“There’s nothing like this out,” says Teyonah Parris about her new film Chi-Raq, a ribald anti-violence satire that reimagines the ancient Greek tale Lysistrata, but set on the streets of Chicago’s South Side. Directed by the auteur of urban America Spike Lee, Chi-Raq stars a long list of black talent: Nick Cannon, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Hudson, and Angela Bassett, to name just a few. The film, which hits theaters December 4, is about a warrior sister, played by Parris, who mounts a citywide sex strike to end a bloody gang war after a young girl is gunned down. With its blunt talk about violence, Chi-Raq is urgent, insightful, funny, and profoundly affecting, sometimes all within the same scene. It’s also drawing raves for its Julliard-trained leading lady, who seems poised for stardom after impressive turns on Mad Men, Survivor’s Remorse, and the Sundance breakout Dear White People.
“I like to believe that I can do anything,” explains Parris, but what she really wants to do is “work on stories and characters that have something to say, and do so boldly and unapologetically.” It’s what appealed to her about Chi-Raq, which she has called one of those “dream projects you don’t actually think exists” until you get the call. When The FADER caught up with her the day after the film’s Chicago premiere in November, Parris was fizzing with energy. She told us about working with Spike Lee and shooting the film on Chicago's South Side. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
How did you go from Dear White People—which, to me, is probably the best Spike Lee movie not made by Spike Lee to working with the man himself?
Dear White People was written and directed by Justin Simien, an amazing young guy who’s just being able to get his voice out there. That movie [set at fictional Ivy League college] touched on a lot of social issues no one really talks about and the nuances of micro-aggression in race relations. I heard Spike saw it. Then we had breakfast and just chatted about the movie. It was very casual. A few weeks later, Spike sent me an email with the script for Chi-Raq. No explanation, whatsoever. He just said, “Read it.” So I do and I see this character named Lysistrata and that immediately perks my attention because I’m familiar with the play from having done it at Julliard. And as I continued to read I realize it’s a modern telling of this story, dealing with gun violence in Chicago. Then I got really, really excited and we had a conversation where Spike told me, “We have to save lives. That’s what this is about. And if we save one, we’ve done our job.”
Your character is described as the kind of woman that could make Beyonce bow down, with “a mind like Einstein and a truly luscious behind.” Something tells me you don’t get scripts like that every day.
No, not at all. Spike said, “You know what? The heroine of this story is going to be a chocolate, big afro-rocking sister: wide nose, big hips. She’s going to be everything people usually tell us isn’t the epitome of beauty and she’s going to be the strong one to turn this community around.” Spike certainly knew what he was doing with that imagery and I applaud him for it. It’s important for us to see all types of women stand up and be smart and resourceful and intelligent.
Were you surprised by the political firestorm the movie’s title caused, even before the cameras starting rolling?
I knew there’d be talk going into it. I’d experienced a bit of backlash on Dear White People [whose title also rankled some folks]. I was, however, surprised by the level at which the film came under attack. What we experienced on Chi-Raq was, you know, unprecedented.
Chi-Raq opens with some sobering stats about gun violence in Chicago. There are plenty of laughs as well that play off the film’s tart social commentary, some of which is voiced by the one-man Greek chorus, Dolmedes (Sam Jackson). What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
I hope people will see this movie and be moved to do something because this [murder madness] isn’t just happening in Chicago; it’s happening in cities across the country on many levels. Chi-Raq doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but it shows us what’s going on. And it tackles so many important things, from government neglect to gun culture,and to be able to use my art to shed light on some of these social injustices and educate people...how special is that? I’m so, so grateful to Spike for trusting me with this character and to be a part of this film.
When you were preparing for Chi-Raq, did you speak to women in the community affected by gun violence?
The entire time we filmed Chi-Raq we were in the South Side of Chicago. We worked closely with Father Michael Phleger [the basis for John Cusack’s character], who is a Catholic priest and determined advocate of gun regulation in the heart of the community. He introduced us to an organization called Purpose Over Pain. The group is made up of women, and some men, who have lost loved ones to gun violence. Hearing the stories of these women and having their presence on set, I found, was instrumental to the character, the story we were telling, and the message we are trying to get out. The women in this group are actually in the film. You can see them holding up pictures of slain family members towards the end of the movie.
What about the movie’s dialogue? Most of it is written in rhyming couplets. Did it take a while to get used to the meter of the script?
I come from theater. I’ve worked on classics by Shakespeare and Chekhov so I’m familiar with working in verse, and that sort of thing. Really, for me, it was working with Nick [Cannon] and the other actors to make sure we were still trying to get something from one another. We had to know what we’re trying to do with these words so that we don’t get caught up in what potentially could be a sing-songy dialogue, if we don’t remember our intentions.
And what do you think of Nick’s mic skills?
Oh, man. He’s great. That song “Pray 4 My City.” Then there’s one he performed at the club in the beginning of the movie, too. Nick did a couple of tracks that he wrote in conjunction with local rappers in Chicago that I thought were awesome. I’m still singing “Pray 4 My City.”