Interview: Nate Parker

Published February 23, 2010

Nate Parker is a control freak, but that’s not a bad thing. He only takes non-emasculating roles that allow him to stand out as an artist. So far, his performances in “Pride,” “The Secret Life of Bees “and “The Great Debaters” have placed him in a position to rise to the same level of success as his direct predecessor, Denzel Washington.

It’s obvious that most of his films have Civil Rights themes but he chose to play Dr. Ben Chavis in his latest project, “Blood Done Sign My Name,” not so much because it’s a historical piece, but because it’s about leadership. It’s a complex tale with several different layers, telling the story of Rev. Vernon Tyson, a White Christian preacher who tried to teach tolerance and integration in the racist town of Oxford, North Carolina; the racially charged murder of a Black Vietnam veteran, and the journey Dr. Ben Chavis took to become the leader that he is today.

In this interview, BET.com got the rundown on why Parker believes he’s obligated to be the change he wants to see in the world.

What does Black History mean to you now compared to when you were a kid?
It means everything to me now. When I was young I felt that to be Black was to be inferior. All I knew about Africa was that’s where people had swollen stomachs, skeleton faces and flies crawling on their eyes. That’s all I knew because that was all that was taught to me, and that was the beginning of my internalized White supremacy, the way I viewed myself. I didn’t have a concept or grasp of history but I didn’t care.  The first time I saw myself in a history book, they showed us the picture of [a slave ship] so I was ashamed and didn’t want to face it. And in the book, “Blood Done Sign My Name,” Tim Tyson says any psychiatrist will tell you the only way a patient can get through trauma is honest confrontation with the past.

How did you get involved with “Blood Done Sign My Name”?
My agency called me and said there’s this script. I read it and then I was on board. When I read the book and saw the themes it dealt with—the realness of it, the truth, it approached it where it wasn’t the White hero, good White people, the bad White people and the Black people who are just pawns being shuffled around—but with the real plight. We have a tendency to sugar coat the Civil Rights movement by showing arm in arm and everyone singing “Kumbaya.” We don’t really always show the resistance from the government, the resistance from the status quo, from the majority to silence the movement.

But if you want to silence someone what do you do? There’s a term called 'throw them a bone.' It seems like in our society we’re more willing to create an exception than a solution. Let’s say we go into that in the last 50 years, 10,000 Black males have come through and let’s say 5,000 are in prison and let’s say statistically 7,000 of them didn’t finish high school. If we can find one of them that is in Congress, one of them that went to Yale or Duke, one of them that won a Pulitzer Prize, then all of a sudden it excuses the 9,999 that were victims of whether it be systemic racism in prison or industrial complex, we ignore the failures—the people that did not succeed, the people that did not become a piece of the fabric that we call the American dream. We use the exception of the rule as a barometer for the community so what is the state of the Black community in 2010—people say we’re in a post-racial, post-Black society, we have Barack Obama; President Barack Obama is an incredible figurehead, he symbolizes a breakthrough, he said himself that King’s dream realized what happened when we all come together and fight to see the changes in our community come to fruition.

You’re known for doing a lot of Civil Rights-themed films and historical dramas. What Black historical figureheads would you like to play in the future?
I would love to play Nat Turner because I think his rebellion against the oppression that he faced at the time was monumental in our struggle. Also, Toussaint L’Ouverture because of the courage of back in those times. Now when we fight, we fight understanding that we may see the end of the war. We’re in war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan—we’re in war all over. But those soldiers fight because they feel like it will end. We fought Vietnam all those years because we thought we could win. Imagine fighting knowing that by you making the decision to fight, the only thing you will gain is death and it’s inevitable. I think it’s patriotic to fight against injustice. That’s for everyone. If we can make our community 1 percent better than it was yesterday, then we make America better. That’s patriotism.  So it’s not this Black issue. It isn’t separate from the American issue. It’s only separate because we make it that way. And it’s only separate because of our injury—both White and Black. We’re all suffering from the injury of slavery because there’s White people walking around with this guilt they don’t know what to do with; there’s Black people walking around with this complex we don’t know what to do with.

Obviously these types of films are more your preference, but from talking to other Black actors and actresses they say there’s a shortage of Black talent in Hollywood and they feel like they have to take whatever roles they can get—
There’s not a shortage of Black talent, there’s a shortage of roles. There’s a gargantuan tank of Black talent in Hollywood. However, we have been brainwashed to believe that we have no value overseas, so films don’t get made; just like we were brainwashed for a long time to believe we don’t go to the movies, but Tyler Perry’s model showed everybody that that was a lie. So we just need to continue to seek ownership and continue to pursue projects that are rooted in truth and learn our history. By learning our history we’re inspired.

Speaking of history, did you actually talk to Dr. Chavis when prepping for this film?
I talked more after. But he reminded me that I could lead and that I could still be an influence on our community. Look at the Jewish community. I think it’s the best model for how a community of people who have been oppressed should be. For one, they have a mantra: Never forget. And they don’t. They understand the importance of sowing not only into their immediate community but sowing into Israel. When Haiti happened, there was a lot of people going around saying, “Man that’s messed up.” We should have been the first to respond. That’s a part of the African Diaspora. The Jewish community is the perfect model. They have their own institutions, they go to school and get jobs that allow them to be a benefit to their community every day and still get rich while doing it. And no one says, 'why are they doing that?' This is patriotism. This is me believing in the ideals of my forefathers. And when I say forefathers I’m talking African too. I just feel like if I really believe what Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” then I should be compelled to use my God-given platform to affect change. 

Not only do you do production and film writing, but you’ve also been called the next Denzel.  With that, how are you making sure that you have the career that you want to have and that you are paving the way for other young talent?
I take that with great honor, but I also take it as a great assault because Denzel is such an incredible person. Denzel has a work ethic second to none. He has an understanding of who he is. He has never allowed any role or any person to emasculate him as a man or as an artist. These are the ideals that I stand on. I don’t want to be Denzel in terms of mimicking him, but when you say step into those shoes, I’d love to feel the residue of his soul when it comes to understanding and identifying what a man is. So, I look to him for answers and mentorship in many different ways. And I hope that I can be of service and do what Canada Lee did for Paul Robeson, what Paul Robeson did for Sidney Poitier, what Sidney Poitier did for James Earl Jones, what James Earl Jones did for Louis Gossett, Jr., what Louis Gossett, Jr. did for Denzel and what Denzel did for me. I pray that if Denzel paved the road for me then I want to build the sidewalk. I want to add to it, not just walk on it. I’m obligated.    

“Blood Done Sign My Name" is open in select cities now.

Written by <P>By Star Rhett</P>

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