Nate Parker (born November 18, 1979) is an American actor, director, producer, writer, and musical performer who has appeared in Beyond the Lights, Red Tails, The Secret Life of Bees, The Great Debaters, Arbitrage, Non-Stop, Felon, and Pride. Parker's directorial debut feature film, The Birth of a Nation, in which he also starred, made history at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival when Fox Searchlight Pictures acquired the distribution rights for $17.5 million, breaking the record for the most paid for a Sundance Film Festival production, surpassing Little Miss Sunshine, which had been acquired by Searchlight for $10 million ten years earlier.
In college, Parker was accused and acquitted of the rape of a fellow student; during the trial for this case, he was accused by another woman of indecently exposing himself to her. These incidents became a prominent media story in 2016, during the publicity for The Birth of a Nation.
Parker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, to Carolyn Whitfield, a 17-year-old single mother. Although Parker's mother did not marry his biological father, Parker had a relationship with his father until his father died from cancer when Parker was eleven. Parker's mother's first husband gave Parker his surname. After a divorce, Parker's mother then married her second husband, Walter Whitford, who was in the United States Air Force and was stationed in Bath, Maine. Parker has four younger sisters.
At the age of 14, after problems at home with his stepfather, Parker moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia, to live with his maternal uncle, Jay Combs. Combs, a former wrestler, encouraged Parker to join the wrestling team at Princess Anne High School. He then attended Churchland High School and continued on their wrestling team, before moving to Great Bridge High School before attending Penn State University on a wrestling scholarship in 1999. After a rape allegation, he later transferred to and graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2002, where he was on the wrestling team and received a degree in management science and information systems.
Parker placed third in the Virginia High School League state wrestling championships as a junior while attending Churchland High School. Parker's mother moved to the Great Bridge High School district so Parker could participate in its powerhouse wrestling program. He was a member of the 1997–98 state champion Great Bridge wrestling team and was a state champion 135-pound (61 kg) wrestler who placed third in the High School National Wrestling Championships, while becoming a high school All-American.
Parker earned a full scholarship to wrestle at Penn State University. At Penn State, Parker was nationally ranked as a freshman.
After transferring to the University of Oklahoma, Parker continued to be ranked as a redshirt junior 141-pound (64 kg) wrestler. In 2002, Parker placed fifth at the National Collegiate Athletic Association wrestling championships and became an All-American at Oklahoma. Following his fifth-place finish, he was ranked second nationally as a redshirt senior.
Parker was discovered while attending an event in Dallas with a model friend. Los Angeles talent manager Jon Simmons noticed Parker, had him audition, put himself on tape, then encouraged Parker to move to Los Angeles where he gradually found work as an actor.
In 2006, Parker played the male lead in Rome & Jewel, a hip-hop take on Romeo and Juliet that got mothballed and re-released in 2008. Parker's title character, who is supposed to be the modern day Romeo, was a Compton youth with both tenderness and toughness. Despite a troubled script, Parker's rap performance earned comparisons to Will Smith from Nathan Lee of The New York Times. In 2007, he had a small role in Pride, about an African American swim team. Parker was tasked with depicting the visual expectations of an athletic proficiency that was new to him but very familiar to the audience.
In 2007, Parker played the role of Henry Lowe in the Denzel Washington-directed film, The Great Debaters. The character was based on the real-life debater, Henry Heights from Wiley College. Parker attended a debate boot camp to make his performance more authentic. He portrayed a multifaceted character. Stephen Holden of The New York Times described Parker's portrayal as having depicted a "handsome, clean-cut youth with a lurking bad-boy streak". while John Clark of the New York Daily News described the role as that of a "silver-tongued orator and ladies' man". Other reviewers also noted the nuances of the character. Parker also performed on the soundtrack. Parker and co-stars Forest Whitaker and Denzel Washington were all nominated for the 2008 NAACP Image Awards in the best supporting actor category, which Denzel Washington won. Parker would develop a continuing relationship with Wiley College.
Parker next performed in a pair of low budget movies: Felon and Tunnel Rats. Despite these early light roles, Parker's onscreen charisma and general je ne sais quoi showed, earning Parker comparisons to Paul Newman. In Felon, Parker played a rookie guard dealing with inner turmoil. In 2008's The Secret Life of Bees, Parker played the good-hearted love interest of Alicia Keys' character. Parker's character has to deal with the challenges of spurned love. The movie was written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood based on the book of the same name by Sue Monk Kidd.
