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"There is no Nat Turner to recover; you have to create the man and his voice."


     Book Cover Art: James McGee



Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property

Directed & Written  by Charles Burnett

 Producer/Writer: Frank Christopher
Co-Producer/Writer/Historian: Kenneth S. Greenberg
60 minutes, 2002


Nat Turner's slave rebellion is a watershed event in America's long and troubled history of slavery and racial conflict. Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property tells the story of that violent confrontation and of the ways that story has been continuously re-told during the years since 1831. It is a film about a critical moment in American history and of the multiple ways in which that moment has since been remembered. Nat Turner was a "troublesome property" for his master and he has remained a "troublesome property" for the historians, novelists, dramatists, artists and many others who have struggled to understand him.

To emphasize the fictive component of historical reconstruction, the film adopts an innovative structure: interspersing documentary footage and interviews with dramatizations of different versions of the story, using a new actor to represent Nat Turner in each version. As literary critic Henry Louis Gates explains in the film, "There is no Nat Turner to recover; you have to create the man and his voice." The filmmakers chronicle an extraordinary history of attempts to create and to recreate the man. Such a complex film required a unique collaboration between MacArthur Genius Award feature director Charles Burnett, acclaimed historian of slavery Kenneth S. Greenberg and award-winning documentary producer Frank Christopher.

The earliest source, "The Confessions of Nat Turner," was not written by Nat Turner but was assembled out of a series of jail cell interviews by white Virginia lawyer Thomas R. Gray. The man portrayed in this first telling of the Nat Turner story clearly saw himself as a prophet, steeped in the traditions of apocalyptic Christianity. However, this first confession of Nat Turner raised the question of whether the slave rebel was an inspired and brilliant religious leader in search of freedom for his people, or a deluded fanatic leading slaves to their doom. Viewers watch this same controversy play itself out over and over again during next 170 years of our nation's history.

Historians Eugene Genovese and Herbert Aptheker discuss how the figure of Nat Turner was transformed as a metaphor whenever racial tensions flared. Religious scholar Vincent Harding and legal scholar Martha Minnow reflect on our nation's attitudes towards violence. Alvin Poussaint and Ossie Davis recall how Nat Turner became a hero in the Black community. And when William Styron published his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner - and invented a sexually charged relationship between Turner and a white teenaged girl he later killed -- it unleashed one of the most bitter intellectual race battles of the 1960s. Today, Nat Turner's slave rebellion continues to raise new questions about the nature of terrorism and other forms of violent resistance to oppression.

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In light of current dread of terrorist assaults, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property boldly takes on special meaning. A dramatic script, brilliant acting, and a compelling approach presents a tragic and morally ambivalent story of unfathomable horror but also a desperate cry for freedom. In its presentation of realism and myth, the film surpasses Ken Burns's historical documentaries. Throughout, commentators, both white and Black, furnish a broad range of perspectives that require us to think deeply about American racial violence and our moral and emotional reactions to it.Bertram Wyatt-Brown, University of Florida

Brilliant work. The myth and reality of this slave rebel are both explored in an unblinking and historically informed way. The Confessions are portrayed for what they are - a fascinating and mysterious co-creation by Thomas R. Gray, Jr. and Turner. And most tellingly, this film unravels the controversy over William Styron's novel, the responses to it, and the enduring dilemma of knowing and representing this most vexing aspect of American history - revolutionary violence by slaves seeking their own freedom. Finally, the illusive Nat Turner story, and the multiple ways of representing it, has been captured in this stunning and original film.
David W. Blight, Yale University

This film about the historic figure Nat Turner is magnificent. It is required viewing by all who are deeply concerned about the nature of race relations in America.
Cornell West, Princeton University

Funding provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities

Distributor Contact: California Newsreel/Resolution, Inc /

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Kenneth S. Greenberg -- co-writer and co-producer of  the film Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, directed by Charles Burnett -- is Professor and Chair of the History Department at Suffolk University. His books include Masters and Statesmen: The Political Culture of American Slavery and Honor and Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing as a Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Humanitarianism, Death, Slave Rebellions, the Proslavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting and Gambling in the Old South; and he is the editor of The Confessions of Nat Turner and Related Documents.

Born in Mississippi in 1944,Charles Burnett grew up in Watts. He studied at UCLA's graduate film department in the late '60s and early '70s alongside fellow African-American movie innovators Larry Clark, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, and Billy Woodberry. 

After serving as the cinematographer on 1976's Bush Mama, Burnett made his feature debut in 1977 with the acclaimed Killer of Sheep (87 minutes), in which he was writer, director, cinematographer. Tough poorly distributed, the picture never gained the widespread notice. 

Killer of Sheep in 1981  won honors at the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as what later evolved into the Sundance Film Festival, and picked up top prize at the Sundance Fest in 1981. This film is considered a "national treasure" by its inclusion in the Library of Congress' Historic Film Registry. 

In 1988, Burnett received the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship grant and began work on the film that has become known as his masterpiece, To Sleep With Anger (1990;102 minutes), which again he both wrote and directed. David Anson of Newsweek described  Burnett's film in these terms: "At first we seem to be in an acutely observed middle-class soap opera, witnessing the generational disputes between the family patriarch (Paul Butler) and his wife (Mary Alice), and their two married sons (Richard Brooks and Carl Lumbly).... Enter Harry (Danny Glover), a smiling charmer from the old days in the Deep South.... Is Harry in fact an evil spirit, setting a curse upon the house?... Glover, in what may be the best role of his film career, makes him an unforgettable trickster, both frightening and a little pathetic...a catalyst to explore the conflicting systems of belief--Christian, magical, materialistic--that collide with wonderfully resonant incongruity throughout the movie." 

Other works in his filmography include Finding Buck Henry (2000), Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women (1999), The Annihilation of Fish (1999), Selma Lord Selma (1999), Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Wedding (1998), Nightjohn (1996), Young at Hearts (1995),The Glass Shield (1994), The Guests of the Hotel Astoria (1989), Bless Their Little Hearts (1984) My Brother's Wedding (1983).

Some have described Burnett's as being in the tradition of social realism. Dennis Leroy Moore described  Burnett's films as "blistering art and representative of what American neo-realism in film is like."

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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 21 April 2012



Home   Nathaniel Turner Page  Christian Martyrdom in Southampton Lynching Index 

Related files: Troublesome Property Reviews  Nat Turner in History's Multiple Mirrors  The Trouble With Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property  History and Memory Table    Rebellion in History and Memory