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EXCLUSIVE: Nate Parker on His First Spike Lee Joint, 'Red Hook Summer,' and Loving Brooklyn

"It feels like a homecoming," says Parker on starring in Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer.
Nate Parker has been preparing himself for the moment he could work with Spike Lee ever since his started acting back in 2001.

So, of course, he jumped at the chance to work with Lee in his latest film, Red Hook Summer. He prepared for his role as Box, a drug-dealing gang leader and wannabe rapper, by spending time with members of the Bloods gang in Brooklyn.  

He spoke with ESSENCE.com about Red Hook Summer, relating to young men like Box and why he’d never take a role that requires him to wear a dress.  

ESSENCE.com: Congratulations on your first Spike Lee joint.
NATE PARKER: It feels like a homecoming. When I first started in the game, I knew there were certain people I wanted to work with. Spike and Denzel [Washington] were at the top of my list. When I finally met them they both impressed me with their humility and desperation for the community to grow and be better. So to be working with Spike Lee – it doesn’t get better.    

ESSENCE.com: Red Hook Summer is set in Brooklyn. What were your first thoughts of Spike’s beloved borough?
PARKER: My first thought of Brooklyn is always pride. There is a respect that goes along with it. Brooklynites are very, very proud of their borough.

ESSENCE.com: You play a gang leader named Box who comes from the Red Hook projects. Did you spend time in Red Hook to prepare?
PARKER: Yeah, Spike asked me if I would be interested in meeting real Bloods. I said, ‘yeah,’ so he got in touch with them. [Laughs] I don’t know how or what his connections were, but he made it happen. I pretty much disconnected myself from the crew and just went and chilled with the Bloods. It was interesting because you know I’m from Norfolk, Virginia so a lot of people see me as a square and kind of associate me with the person that I am now. Interestingly enough I identify more with the despondent young man than I do with the articulate polished ones because of where I come from.

ESSENCE.com: So what did you take away from Red Hook Summer as Nate Parker the actor, not Nate, the kid from the projects?
PARKER: It’s amazing. The biggest thing that I took from it is the understanding that as young men… before you judge someone for their pants hanging down, carrying a gun or wearing a red shirt, understand that somewhere along the line they were failed. Look at any child and they are a reflection of the leadership they’ve had. So before we can judge we have to understand our part in that.

ESSENCE.com: Your character, Box, is a mean son of a gun…
PARKER: There’s a Box in every neighborhood. He’s just a young man suffering from the disease of impermanence; he just wants to be seen and heard. In Invisible Man, there’s a passage that talks about how he was walking down the street and he starting to figure out his invisibility. A man bumps him and curses him and he ends up beating the man within an inch of his life. When you constantly feel like you’re invisible, sometimes you will lash out just to show yourself, and the world, that you exist. Box isn’t just mean because it’s cool to be mean; he’s trying to survive.

ESSENCE.com:  There’s also a power struggle between the young and old here. Bishop Enoch (Clarke Peters) believes the church has all the answers. Box doesn’t agree.
PARKER: It’s the whole idea of survival. If you don’t feel like you’re going to be around tomorrow what’s the point of going to church? What’s the point of having hope or a goal? If we’re gonna deal with progress as a community, we have to deal with mind, body and soul. We deal with the spiritual aspect, yeah, but we also need to deal with financial literacy and credit. There are so many things that we have to deal with on the micro level before we pull ourselves up by the bootstraps.

ESSENCE.com: Besides acting, you’re also a self-described activist.
PARKER: I consider myself an activist first. If I were to gain all the money in the world, but the people in my community fail, then I’ve failed. One day I will be on my deathbed, and all I’ll have to reflect on is the impact I’ve had on the community and I’ll have to answer some questions. I think my platform right now is really the Black male initiative. I’ve committed to seeking corporate sponsorships of young men in the community and giving 100 scholarships to attend Wiley College through the 100 Men of Excellence initiative. [Editor’s note: Parker’s debut starring role in The Great Debaters was based on students at Wiley College, a historically Black college.]

ESSENCE.com: So now you’ve played a gang member in Red Hook Summer, a Tuskegee airman in Red Tails. What roles would you like, or not like, to tackle?
PARKER: I’d love to play Nat Turner. What I would never play? Anyone wearing a dress. We just need more images of me. We’ve been emasculated physically, metaphorically too many times for me to support it. For me, that’s where the line stops.

Red Hook Summer is in theaters this Friday, August 10