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Teyonah Parris hopes to 'inspire change' with her role in Spike Lee's 'Chi-Raq'

Teyonah Parris hopes to 'inspire change' with her role in Spike Lee's 'Chi-Raq'
Actress Teyonah Parri (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Long before the Friday release of Spike Lee's latest movie, "Chi-Raq," the film's theme and tone stirred controversy, particularly in the city where it's set, Chicago.

A modern retelling of the Greek tragedy "Lysistrata" by Aristophanes, Lee places the title character against a backdrop of gangs and gun violence in that city. When it started filming earlier this year, detractors, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, objected to its title, which compares the city to an embattled Iraq.

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There were others who criticized "Chi-Raq's" satirical take on issues raised by the film, particularly the high rates of black-on-black violence. But Teyonah Parris, the star of the film, thinks that Lee is taking the right approach because humor helps "illuminate a darker, deeper issue," she said.

"There's the saying, 'Sometimes you've got to laugh to keep from crying,'" she said in a recent interview in Los Angeles. "While it's a heightened reality, the truth of the matter is that the scope of killings and murders that we portray doesn't come close to what's actually happening in Chicago right now."

Never one to shy away from controversy, Lee fired back at critics, defending both the use of the term "Chi-Raq" and satire.

"People are very protective of their city, no matter what city it is," he said in a separate interview. "I understand that, but I did not come up with the term 'Chiraq.' Local Chicago rappers did that. [And] it could be done in a documentary or a straight drama, but that's not how Kevin Willmott, the co-writer, and I chose to tell the story.

"The story came down to our understanding that satire would be the best because satire uses humor to elevate the issue you're describing."

In "Chi-Raq," Parris plays Lysistrata, the girlfriend of one of the city's top gangsters (Nick Cannon). She rallies the other women in the community for a sex strike until the men put down their guns. Their motto: "No peace, no piece."

"It felt like we were doing theater, but it was in this world Spike created — you have to find how to navigate its exact tone and where your character fits into it," Parris said. "The story is so relevant even today because we're still suffering from these same things [that they were during] the Peloponnesian War. We're just fighting a war closer to home."

The movie's release follows a week of large-scale protests in downtown Chicago after the release of Chicago Police Department dash-cam footage of the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald last year. The video shows an officer firing 16 shots at the black teen — most of them when he was on the ground. Prosecutors have charged the officer, Jason Van Dyke, with first-degree murder.

On Tuesday, Emanuel fired Chicago Police Department Supt. Garry McCarthy for his mishandling of the case.

(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

The demonstrations in Chicago were similar to those in other American cities, including Ferguson, Mo., New York and Los Angeles during the last few years over allegations of excessive force used by police against people of color.

With "Chi-Raq," Lee hopes to expand the national conversation started by the Black Lives Matter movement to include violence within minority communities.

"I would be less of a person if I'm out there on the streets talking about the cops and private citizens who killed our people and then remain mum about us killing ourselves," he said. "For me, that don't work. It don't matter what complexion the hand or finger is that's pulling the trigger that's killing somebody. We've got to be vocal on both parts."

Lee said that Parris was always his "numero uno" choice for the role because of "her intelligence, her strength and the fact that you can see that the character is one way at the beginning and grows to become a totally different person through her skill."

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The Juilliard School-trained Parris, born in Hopkins, S.C., stars opposite such well-known actors as Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes as well as Chicago natives John Cusack and Jennifer Hudson.

Last year Parris gained notoriety in another political satire, Justin Simien's independent film "Dear White People." In fact, it was her role as a college student named Coco wanting to "smooth her black edges," as Parris describes it, that first caught Lee's attention.

According to Snipes, Parris' natural leadership ability helped her in the role.

"She carries herself day to day that way," he said. "I wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of her, especially her power."

Parris, also known for her roles as "Mad Men's" first recurring black character, Dawn Chambers, and Missy on Starz's "Survivor's Remorse," believes that the character of Lysistrata dovetails with her personal mission of taking roles that have something to say.

In the film, Lysistrata finds inspiration from real life Nobel Peace Prize-winner Leymah Gbowee, whose efforts, including a sex strike, helped bring an end to the second Liberian civil war. With a sharp, sassy tongue and striking beauty, the character also tackles societal views on race, masculinity and gender.

"It's about what story can I tell that may inspire someone even in all its tragedy and grittiness and rawness," she said. "It may not be pretty and packaged with a bow, but this can be a reflection to someone of something they're going through and inspire them to make a change or difference."

Despite the controversy surrounding "Chi-Raq," Parris hopes audiences will leave theaters motivated to better their communities.

"It only takes one person to mobilize a community and inspire change," she said. "Even if you don't feel like you have it in you, it's in you. You have to believe in yourself. People will see your vision and passion and follow you."

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