*The new film, “Blood Done Sign My Name” is based on the true story of the role of local high school teacher Ben Chavis in the civil unrest created by the 1970 racially motivated murder of a black Vietnam veteran and the acquittal of the white businessman who was charged.
Nate Parker, who stars in the film as young activist Ben Chavis, is known for his roles in a number of other civil rights-focused period pieces including “Pride,” “The Great Debaters,” and “The Secret Life of Bees, but the young star told reporters that he looks for roles that take on the historical plights of his community because they very often mirror the same struggles the community deals with today.
“My attraction is that I see such similarities in the projects of the period as I do in the now – 2010. Dr. King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ So it’s my duty as an artist and as a person of the community to posture against injustice,” he said.
“When these projects come along, what it gives to me is a model or a blueprint of solution that I can take into 2010. I can say, ‘This is how we deal with incarceration in the black community. This is how we deal with HIV and disease.'”
Parker said that he looks to heroes like Dr. Ben Chavis in his work and in his personal life.
“I see the path that he’s taken and the sacrifices that he’s made, whether it’s been going to prison or being shot at standing as a pillar in the community and I say, that’s what I want to do,” the actor stated. “If it means me using my platform as an actor and getting in the position of using the media, so be it.”
He confessed that he does often choose projects like “Blood Done Sign My Name” because if he’s going to be typecast, he wants to be typecast as someone who wants to be a leader and wants to fight the injustices in the community. He added that the chose this film in particular because it steps a little bit outside of the familiar civil rights journeys that are often refreshed in the media.
“I chose this one for two reasons,” he began. “One, because it deals with civil rights, but not civil rights as we’re used to it in 1964-65, but in 1970 this brother was killed. I read the book after (director) Jeb Stuart came to me, and I looked at Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo police brutality [cases] and the young brother that just got killed in Chicago and I said, ‘There are so many similarities in the protecting and the paternalism, and the sweeping under the rug that I can use this to go out and speak.”
Parker has been noted for committing to working to provide educational opportunities for young males via Wiley College, the Marshall, TX school brought to fame by “The Great Debaters.”
“I often speak at Wiley College and I just did a keynote [address] there,” he said. “So to be able to go out and talk about this film as a tool for education of what we can be doing for even things that are plaguing that campus, I think there is power in that.”
Dr. Chavis, now 62 years old, was quite pleased with the final cut of the film, calling it “phenomenal” in its accuracy even though he was not directly involved in the making of the film.
“Tim Tyson wrote the book, and the screenplay was based on the book. The book, however, is an adaptation of Tyson’s PhD dissertation. When he was a student in graduate school working on his dissertation, I gave him extensive interviews,” Chavis clarified. “In a sense it was probably better that I didn’t get involved with the movie because truth doesn’t need an arbiter.”
“So I wasn’t on the set,” he continued. “I didn’t have to coach him. When I saw the first rough cut, I had to reach over and shake the hand of [director] Jeb Stuart. This is not your average Hollywood film. The degree of accuracy is phenomenal. Most times, to sensationalize this or to sensationalize that, you take away from what really happened. This is one of the most accurate movies I’ve ever seen.”
“To capture all of this in film was a bold effort,” Chavis declared. “There have been a lot of movies about the Ku Klux Klan. This is the only movie I know that shows that the Ku Klux Klan has a theology; they have a perverted sense of religion – they’re burning crosses in the name of Jesus.”
Chavis was equally impressed with the portrayal by Parker.
“He captured the tension – you could see it in his face – the passion, but also the responsibility of leadership. When you made a speech back in those days and people followed you, you were accountable for what you said, for how you say it, where you say it and you have to look around to see who’s behind you.”
Chavis recalled that looking behind him during that march referred to both keeping watch and protection over those following you, but also looking out for those in opposition.
“That march from Oxford (North Carolina) to Raleigh took us three days. We were shot at on the way. My biggest concern wasn’t just to make it to meet with the Governor, but to make sure nobody got hurt. It was clear this was a pivotal moment in Oxford,” he said.
“Dr. King had just been killed two years earlier in ’68, so there was already a fear among adults,” he recalled. “When I led those students out of the class to the courthouse, it was to teach them something about life in real time and the film captured that.”
Chavis reflected on the fact that two Southern states voted for a black candidate for US President in the 2008 election and related that to the youth movement more than 38 years before.
“It was the youth vote. To some extent, young people’s consciousness is beginning to transcend the racist and racial stereotypes that were commonplace in 1970. The school that I led the students out of was a segregated school even in 1970, even though the Brown decision was in 1954,” he said, “but there were young people pushing that envelope and I think it was captured very well in this film.”
“It happened in 1970 post civil rights movement, post King being assassinated, and this young brother Henry Marrow was killed,” Parker added. “Not only was there no justice, but the Chamber of Commerce paid the bail of the people that actually did it, who were admittedly a part of the Ku Klux Klan.”
“I had to go after the mindset of black people,” Chavis recalled. “I thought, ‘How am I going to get these brothers and sisters to stand up when they are used to these kinds of things?’ While we were focused on Henry Marrow’s murder, there were many murders. This was commonplace. What made it distinctive was that we stood up about it.”
Chavis agreed that progress has been made throughout the nation as well as in his hometown of Oxford, there is much more progress to be made.
“This movie cannot be shown in Oxford,” he said, “because instead of desegregating the theater they just closed it. People that live in my hometown are going to have to drive 30 miles to see this movie. Has there been progress in Oxford? Yes. Has Oxford become a racial Utopia? No.”
“Blood Done Sign My Name,” also starring Lela Rochon, Darrin Henson, and Rick Schroeder, is in theaters nationwide.
Watch the trailer for ‘Blood Done Signed my name’: