On May 11, 1970, Henry Marrow, a 23-year-old black man who had just returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam, was killed in the town of Oxford, North Carolina. Two white men, Robert and Larry Teel, were charged with the murder. Timothy Tyson, a senior research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, who was 10 years old and living in Oxford at the time, published an account of the event in a 2004 memoir, Blood Done Sign My Name, which is now a sloppy movie of the same title, directed by Jeb Stuart. What we may salvage from the film is the performance of 30-year-old actor Nate Parker, who with his poise and simmering indignation rises above the atmosphere around him, playing Ben Chavis, a teacher in Oxford at the time who became the de-facto leader of the town’s black movement. We may never know what exactly occurred that night, but it is clear that the killing, the trial and the subsequent acquittal of the Teels galvanized the civil rights movement in Oxford.
“When I look around me, I ask myself, ‘What are some of the injustices that I see that need attention?’” Parker says. “I think of the education system, the illiteracy in our school system, and how five out of 10 black males are dropping out of school,” Parker says. “And I look at the fact that in my age range, 18-to-35, one in three is in prison. I look at these things and I ask myself, ‘What can I do?’ ”
In person, Parker betrays a warm, brotherly calm, his athletic frame hugged by a smooth suit, as he finds himself drawn to coaching wrestling. (As a wrestler, Parker ranked as high as number two in the nation during his years at the University of Oklahoma). But his calm only thinly wraps the intensity that so often threatens to burst in his performances. Blood is about, he says, “The pulse of racism and racially fueled injustice—the pulse and how it’s still alive.”
Parker invokes civil rights leaders often. In less than two minutes he invoked Martin Luther King, Jr., paraphrased Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro, and quoted Marcus Garvey. Rarely does an actor merge with his character, but as Parker talked about civil rights and injustice, he differed from his portrayal of the intense Chavis only in his manner of speech. “I think when we look at the statistics of the day, they’re daunting. We get discouraged. Who’s going to deal with New York’s problem of seven out of 10 dropouts in the black community? We’ve been failing with policy over the last 50 years.”
Parker’s next film will also deal with civil rights—he appears alongside Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrence Howard in Red Tails, a George Lucas project that’s scheduled to be released Christmas Day about the Tuskegee Airmen. Parker beamed when he talked of playing a member of the first African-American fighter group in World War II, because, he said, of the paradox that they served their country in a military that was still racially segregated, and by escorting bombers in P-51 Mustang jets with their distinctive rear stabilizers painted red, became legendary. “They struggled for equality. And the impact they had on World War II! A lot of people don’t know that they were one of the biggest forces in the turn of the war. A lot of people don’t know the story,” he says. “These kinds of things give us a sense of identity.”