In 1970, Ben Chavis (Nate Parker) returned to Oxford, North Carolina, to teach in the town’s all-black school, and to re-open his father’s restaurant, The Soul Kitchen. But when his cousin, Henry ‘Dickie’ Marrow, who had just returned from fighting in Vietnam, was attacked and killed by a white racist family, Chavis organized a peaceful march to the state capitol. What started out as a few dozen outraged friends and family grew into thousands of people over the fifty-mile walk.
It was an honor last week to speak with Dr Ben Chavis (who in 1995 organized the Million Man March on Washington DC) and Nate Parker, who portrays him on the screen.
How scary is it to play someone who is still alive, like Ben Chavis?
Nate Parker: I wouldn’t say it was scary, I think what was more daunting was the responsibility. I think where you go wrong as an actor with portraying someone who is still alive, is imitation. You hear actors saying, ‘I went to go live with him for three weeks.’ Not to put down anyone’s methods, but for me I think the more difficult thing is to really understand the perspective of that person, what motivated him to step into the world that he did, and for this hero sitting besides me, Dr Benjamin Chavis, I saw in him a skill set that was developed by the people before him, whether it was his father Benjamin Chavis Sr., or John Chavis, who was beaten to death for educating slave children in the 1800s.
But for me, it was looking at him as a surrogate father and rather than it being, ‘I’m going to be him,’ it was, ‘What can I learn from him that I can put in the film, that I can use later to speak to young people about, and to say, ‘If you don’t see it in me, then see it in the man that inspired me. And if you don’t see it in him, then see it in the man that inspired him.’
How difficult was it for you to relive this horrific incident that happened to your cousin that is reflected in the movie?
Dr Ben Chavis: I didn’t find this difficult, I was very pleased to finally see not only a true story, but an accurate portrayal of that period. Keep in mind this is the 1970s, this is not the ‘60s or the’50s. Most of the civil rights movies are about the ‘50s and the early ‘60s. This is 1970; Richard Nixon was President, pre-Watergate, the Vietnam war. I was only 22 years old. I got out of college and went back to my hometown to teach and to open up The Soul Kitchen. And the Soul Kitchen wasn’t just a restaurant and a disco – it was also a meeting place for the empowerment of the community.
So when this racist murder took place of my cousin, there was no way in the world I could have stood silent in the wake of that. But I have to say that when I saw the rough cut of this movie, I could tell that Nate Parker had not only done his homework, but he was committed to portraying the part for the person he was inside. That’s why I think tonight, when people see the world premiere, they are not only going to see it and listen to it, but they are going to feel it. This is a movie that you feel, and the fact that it’s not that long ago, 1970, speaks to the myth that we are in a post-civil rights, post-racial, post-injustice society. Not at all, this is a constant struggle.
I’m very grateful, because I realize that Jeb Stuart (the movie’s writer/director) is taking a risk putting this on the screen in 2010. You could not have shown this movie 30 years ago, it would have been too polarizing. But today I think we’ve made enough progress that this movie can be shown to further inspire young people today, that’s my hope.
Were people more willing to fight for social change then than they are now?
Nate Parker: Yes, but they understood how to articulate their position. Today the problem is we have made so much progress people tend to think, ‘Oh wow, there are no more problems,’ except when an incident happens. And then when an incident happens, they say, ‘That’s just an isolated incident that has nothing to do with the larger society.’ But the murder of Henry ‘Dickie’ Marrow was not an isolated incident, it was symptomatic of a deep seated problem that our society still has.
When you get a script like this, do you want to do it because of what it has to say or because it’s a great role?
Nate Parker: Acting is my platform, if I can do films in other genres, that’s great, but I believe that everything I do with my platform there should be something infused inside of that to serve my community.
I think that as long as I’m a part of the community that is leading all the major negative statistics; then it’s my responsibility to do something to affect change in that community.
Dr Ben Chavis: For me the good thing about the movie is it’s going to stimulate discussion. To me that is one of the roles of good theatre, how to make a theatrical statement but, at the same time, it plants good seeds in the minds of the audience, and hopefully they will take hold and flower.