September 13, 2012

By Sandra Varner/Talk2SV

Special to the LAWT


High stakes money dealing and child molestation weigh heavily by any measure; eliciting headlines though, by comparison, sit at opposite ends of angst and disdain. But the impressive dexterity of actor Nate Parker demonstrates his ability to balance the scales of emotion, making him one of today’s finest on screen talents.

Parker costars in “Arbitrage” the Richard Gere dramatic thriller centered on financial improprieties, from Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions. 

Parker also costars in “Red Hook Summer,” the Spike Lee intense drama that posits religion and fractured family dynamics amid sexual innocence, now playing in theaters.

“Arbitrage,” from writer Nicholas Jarecki, is described as a taut and alluring suspense thriller about love, loyalty, and high finance. New York hedge-fund magnate Robert Miller (Gere), on the eve of his 60th birthday, appears the very portrait of success in American business and family life.  Behind the gilded walls of his mansion, Miller is in over his head, desperately trying to complete the sale of his trading empire to a major bank before the depths of his fraud are revealed.

Miller struggles to conceal his duplicity from his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), heir-apparent, all the while balancing an extramarital affair. Just as he's about to unload his troubled empire, a bloody accident forces him to juggle family, business, and crime with the aid of Jimmy Grant (Parker), a face from Miller's past.

The 32-year-old Parker’s expanding movie career includes over a dozen feature films. He first received critical attention for his starring role in “The Great Debaters” opposite Denzel Washington. He followed this with a role starring alongside Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. in Red Tails.  He is currently in production on David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” opposite Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, and Ben Foster. Other credits include: “Pride,” “Felon,” “Tunnel Rats” with Michael Pare and “The Secret Life Of Bees,” which featured an all-star cast of Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Dakota Fanning and Paul Bettany. On stage, Parker appeared in “American Voices” opposite Dustin Hoffman, Annette Bening, Rosario Dawson and James Cromwell.

Recently, I spoke to Parker, a Norfolk, VA native who holds an honorary Doctorate from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas and who is known to be fastidious in preparing for each character portrayal. 

“The first role I ever had was on television; it was on “Cold Case.” If I remember, it was a young man who had been molested by a swim coach.  A number of years later, they looked into the murder of the swim coach and my character’s name came up.  I can remember looking at the material trying to figure out how I would create this world and how I would be true to this character. Being someone who has never been molested, I just reminded myself that somewhere in the world a young kid — who is a victim — is going to be watching this and he will be sitting next to the person that is victimizing him.  How would I be able to speak on behalf of that kid and will I do a good job? Will that kid say, ‘he’s so honest?’  That is the kind of approach I take in terms of what I choose to do and the type of messages I want to draw, based on my character analysis.”

His process is enduring. 

“I come from an athletic background; I was a wrestler and in wrestling the stakes are high. If you don’t prepare, it can mean your health. You can break something or hurt yourself.  Wrestling is a one-on-one sport and many times people think it’s you against the other person but most often it’s you against yourself. I take that training with me: the discipline and the work ethic.  So far it’s paid off.”

There are nuances in “Arbitrage,” also costarring Tim Roth, that hearken of days gone by yet there are shades steeped in present day, particularly the sanguine protagonist who doubles as the villain in question. Parker places well in period dramas.  Namely, in “The Great Debaters,” the tender love scene with Journee Smollett — both sitting quietly in a boat in the bayou — rates among my favorite on screen romantic events, their innocence is affecting. 

Parker seems at ease vacillating between eras. “I think that’s probably one of the greatest compliments I have received in my career and perhaps speaks to the reality that — in many ways — we’ve lost the power of the young black man.

“It’s been replaced in the media by the angry black man, or the violent black man, the despondent black man, or the weak black man or the emasculated black man. I put ‘black man’ on it because I’m specifically speaking to our community. People ask me why I play so many period roles and my answer is simple.   I tell them [that] when I see more material reflecting black men in a positive way — that will be progress for the community instead of a detriment — then people will see more contemporary roles [from me].”

Our conversation moves to his role in Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer.”

Parker, as Box, is a jaded street thug, once a “church boy” gone by the wayside. The “Red Tails” star opined, “I think it’s important that we recognize those men we see on the street corners with their pants down and their hats backwards; with the ‘blood’ colors and the pistol in their waist, that they are the residue of having been discarded. It first comes with the leadership, you go to any school, and the success of any of those young people is a result of the leadership that has come before them. The people that have guided them so I think with this young man, Box, while it’s easy to play what a gang member is, it’s harder to really speak to his truth. His back story — you know that he’s trying; he was in the church and his mother passed away.  No one filled in the gap.  That’s what’s happening in our community: we’re losing our kids at ages, 12, 13, 14… the girls get pregnant at 11, 12, 13… the boys are becoming gangsters at 11, 12, 13, and it’s not because they are criminal minded.  It’s not because they want to die.  Largely, it’s because of that impermanence where they feel like tomorrow is not guaranteed.  It’s that abandonment where they feel like they don’t have the support of people around them. That can make them feel like tomorrow is not guaranteed so they are raised most often by people that will take advantage, sometimes its gangs.”

Reaching further into his perspective, “Sometimes a gang will provide that security, that safety net, that social experience: all the things that you would hope one can gain in a positive, healthy environment.  I think there’s a lot of judgment that goes on in our generation, among young people, and much of that judgment happens in church.  In my own church, our pastor is younger than me now. I told him I was excited because when I used to go into church all I would see were older people just waiting to die.  They’d lived their lives and now it’s time for them to keel over, so they want to make sure that they are ‘right with God.’  Today, if you look at the energy of young people and what we’re doing with Twitter, Facebook and all these social media outlets, there is such an opportunity for the church to gain a new energy.  When this script (“Red Hook Summer”) was brought it to me I saw so much in it. The church has a responsibility.  It’s my prayer that they step up to the plate and reach out to these young people.”


Category: Arts & Culture