In the 2010 film Blood Done Sign My Name, which was based on a true story of small town racial turmoil set in a backdrop of belated segregation in 1970, Parker plays a 22-year-old Benjamin Chavis. Parker's Chavis was a teacher who had been born into an affluent African-American family and would later become the Executive Director of the N.A.A.C.P. A. O. Scott of The New York Times described Parker as "diffident" and his portrayal as "thoughtful, morally serious". Steven Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer notes that events in the film move Parker with both "resolve and rage": Roger Ebert described Parker's Chavis as "energized and angered" in one of the two main storylines of the film that started with Chavis leading an economic boycott after an adverse court verdict. Parker's character was "peripheral" according to The New York Post's Kyle Smith and upstaged according to Scott and Ebert. However, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune noted that Parker's portrayal infused dimension into Chavis, whose cousin's death was the subject of the film. Phillips noted that the role showed that with the right choices Parker had the potential to be a big star in the future.
In 2012, Parker appeared as a World War II squadron commander in Red Tails, a film portraying Tuskegee Airmen. Parker's character drinks to cope with the stress of the fighter pilot lifestyle. Lou Lumenick of the New York Post praised then-unknown actors Parker and David Oyelowo. In the movie, Parker plays Marty "Easy" Julian who commanded the flight guards for the World War II bombers in the face of Nazi attack planes. While Peter Travers of Rolling Stone noted that Parker shined in his role, Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe felt Oyelowo stood out. Although the story is a fictionalization, Bilge Ebiri of New York and Holden note that the relationship between the two is the story's central one. Holden compared Parker's presence to that of Denzel Washington. In Arbitrage, Parker's talents were underutilized as the son of a chauffeur who gets caught in a murder coverup, according to David Denby of The New Yorker. Nonetheless, Ty Burr of The Boston Globe notes that Parker's portrayal of the Harlem native is the only sympathetic character of the film. Travers notes the role provides Richard Gere's elitist character with his only interactions with a diverse character in the film. Parker's third and final film of 2012 was in Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer. Parker played a gang member named Box, whose role was not central to the film progression according to Phillips, although convincingly menacing according to Smith.
In 2013, he had a supporting role in Ain't Them Bodies Saints that Richard Brody of The New Yorker described as being a bar owner who is among an "enticing array of characters". The role was minor according to Scott.
Kate Taylor of The Globe and Mail described Parker's performance as a novelist with writer’s block in the 2014 film About Alex as one of the more real performances in the film despite the "wrote" feel to the emotional developments. Mike D'Angelo of The A.V. Club also found the crises and conflicts that Parker's character was involved in to be petty. Parker's independent short film #AmeriCan was nominated in the Outstanding Independent Short category at the Black Reel Awards of 2015 and won.
That same year, Parker reunited with Prince-Bythewood playing the male lead in her film Beyond the Lights. His performance was nominated for a 2015 Black Reel Award for Best Actor and an Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture. In Parker's role as a police officer moonlighting as a bodyguard, his onscreen chemistry with co-star Gugu Mbatha-Raw was praised by Dana Stevens of Slate. Stevens noted Parker was destined for more substantive performances. The story was hailed as a well-written believable romance with depth by many critcs such as Travers and Ebiri, earning an 82% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
In the airplane terrorism mystery film Non-Stop, Parker plays a computer programmer, who by the end of the film, is revealed as one of the two criminal masterminds behind the film's extortion plot. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times notes that Parker's talents are well-employed in his supporting role. In Every Secret Thing, Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times found Parker and his detective partner to Elizabeth Banks to have been overwhelmed in their roles. Travers also found the detectivework to be uncompelling. Frank Scheck of The Hollywood Reporter found Parker's performance to have had its moments.
In 2012, Parker directed a short film called, #AmeriCAN, which featured La La Anthony and is a thought piece about growing up as a young black person in a racially-divided America.
For over seven years, Parker worked on making a film based on the life of Nat Turner. In 2014, he announced that he had funding and was working on assembling his team, and that the film would be called The Birth of a Nation, in an ironic reappropriation of the infamously racist 1915 film of the same name. In addition to writing and directing, Parker cast himself as Turner. Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer and Gabrielle Union were also cast in key roles.
In August 2016, Parker was honored with the Sundance Institute's Vanguard Award.
