ABOVE PHOTO: Teyonah Parris
By Kharisma McIlwaine
Every few years, we see a new face emerge on the big screen with a presence that stands out among the sea of starlets in Hollywood. I had that experience when I saw Teyonah Parris for the first time in the film Dear White People.
Paris has been making waves in both television and film since then. The Julliard graduate made history as Dawn Chambers, the first African American woman on the iconic AMC show “Mad Men” and is currently going into her third season as season as Missy Vaughn in the Starz hit “Survivor’s Remorse,”.
I recently got the chance to talk with Paris about her role as leading lady Lysistrata in director Spike Lee’s latest film Chi-Raq. Like much of Lee’s other work, Chi-Raq takes on issues of racism, social justice, and politics while providing a commetary on the violence currently enveloping the city of Chicago.
For Paris, the experience was one in which she had to pull out all of the talents in her bag of tricks. “Spike pulls it all out of you!” she said. “I definitely had to use every bit of my artistic being in making this film and that’s exciting!”
As it was in the Greek play, the Lysistrata of Chi-Raq is fed up with the gun and gang violence happening in her community and decides to do something about it. Inspired by Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, who helped end the second Civil War in Liberia by organizing a sex strike among the country’s women, Paris said.
“My character watches a YouTube video of Leymah’s documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” and is inspired to do the same,” Paris said. “She imposes a sex strike on the southside of Chicago and it ends up going global. Something she hoped would just be effective in her community ends up being effective in the community at large.”
Paris’s body of work is filled with strong characters, and Lysistrata definitely fits the mold. “She’s strong, smart, fierce, vulnerable, frustrated, desperate…,” Paris said. “I think she is a very accurate representation of a lot of women not only in the southside of Chicago but in many cities across the nation where this sort of violence is plaguing our communities.”
Chi-Raq has received a great deal of criticism, particularly for the use of the term “Chi-raq itself. It’s a criticism of Lee that Paris thinks is a little unfair.
“Spike did not create the term Chi-Raq,” she said. “That was born of its community. The rappers I believe came up with the term in an effort to express the severity of what was happening down there in the streets. The fact that you’re technically safer in Afghanistan or Iraq than you are in the southside of Chicago… that’s the reality of it. We didn’t create that name, we also did not create the statistics that surround the issue. It’s a very real issue and Spike is addressing it. The truth of the matter is that we have to talk about it we have to get it out there.”
What Paris would like moviegoers to take from Chi-Raq is an understanding of how powerful communities can be.
“I would love for the audience to look at Chi-Raq and realize that it only takes one person in the community to make a difference.
Chi-Raq opened nationwide on Dec. 4th.