As an actor and an activist, Chiké Okonkwo has dedicated his life to “telling stories that can change outcomes.” On the big screen, he’s best known for his role in the 2016 slavery revenge drama ‘The Birth of a Nation’; on the small screen, he’s currently offering fantasy escapism alongside critical suicide awareness in the popular new NBC drama ‘La Brea’; on video games consoles, he’s starring as a soldier in the upcoming ‘Call of Duty: Vanguard’, bringing recognition to the real-life heroism of Black British paratrooper Sgt Sidney Cornell; and on our phones, he helps us find peace by reading sleep stories for the meditation app Calm. He is forcing positive change with his storytelling away from the cameras too, working in prisons as a supporter of restorative justice, in particular sharing the story of a man on death row, Chris Young, which brought him some mercy before his execution. Here’s Chiké’s story.
By Chiké Okonkwo
I grew up in South London, in a very Nigerian household. Both my parents are Igbo, which is a tribe in the south east of Nigeria, and throughout our culture storytelling is held up above everything. So that is where my story, as a storyteller, begins.
The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who wrote a book called ‘Things Fall Apart’, sums up the importance of stories perfectly. He says, “It is the storyteller who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must have – otherwise their surviving would have no meaning.” That’s something I really took to heart. My mother would take me and my siblings to museums and the theater as a kid, and from an early age, and from everything I was exposed to, I developed an acute awareness of right and wrong. But when wrong things happened, as they will, I didn’t feel helpless. I felt like there was always a way to right those wrongs, and that sense of justice I learned from stories. So I wanted to be a part of telling those kinds of stories too.
When I moved to America about 10 years ago, I came here with a mission to learn as much as I could about the African American journey, and to share those stories. The UK has such a long history that’s obfuscated and covered up in lots of ways, while American history is very short and very dramatic. And a lot of it has been recorded, filmed and photographed, and can’t be manipulated as easily as histories in other parts of the world. Soon after arriving in New York in 2011, I found a book about the criminal justice system called ‘Just Mercy’ by Bryan Stevenson –– which was made into a film a couple years ago starring Michael B Jordan –– that really changed my life. I was just fascinated by the stories that Stevenson told, and by his activism within prisons and how that impacted Black people specifically. So I just threw myself into this topic and tried to learn and help as much as I could, and became a co-facilitator for a restorative justice course at California State Men’s Prison in Lancaster. The justice system we have now is punitive; when a crime is committed, the questions are who is guilty and how can they be punished. Restorative justice sees things differently. It looks at people who have caused harm, and the responsibility they have to the people they have harmed. And by giving these men a toolkit of how to work through that idea in their minds, it gives them more understanding of the harm they caused, and their responsibility for repairing some of that if they can.
One of the most compelling things I got to do inside prisons was to work with a man named Chris Young, who was on death row in Texas, and was sadly executed on July 17, 2018. I spent the last eight or nine months of Chris’ life visiting him, sitting and speaking with him for hours, and writing and receiving letters. When he got his execution date, I did my best to tell his story to the world. Although it didn’t save his life as I had hoped, what it did was give him something that he cherished –– the opportunity to speak to Mitesh Patel, the son of the man that he had killed. Mitesh was the only person on earth who could really forgive Chris for the terrible thing that he’d done, and Chris was the only person on earth who knew what had happened to Mitesh’s father. Some really amazing people like Common, Alyssa Milano and America Ferrara came together to help to amplify Chris’ story. In the end we put pressure on Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, to allow them to sit down together the day before Chris was executed. I want to tell stories from the perspectives of people who don’t have the opportunity to tell their own stories, and that’s lots of people who are in prison –– so without us shining a light on Chris’ story, I don’t think their meeting would have ever happened. Chris called me about an hour before he was executed, and he said, “Thank you. No-one knew my name before you got here, and there are many more like me back here, so don’t don’t stop fighting, keep telling these stories.” And I really intend to.
Acting has always been my first love. And we learned through the pandemic, when people were inside their homes for weeks or months at a time, how important it is to connect to the outside world through story. ‘La Brea’ is an incredible story because it’s such a big world they have created, and it’s so dramatic to think about what would happen if you fell into a giant sinkhole in LA. But really what it boils down to is the human stories. My character Ty is a psychiatrist who at the very beginning of the series we learn has come to the point where he wants to commit suicide. He’s someone who understands the human brain so well, but can’t work through his own personal problems at all. That was an interesting thing to unpack as an actor. I got to speak to a few psychiatrists myself, and one in particular, Dr Anandhi Narasimhan in Los Angeles, really helped me to dig into what it is to be a person who has a purpose and has that purpose taken away. I think a lot of people can relate to that, in this day and age.
Suicide is such a high cause of death today, in young men in particular. And so, even though it’s just moments in a big fantasy TV show, to be able to speak about suicide prevention from Ty’s perspective, a man who felt as though that was the only option for him before finding a reason to live as the series develops, is a really important part of the work for me. I don’t consider myself a method actor by any stretch, but I do immerse myself in the research and in really working out what it is that makes that person tick. I wouldn’t recommend this, but when researching Ty’s character, I did want to really understand what it is that draws people to committing suicide, and there are a couple of websites that the loved ones of people who have committed suicide have set up where you get to see their final notes and videos, where I got to see these people in the most vulnerable moments of their lives, very close to the end. I want to do more work in this space, to be able to speak to people who find themselves in this situation, and to tell more stories like this. And the thing that I learned, more broadly, is the importance of duality, and the importance of men feeling as though they can be vulnerable and ask for help. We need to model to men that being vulnerable is actually being strong.
I was really lucky to discover early in my life what it is that I wanted to do. So I just kept on following that path, relentlessly. But when the path became unclear, it would have been really easy to just go back to England to give up, to find something else to do. But keeping an eye on the bigger picture was a key thing in those tough times. People fall in love with the outcome, but the process is more important. The rapper Jay-Z said another of my favorite quotes, which is, “The genius thing that we did was, we didn’t give up.” And that’s how I feel. The most important thing I have done is just to keep going, to keep telling stories that can change outcomes, and not stop.