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THE PERFORMANCE: Nate Parker

A fiery turn from Nate Parker

The actor portrays real-life civil rights activist Benjamin Chavis in the film 'Blood Done Sign My Name.'

February 18, 2010|By Michael Ordoña

In Hollywood, a film that is considered overtly political is about the same as considering it a match in a room full of money. For Nate Parker, who portrays real-life civil rights activist Benjamin Chavis in "Blood Done Sign My Name," that's a torch he's proud to bear.

"There's no progress without struggle," Parker says. "Which means we won't get anywhere unless we're willing to sacrifice."

The fiery fellow isn't just speaking of political action generally; he's talking about a particular scene in the film, set in 1970, in the still-segregated North Carolina town of Oxford. "Blood Done," based on Tim Tyson's fact-based book, depicts a racially motivated murder and the ripples it causes. Chavis has joined Parker to meet the press in this chic hotel, nodding in agreement as the actor describes the scene in which the then-teacher leads his students out of the classroom and into the courthouse.

"He makes a decision in that moment to become a leader," Parker says. "What it doesn't say in the movie is, when he walked out, when those kids walked out after him and he led them to the court, he lost his job."

"I lost a job but I gained a vocation," adds Chavis, 62.

Chavis' politicization began early -- at age 13, to be exact -- as he grew fed up with the trickle-down policies of the segregated school system:

"Through seventh grade, I never had a book with both covers on it. One day, walking home from school, I decided, 'I'm going to get a book with both covers.' "

After resistance from the local librarian -- and the police -- but with support from his parents, he became the first African American to gain a library card in Oxford. The first book he borrowed: Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man."

"And all my friends got their library cards too. So that taught me a lesson. If you just walk by an injustice, it's always going to be there."

At age 14, Chavis met the Rev. Martin Luther King and eventually became a youth coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, returning home after college to teach. For Parker, the challenge was not to re-create Chavis externally, but internally.

"I believe that to imitate someone is certain death," says the actor. "My whole idea was to connect to the visceral ideals of what he represented. I learned about Ben Chavis Sr., a minister at the Episcopal church, very strict . . . "

"World War I veteran," interjects Chavis Jr.

"You go two more generations back and you get to John Chavis, who was an educator in the 1800s, born free, who taught slave children to read," Parker continues. "After Nat Turner's rebellion, they told him to stop. He didn't stop and they beat him to death. So you ask yourself, did Ben understand the importance of education, the importance of words, of social justice, of equality?"

Parker and Chavis say they will soon announce details of their joint "empowerment venture," further demonstrating the actor's dedicated activism. That passion informs his performance.

"There's a scene when he's standing at the bottom of the stairs, downtrodden," after suffering a setback at the courthouse, Parker says. "His mother says, 'What's that quote your father used to say? "Power concedes nothing . . . " ' and he says, " ' . . . without a demand." ' There were four generations of wisdom in that one statement, all the way from Frederick Douglass to Ben Chavis to Ben Chavis Jr."

Chavis eventually organized a boycott of local businesses, hitting them nonviolently where it really hurt. As a result, city departments began employing blacks for the first time and the Chamber of Commerce followed suit, mostly.

"You could work downtown, blacks could get loans. There are blacks right now working in that bank in Oxford because of that boycott," Chavis says with pride.

"But the theater refused to integrate and was closed. So in my hometown, in 2010, if they want to see 'Blood Done Sign My Name,' they have to drive 10 miles to Henderson or 30 miles to Durham, because there's no theater in the whole county."

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