Nick Cannon on Chi-Raq, the Folly of Manhood, and Sex Strikes

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Spike Lee’s latest, Chi-Raq, is a dizzying mélange of genres, tones, and styles, all whirling around two poles: one, the real-life gun violence that has become an urban epidemic, particularly in Chicago; and two, a fictional sex strike based on Aristopahanes’ Lysistrata that’s launched by the women of Chicago in an effort to stop the bloodshed. At the center of an ensemble cast that includes Teyonah Parris, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Cusack is Nick Cannon, who plays the eponymous role of Chi-Raq, a rapper deeply involved in the gang life Lee’s railing against. Vulture talked with Cannon about gang life, Lee’s right to comment on Chicago’s violence, and whether a sex strike could make any headway in real life.

It’s been a long time since you did a movie, right?
I guess so. I mean, to the public eye. I’ve been a part of tons of independent features that went to Sundance and Cannes. Commercial films, they come and go, and I’ve always been one who’s about substance and really likes to focus on the art. It’s funny because a lot of my other career choices have overshadowed, just visibility-wise, the things that I do in film, but I’ve always been somebody who’s been involved in the film community in a big way.

How did you come onboard Chi-raq?
When Spike first came to me, he was like, "Yo man, I’m trying to save lives on the South Side of Chicago," and I was like, "I’m in." I’ll be an extra in that movie, I don’t even know what it is but like, let’s go, what you want me to do. He gave me the opportunity to carry the namesake and be the male lead in this film, and I was forever honored, forever in debt. I told him that whatever I needed to do to be this guy, I’d embody the character in a way that no other actor could.

Did you know Spike before you got involved?
Yeah, yeah! I had a great relationship with Spike. Just as a mentor, somebody I always looked up to. Being someone who’s an aspiring filmmaker, to see what he’s done in our community is tremendous.

So when he reached out to you and told you about the character, what were you thinking in terms of making the guy yours?
It was all about authenticity, really finding out who this guy was and what makes him tick. Why would someone want to be this type of gangster? What would really make an individual be careless in one sense, but have so much passion in others? And there are young men in our community that are very reflective of this. For me it was part tapping into individuals in the community the story is based on, and part tapping into my own stuff: ego, machismo — all these things that can cause us to waver or trip up.

To better understand the community, did you look closely at the Chicago rap scene right now, guys like Chief Keef who have gone national?
Yeah, I paid attention to that — and I’ve always paid attention to that — but when I approached this, I wanted to go one step deeper. I wanted to take the entertainment value out of it. Spike helped me give me one such opportunity. He, as well as one of the community leaders, a priest in South Side Chicago, Father Michael Pfleger, introduced me to these gentlemen called the Peacekeepers. They're guys who have lived an interesting, gangster type of life, but have reformed in a way that they’re now all about their community and keeping the peace in the streets. They not only shared their stories with me but also took me to meet with people who are still living that life, and they put me in front of people who are considered shooters, and people who have been shot. They’re trying to get in there and change the mentality of what’s going on.

When you tap into that community in a real way, you see it’s a lot of pain, it’s a lot of insecurity, it’s a lot of vulnerability. Hurt people hurt people, and in that sense, we gotta figure out a way to repair our communities. I was tapping into a character who thought he had an idea of what his father stood for and meant and what a man stood for and meant, but then realized through this journey that maybe he didn’t have it all together, maybe his father didn’t have it all together, and that maybe he did make some poor decisions. But he still tried to do what was right. Hopefully, through that journey, I can inspire others to make that decision and say, "Hey, I don’t know it all, I’m not the biggest, the baddest, the most macho, I care, I love just like everyone else."

When the trailer came out, people were saying, “Spike Lee’s a New York guy, and now he’s in Chicago, he’s telling us about our city.” How did you react to that skepticism? 
We're talking about an artist. Would you doubt Picasso if he painted a picture of Chicago? Would you doubt Michelangelo with his art? This is this man’s vision. Art is supposed to be discussed and debated, absolutely, 100 percent, and great art creates great discussion. Spike knows what he’s doing, and he got us all talking right now. So he’s done his job. I hope it elevates the minds in these people with these opinions, because I love every opinion. That’s what these forums are all about, but let’s come at it in an intelligent matter. Most filmmakers don’t make films about where they’re from, you know? Spike is from the community and about the community, and I know we’re specifically talking about the South Side of Chicago in this film, but this is a problem in every disenfranchised urban inner-city in America. Spike can tell that story very well, and I feel like he did a phenomenal job.

Like you’ve been saying, this movie deals with masculinity in a significant way. What do you think it says about how we view masculinity and young men today, especially their relationships with women?
The ideal of manhood and masculinity is this universal theme that I feel like we’ve gotten wrong for generations. [Laughs.] But ultimately, it also goes to that core of love and being able to be vulnerable. Even myself, man, growing and learning every day, I don’t think I’ll ever understand it fully, and understanding that is part of being a man, being able to stop and say, "Hey, I don’t know it all, I’m taking this one day at a time just like everybody else."

Do you think your character’s resistance to leaving the life was due to habit? Or do you think it comes from the expectations put on those guys?
That’s the bull-headed, stubborn machismo-ego stuff. We all have it as men. You know what I mean? I’ma do what I wanna do when I wanna do it. Nobody’s gonna force me to do nothing, especially not some chick, especially not some preacher, especially not some other gang member. I’m my own man. It’s silly.

There’s the idea that this sex strike is based in history and literature and stuff that’s happened in other parts of the world, but it is sort of this fantastic, crazy thing in the film. What do you think would happen if there was actually a sex strike in the United States?
That’s interesting, man. Because, obviously, in the film, they deal with the what-ifs, but all it takes is one person to start a movement. It could happen, but I think people would get over it really quickly! They’d be like, All right, we’re going to try! Nah, we couldn’t. There’d be a lot of people falling off the bandwagon. But the idea of it, starting a movement, mobilizing — we have that as Americans, where we like to follow, and we like to get in and say, "All right, if we gather around and put whatever it is, our money, our time, our effort, we can change things." So if it’s sex, it’s sex. But I think that would be the toughest one.