Justin Simien set his explosive dramedy Dear White People on a fictional Ivy League campus and purported to focus on the experiences of four black students struggling to navigate that elite and somewhat treacherous environment. But the ladies ended up dominating the proceedings, seizing control of the campus and our imaginations.
Sam White (Tessa Thompson), the rebel with a cause, raised her fist early and often — to strike first with righteous indignation and as a warning — at the powers-that-be. She was not begging for favors or crumbs; Sam was eager to prove her willingness to claim a militant birthright. On the flip side, Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris) cared little for collective gains. She was all about what was best for Coco, making her brazenly opportunistic and unapologetically so.
The characters could have easily calcified into stereotypes, a couple of badass black women designed to scare white folks, but Thompson and Parris cracked them open, exposing layers of fear, doubt and self-loathing beneath the beautiful rock-hard exteriors. We come to appreciate Sam’s hidden biracial identity as the cause for her confusion and watch as Coco furthers her bullish run into a prime role in an escalating campus crisis. They exhibited the kind of multi-dimensionality the male figures lacked, despite being played by more recognizable performers.
The complex truth that anchors the work of Thompson and Parris emerges in their latest big-screen outing. Thompson owns the supporting role of Bianca in Creed, opposite Michael B. Jordan as the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the foe-turned-friend of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Up until now, the Rocky franchise has been the story of a white underdog, a little guy who succeeds despite the astronomical odds against him, thanks in no small part to the love of his wife Adrian (Talia Shire).
Jordan’s Adonis fights, but he’s no simple scrappy loser from the start. He’s enjoyed the privilege of being raised by his father’s wife (Phylicia Rashad), who takes him just before he might have succumbed to the usual pitfalls in the foster care system. Fighting is his choice and he proves more than willing to work hard for the glory he seeks. Wooing Bianca (Thompson), an underground Philadelphia musician who is gradually losing her hearing but refuses to give up on her dream, is another battle that inspires Adonis. And Thompson, with very little fanfare, perfectly complements Jordan’s charm and dramatic chops. Bianca is every bit the fighter, in her realm, that Adonis strives to be.
What a transition, talking about squaring up and throwing down for what you believe in, because that is exactly what Teyonah Parris does in Spike Lee’s modern-day reconfiguration of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, provocatively dubbed Chi-Raq. For a narrative dedicated to bringing an end to violence (black-on-black, gang-related), Lee’s film hits hard with explosive style (editing, color and music) that harkens back to the brash energy of the director’s earlier works (School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Bamboozled).
And much of the power behind the punch here comes from Parris as Lysistrata, an around-the-way version of Pam Grier, a down-for-whatever gangsta chick that undergoes a change of heart. Once she switches sides in this philosophical battle — going from violence to withholding sex as a means of forcing men to put down their weapons — Parris goes to war with all the tools at her disposal. Sex and guile have rarely been as keen and sharp as in this case.
For Parris, the move from Dear White People to Chi-Raq marks an evolutionary leap forward, allowing her to display her ability to command as a lead, utilizing body and mind to craft a marvelous, show-stopping performance. Thompson’s effort operates as a gradual step in a long-distance race, illuminating a degree of subtlety that unfortunately can so easily be dismissed or ignored by an industry that tends to overlook the obvious.
It would be fascinating to watch Thompson and Parris go on to enjoy the kind of critical success Jennifer Lawrence has found. For that to happen requires a revolution on par with the talent displayed by these ladies.
Dear Hollywood, take notice.