new leading lady teyonah parris is the poster girl of empowerment
As the star of Spike Lee’s incendiary new film, Chi-Raq, Teyonah Parris is the one you need to watch.
Christine Jean Chambers
Teyonah Parris understands the power of a dream board. She was recently clearing out the attic in her childhood home in South Carolina when she found a binder belonging to her 14-year-old self, crammed with pictures of her idol. "It was 30 pictures of Halle Berry cut out of magazines just pasted together," the New York-based actress laughs of her teenage efforts at wish fulfilment. "Obviously I had it posted on my room door. It was hilarious. She was one of the women I adored."
As a young girl she wanted to be an actress and model, and Teyonah's attempts at visioning worked. She graduated from Juilliard, the prestigious performing arts school in New York, and broke out with a role in Mad Men as Don Draper's secretary — the show's first significant African American character. Now, she's the lead in Spike Lee's new film, Chi-Raq, playing a young woman who decides the only way to deter gang-on-gang gun violence in Chicago's South Side is to use a weapon of her own: sex. Or to be more exacting, to refuse to have sex with men until they stop killing each other. The proposition may sound absurd, but it has historical precedence. Most recently Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee led a sex strike that helped mend the divides during the country's civil war. Spike Lee's vision of a madcap Chicago is sadly no modern mythology either. The city surpasses any other in the US for gun violence. In the first ten months of 2015, more than 2,500 people were shot. Chicago's gun crime statistics rival that of a war-torn nation, hence the nickname Chi-Raq. Lee's inspiration comes from an Ancient Greek play, Lysistrata (which also serves as the name of Teyonah's character) and remains true to that source material; Chi-Raq is scripted in verse, narrated by a one man Greek chorus (an irrepressible Samuel L. Jackson) and frequently shifts gears between outright laughs and overwhelming sorrow.
At one point the cast also breaks into a musical number. In its cinematic mayhem, Lee asks his audience to see the real life insanity for what it is. "It shows you the absurdity of the matter at hand," Teyonah says. To hold Chi-Raq together, Spike Lee needed an actress who could embody the spirit of sanity in a world gone mad. To prep for playing the sexy, provocative, single-minded Lysistrata, Teyonah researched African American icons from Angela Davis to Nina Simone. There is definitely some Beyoncé swagger to her performance but Michelle Obama also proved important. "She is just so graceful and the embodiment of strength and class and leadership," she explains. "She was certainly a huge inspiration for me in certain aspects of the character."
As for being an inspiration herself, someone that a young, black girl might put in her own 2016 vision board, Teyonah graciously accepts she may have an important role to play. "It's important to have reflections of yourself in the media and I want to be a positive embodiment of what it means to be a young black woman," she says. "Someone who has self-love and love for others. I hope I am inspiring people, and being that inspiration that other women were for me."
Text Colin Crummy
Photography Christine Jean Chambers