Photo Credit: Malcolm Ali
Is Nate the Next Denzel?
By Kam Williams
Sentinel Contributing Writer
Nate Parker the “Blood Done Sign My Name” Interview
Nate Parker was born in Norfolk, Virginia on November 18, 1979 to a 17 year-old single-mom who never married his biological father. He and his younger sisters were raised mostly in Bath, Maine which is where his stepfather was stationed by the U.S. Air Force.
Nate only started acting after graduating from the University of Oklahoma, when he was spotted by a talent scout while waiting for a friend at an audition. Signed by an agent, Parker immediately moved to Los Angeles where he soon landed work in commercials and bit parts on several TV shows before he found his breakout role as Hakim in the desegregation drama Pride.
He has since starred in other sagas with civil rights themes such as The Great Debaters and The Secret Life of Bees, and later this year he’ll be playing a Tuskegee Airman in the WWII epic Red Tails. Here, Nate talks about his current release, Blood Done Sign My Name, a bio-pic about the rise to prominence of a young Ben Chavis, who went on to become Chairman of the NAACP, in the wake of a lynching in North Carolina. He also discusses his preference to make socially-significant projects.
Sentinel: Nate, thanks so much for the time.
Nate Parker: Of course, any time, brother.
Sentinel: What interested you in doing Blood Done Sign My Name to play an important civil rights figure like Ben Chavis?
NP: To put it plainly, it was the fact that it fit my model. I prefer to make movies which not only have a message for “then” but a message for “now.” Here was this 22 year-old brother who had no idea what was about to happen, and yet, when it did, he stepped into it in a way which changed an entire community. There was leadership and a sense of accountability in this young man, and those are qualities I can talk about in 2010. So, when I read the script, I knew that it could serve as a tool in the present for some of what ails our community.
Sentinel: How did you prepare for the role?
NP: I read everything I could about the period, including the book the film is based on.
The book was incredible because it deals with racism, white supremacy and the black inferiority complex in a real way, and it illustrates how they can be a cancer on a community.
Sentinel: And how does that relate to today?
NP: I look around today, and I see the Prison-Industrial Complex, and how 50% of our brothers and sisters are behind bars, and how half of us are dropping out of school. And I look at the escalating HIV rate in the black community. These are issues now, and we need leaders to address those crises in the way that Ben Chavis was effective at inspiring a whole generation of kids.
Sentinel: Is it true that your showbiz career got started when you were spotted by a talent scout?
NP: Yeah, I was working in computers when this stranger approached me out of the blue, saying I should become an actor. I took it as a gift from God, because I had been praying for clarity about what He wanted me to do, since I wasn’t happy in computers. So, I gave my employer notice, and moved to L.A. in two weeks. It was definitely Divine intervention. And six year’s later, here I am, and Jon Simmons, the guy who signed me up, is still my manager.
Sentinel: Praise the Lord! I guess you were surprised by your meteoric rise, huh?
NP: It’s been surprising in the sense that it happened so quickly. But I’d say it’s been more of a blessing than a surprise because I believe it was God’s plan to give me this platform. That’s where my passion comes from, to use it to benefit people, especially people from my community.
Sentinel: Why are these message movies you make so important?
NP: Because the way in which we were disconnected from our continent has left us in this limbo when it comes to identity. Our community lacks a rite of passage that you see in so many other cultures, that celebration where you’re surrounded by other people who look like you explaining to you what it means to be a person of African descent coming of age. When I was young, to have a big nose, big lips or dark skin was the worst. You were the wretched. That was something I not only felt, but I participated in. Unfortunately, I was put down for my big lips and nose, and I would join in teasing others about their darker skin. That’s why I believe the first step we need to take to change our community is in identity, in learning who we are and why we are. In understanding the struggles we went through in Africa, the strength that it took to endure the Middle Passage, and the struggles we’re going through now.
Sentinel: In seeing all the civil rights movies you make, it seems like you’re consciously picking socially-relevant projects.
NP: Absolutely! My community has to come first. How we feel about and what we’re willing to do for our people has to be imbedded in our very bones. When dealing with our people, we don’t have the luxury of treating it like a hobby.
Sentinel: There comes a stage in every black actor’s career where Hollywood forces him to put on a dress and act the fool. How have you been able to avoid that?
NP: Through the grace of God who gave me this opportunity. I have to acknowledge Him as the one that has blessed me, and I put my faith in Him. Will I explore other genres? Definitely, but like I said, my community has to come first. I know this attitude is rare, especially in a capitalist society where we’re encouraged to stay away from the ghetto if you make it out. Sadly, black people disassociate ourselves from the things which make us who we are, identifying them as lesser, or inferior. It’s a form of self hate. So, with reckless abandon, we strive to be like the majority.
Sentinel: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would? If so, please answer it.
NP: Wow, that’s a great question! I want young people to ask me if I’m serious. Our young people have been lied to and misled for so long. When I stand on this soapbox, I want young people to ask me that because once they know I’m serious, they’ll be willing to ride with me.
Sentinel: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
NP: Yes, sometimes. My mother always tells me, “Fear isn’t from God,” and I believe that. But sometimes, I wonder whether I’ll be able step into the shoes that God has prepared for me.
Sentinel: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
NP: Very happy! I’m happy with who I am, but I’m not happy with where we are yet.