In evaluating the impact of the public's reaction to Parker's alleged 1999 rape of a fellow Penn State student, a film producer told The Hollywood Reporter, about Parker's directing career, "His inability to act like he cared that people invested a whole lot of money in him — sorry. You go into the 'life is too short' category." Noting that the first half of the New York Times review of The Birth of a Nation is taken up with the controversy, this person adds, "No matter what Nate Parker makes, ... this will always be the first paragraph." Other industry insiders note that, "unlike Gibson — or Roman Polanski or Woody Allen, both accused of sexual assault (Polanski pled guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse) — Parker is just beginning his directing career and has not built up an acclaimed body of work that might encourage some to say they are willing to separate the artist from the art."
Parker sponsors scholarships for youth between the ages of 17 and 25 at East Texas Wiley College through the 100 Men of Excellence Initiative. Wiley has announced it will host a new film school named The Nate Parker School of Film and Drama.
Parker has been a supporter of Boys & Girls Clubs of America as well as a program called Peace4Kids, which is a program for foster youths and underprivileged youth in South Los Angeles, California where kids are involved in daily activities that stimulate and nurture creativity and intellect. Parker has coached a wrestling team of 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds at Rosemead High School and has assisted in coaching wrestling at Rio Hondo College. Inspired by his experience with The Great Debaters, Parker began working with a Brooklyn initiative called Leadership and Literacy through Debate.
1999 rape charges
In 1999, while a sophomore at Pennsylvania State University, Parker and his roommate and wrestling teammate, Jean McGianni Celestin, were accused of raping a fellow student. The unnamed accuser stated that Parker and Celestin raped her while she was intoxicated and unconscious, and that she was unsure of how many people had been involved. The woman later went to a doctor, who concluded that she had been sexually assaulted, and local authorities taped a phone conversation between her and Parker in which Parker confirmed that it was he and Celestin who had sex with her. She also stated that the two harassed her after she pressed charges, and that they hired a private investigator who showed her picture around campus, revealing her identity.
Parker was acquitted on all four counts brought against him. Celestin, who shares a story credit on The Birth of a Nation, was convicted of sexual assault and received a six-month to one-year prison sentence in 2001, later raised to two to four years per state sentencing guidelines. Appealing the case on grounds of ineffective counsel at the first trial, Celestin's initial conviction was overturned in 2005 and he was granted a new trial to rehear the charges. Despite the accuser's willingness to testify at a second trial, prosecutors declined because other witnesses had scattered all over the world.
On campus in 2001, students raised concerns that race may have influenced Celestin's initial conviction: Celestin is black (as is Parker), while the accuser and all but one of the jurors were white.
Via the Women's Law Project, Parker's accuser filed a complaint against the university for failing to protect her from harassment, which was settled with Penn State for $17,500. The alleged harassment consisted of a personal investigator hired by Parker and Celestin flashing her photograph on campus that let her identity be known and subjected her to taunts such as, "There goes the white girl crying rape!" In 2012, the accuser committed suicide.
Because The Birth of a Nation attracted increased scrutiny due to possible Oscar nominations, and the film itself depicts a brutal rape, there was significant press coverage about damage control by Fox Searchlight Pictures, the studio releasing the film. Interviews in Variety and Deadline were a focus, as was Parker's response to the event in a Facebook post.
Gabrielle Union, a rape victim and one of the main stars of The Birth of a Nation, wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly. On that night, 17-odd years ago, did Nate have his date’s consent? It’s very possible he thought he did. Yet by his own admission he did not have verbal affirmation; and even if she never said “no,” silence certainly does not equal “yes.” Although it’s often difficult to read and understand body language, the fact that some individuals interpret the absence of a “no” as a “yes” is problematic at least, criminal at worst." Sources suggest that Parker and Celestin's accuser was either unconscious or extremely drunk when Parker invited Celestin to have sex with her (Parker was already actively engaged in a sex act with her at the time).
After having suffered significant negative publicity for his apologies, Parker chose to deflect questions about his past legal problems while doing press for The Birth of a Nation at the Toronto Film Festival. Shortly thereafter, Parker and his handlers chose to cut press interviews short when questions came up about his involvement with the alleged rape and its impact on the marketing of the film.
