character. I'm so honored to be part of project like this and the fact that it's not spoon-feeding the audience. When you watch it you have to pay attention and listen.

Michelle Mitchenor (center) in Chi-Raq

Do you think the movie has an empowering message to women or does it trivialize women's roles?

I think it's very much empowering to women to reiterate the power we carry. A lot of wars have been over women. In this day and age with women in the public eye it's all about being sexy and looking good. But what happens when you really use that to get your way? Like this is what I'm not going to do, and you're going to have to look at all this goodness and you can't have any of it until you act right. Imagine if more women really started to do that. As of recently there are some women in Chicago who have been inspired by that and started to do that. They want to start their own sex strike. And there's a woman from Liberia who ended the second Liberian war by organizing a sex strike. When you see the film it will clear all of that up. It's a way to reclaim that power and save the babies.

Have you heard any response from people in Englewood and other gang-heavy areas to the movie?

I think they are just concerned with the satire and the humor in the trailer and they feel like there's nothing funny about the level of violence that's happening, but I encourage them to see the film. On Instagram once, someone said, "This isn't what Chicago is like, etc." and I posted information on the Lysistrata play and explained that it was a modern adaptation and I tagged the person. They responded and said, "Thanks so much. Now I'm a little more open to wanting to see this." It's each one teach one.

Who was your favorite actor to work with and why?

I guess I'm being biased, but Wesley Snipes. Prior to meeting him I knew him as Blade. You know, he kicks people's behinds...that's what he does. But he was so warm and inviting. He just shared so much knowledge about the industry and became this cool homey. It was super great to have a friendship with him. But also, John Cusack--I freaking love him. He plays the priest in the film. He's going to blow people away. His character is loosely based on Father Pfleger. John's from Chicago so he laid out a list of places for me to eat and to go to. La La Anthony (Hecuba) she became like a sister to me. And Felicia Pearson, who played Snoop in "The Wire," they play my best friends in the film so we just naturally gravitated towards each other.

Will the movie help people see a way to get beyond gang violence?

I definitely think it will spark conversation because it is very much pushed under the rug and I think putting the title as Chi-Raq is befitting because it forces people to talk about what is happening. I think that's the goal. How are these children getting these guns when Illinois has one of the strictest gun laws? That's an issue that needs to be discussed. Spike spoke with women who lost children due to gun violence and he spoke with previous gang members. He did his research. He didn't just drop in on the day of shooting and say, "Alright, were going to do this." He was here months prior talking to people in the community about what's happening. So I think it will get the conversation going and I hope that other communities that are similar that have high crimes can realize, "OK, there are some funny parts in the film but the seriousness of it is for real. There's something that needs to be done. This is getting out of control."

But do you think the movie realistically addresses issues of gang warfare happening in Chicago today?

What it mostly does is speak on the people who are most effected, which are the families. The families are the victims of these crimes. It's so easy to say, "Oh somebody got shot," and then move on to the next thing. But what about that mother that lost her child? Who is cleaning her child's blood off of the sidewalk? What kind of damage does that do? What does the community do in response to that? And a lot of times I hear no one says anything because it's just the code and nobody wants to be a snitch. So that's who we really highlight. The people that it affects the most. The people who have to live it every day who don't have their child or their brother or their uncle. I can't wait for people to see this film. People like raw, authentic films but you don't always have to use that approach to tell a story and that's not who Spike is. He's not the type of director who is going to spoon-feed you a story. He's going to make you think. It's a fictional story about a real place and a real problem. Sometimes I wonder if we had a different director doing it if there would be the same type of backlash.

What are you wearing to the premiere?

I actually did pick it out but I'm not showing anyone because it's my own little secret. But I'm excited for this to be my introduction to the Hollywood world. It's very much an important moment for me and I'm hoping it'll open more doors. I didn't know the extent of my role until I got it. I'm so very grateful for my background with going to a performing high school majoring in dance in college and my experiences because it equipped me for moments like this, this is what I truly believe I was born to do--everything entertainment-related. It's another level to my career.

What is next for you?

I'm auditioning for some things and getting some feedback from producers who are liking what I'm doing. I'd like to just manifest it and speak it, before the year is out I am praying for a booking of another film or TV series. I want to be booked before it even starts and I want to keep going down this road. I've got some things in the works.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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