Nate Parker (1979– )

Nate Parker, 2014
Courtesy gdcgraphics (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Nate Parker is an American actor, director, producer, writer, and musical performer, who has appeared in popular films such as Red Tails, The Secret Life of Bees, The Great Debaters, and Arbitrage. He is best known, however, as the star and producer of The Birth of a Nation, a 2016 film depicting the life of slave rebellion leader, Nat Turner.

Parker was born on November 18, 1979, in Norfolk, Virginia, to Carolyn Whitfield, a seventeen-year-old single mother. She didn’t marry his biological father but Parker did have a relationship with his father until he died of cancer when Parker was eleven. Parker’s mother married Walter Whitford who was in the United States Air Force and was stationed in Bath, Maine. At age fourteen, after having problems with his stepfather, Parker moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia, to live with his uncle, Jay Combs, a former wrestler. Combs encouraged Parker to join the wrestling team. Parker joined the Churchland High School wrestling team and later the Great Bridge High School wrestling team before entering Pennsylvania State University on a wrestling scholarship in 1998.

Parker’s life became controversial when in 1999, while a sophomore at Pennsylvania State University, he and his roommate and wrestling teammate, Jean McGianni Celestin, were accused of raping a fellow Penn State student. The unnamed accuser claimed Parker and Celestin raped her while she was intoxicated and unconscious. She also said Parker and Celestin harassed her after she pressed charges against them and that they had hired a private investigator who showed her picture around campus revealing her identity. Parker was found not guilty on all four counts against him. Celestin, however, was convicted of sexual assault and received a two- to four-year sentence. That conviction was overturned in 2005, and the prosecution decided against a retrial. The accuser later committed suicide in 2012.

After the rape allegation, Parker transferred to and graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2002 with a degree in management science and information systems. Parker’s acting career began when he was discovered by Los Angles talent manager, Jon Simmons. Parker moved to Los Angeles in 2005 and appeared in his first film, Pride (2007). Later that year, he was cast in The Great Debaters, starring Denzel Washington; then The Secret Life of Bees (2008); Red Tails (2012); Arbitrage (2012); and Red Hook Summer (2012). In the 2010 film, Blood Done Sign My Name, Parker plays young civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis. In 2012 Parker directed a short film called #AmeriCAN about growing up as a young black person in a racially divided America.

In 2016 Parker co-wrote, co-produced, directed, and starred in The Birth of a Nation based on Nat Turner who led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. The film stars Parker as Nat Turner, with Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, and Gabrielle Union in supporting roles. Released in October 2016, the film had already won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize in U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. It also made history for a Sundance film when shortly afterward, Fox Searchlight Pictures acquired the distribution rights for a record $17.5 million. The film helped reignite Parker’s earlier controversy because its central theme—the rape of Turner’s wife sparking his rebellion—drew parallels with the 1999 rape allegations against Parker.

In 2007 Nate Parker married Sarah DiSanto, a native of Erie, Pennsylvania. The couple met when both attended Penn State. They have four daughters; the latest named Justice was born in 2016. Parker has another daughter from a previous relationship and also adopted his sister’s son.