Writing in Variety, the sister of Parker's alleged victim discussed the immense pain that Parker's The Birth of a Nation brought to her and her family, "As her sister, the thing that pains me most of all is that in retelling the story of the Nat Turner slave revolt, they invented a rape scene. The rape of Turner’s wife is used as a reason to justify Turner’s rebellion. This is fiction. I find it creepy and perverse that Parker and Celestin would put a fictional rape at the center of their film, and that Parker would portray himself as a hero avenging that rape. Given what happened to my sister, and how no one was held accountable for it, I find this invention self-serving and sinister, and I take it as a cruel insult to my sister’s memory."
To try to change the public backlash related to the alleged 1999 rape, The Birth of a Nation's studio hired The Glover Park Group and Don McPherson to give Parker media training and public relations advice. Despite this media and public relations training, industry sources stated, "They gave him talking points and he just didn't execute". The same sources also noted that, while "Parker seemed at times to understand the need to emphasize his sorrow about the devastating impact of the 1999 encounter on the woman at the center of the charges, sources say when the cameras rolled he reverted to his original position." In an October 2016 60 Minutes interview, Parker maintained that he was innocent of the crime and that he did not feel guilty about it, but conceded that, from the perspective of a 36-year-old man, he had done something morally wrong.
2000 indecent exposure accusation
After being criminally charged with rape in 1999, Parker was suspended from Penn State's wrestling team. Parker was reinstated in 2000 while facing trial and within weeks a female student worker accused him of exposing himself to her. The student did not go to the police and Penn State dropped the matter. In October 2016, the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office announced that they had discovered the records while looking into Penn State's past handling of sex crimes such as those in the Jerry Sandusky abuse case and that they were looking into how Penn State had handled the incident. One of three men being prosecuted in the Sandusky case, Tim Curley, was involved with how Parker's indecent exposure incident was handled.
Comments on playing a gay character
In a 2014 interview with BET during publicity for the film Beyond the Lights that included Parker and director Gina Prince-Bythewood, Parker stated that in order to "preserve the black man" he would not be willing to portray gay characters. The video was later taken down and is no longer available. In 2014, Parker also stated he would not take roles, such as gay roles, that he considered to be "emasculating".
In August 2007, Parker married Sarah DiSanto, a native of Erie, Pennsylvania, whom he met while they were attending Penn State. They were married in Erie's Frontier Park. The couple have four daughters in addition to another daughter Parker had from a previous relationship. Parker has also adopted his sister's son.
Parker has said that he considers himself a Christian, and that he grew up in the church. According to a DNA analysis, some of Parker's ancestry is from the Tikar people of modern-day Cameroon.
|The Great Debaters||Henry Lowe|
|Tunnel Rats||Private Jim Lidford|
|Rome & Jewel||Rome|
|The Secret Life of Bees||Neil|
|2010||Blood Done Sign My Name||Ben Chavis|
|2012||Red Tails||Capt. Martin "Easy" Julian|
|Red Hook Summer||Box|
|2013||Ain't Them Bodies Saints||Sweeter|
|Beyond the Lights||Kaz Nicol|
|Every Secret Thing||Kevin Jones|
|2016||The Birth of a Nation||Nat Turner||Director, writer and producer|
|2004||Cold Case||R. J. Holden||Season 1, episode 22: "The Plan"|
|2005||Kurtlar vadisi||Male Model||Season 4, episodes 96 & 97|
|2006||The Unit||Darryl||Season 2, episode 11: "Silver Star"|
Awards and nominations
|2008||NAACP Image Award||Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture||The Great Debaters||Nominated|
|2009||The Secret Life of Bees||Nominated|
|2012||African-American Film Critics Association||Best Supporting Actor||Arbitrage||Won|
|Hamptons International Film Festival||Breakthrough Performer||Won|
|2013||Black Reel Awards||Best Supporting Actor||Nominated|
|Outstanding Actor||Red Tails||Nominated|
|168 Film Festival||Best Actor||Lu||Won|
|2014||Black Reel Awards||Best Supporting Actor||Ain't Them Bodies Saints||Nominated|
|2015||NAACP Image Award||Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture||Beyond the Lights||Nominated|
|Black Reel Awards||Outstanding Actor||Nominated|
|Best Independent Short||#AmeriCan||Won|
|2016||Sundance Film Festival||Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic||The Birth of a Nation||Won|
|Audience Award: Dramatic||Won|
|CinemaCon||Breakthrough Director of the Year||Won|