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"Nat Turner has conformed to all those who consider him, and been

 rewritten in the image of people writing about him," says Styron




Photo Exhibit from Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property

Photographer: Eric Dahan

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Nat Turner’s Second Coming: 

Set This House on Fire

Essay Excerpts by Gerald Peary

(Village Voice 29 August 2001—4 September 2001)


Nat Turner, A Troublesome Property. Directed and co-written by Charles Burnett . . . focuses on the insurrection that led to the violent deaths of perhaps 60 whites from slave-owner families and of most of the 60 to 80 slaves who participated.

The slaves not killed immediately were put on trial (before all-Caucasian juries), and most were hanged, Turner among them.

The trio of collaborators on A Troublesome Property—director Burnett, producer Frank Christopher, and co-screenwriter Kenneth S. Greenberg—debated for several years how to frame their dramatized history. Finally they rejected a Ken Burns-style omniscient voice-over for a postmodern approach. 

Their movie would not present one definitive "Nat Turner" but shifting, contradictory ones—re-creating episodes from Turner's life from six chosen texts, in which six different actors would play him

 One features a sub-literate, primitive Nat, the way he's portrayed in Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist novel Dred (1856); in another, he's the eloquent, articulate leader put forth in Randolph Edmonds's 1935 agitprop play Nat Turner

"We take the stories we're given as almost etched in stone," Burnett explains on the set. "Stowe's Nat is a simple, angelic innocent, so we show him with a skunk and a mountain lion. In another story, there's the murderous Nat, so this violent person emerges with a sword." 

[William] Styron's Freudian creation is one of the competing Nats. "Nat Turner has conformed to all those who consider him, and been rewritten in the image of people writing about him," says Styron, who approves of the film's Rashomon aesthetic. "Even his actual confession is suspect, taken down when he was imprisoned by a lawyer, Thomas R. Gray, who had every reason to twist the words." 

Courtly and approachable, Styron plants himself in a director's chair, trying to get by in the 97-degree Virginia heat. Today he will watch the shooting of the horrific scene that climaxes his novel—the only occasion that Nat Turner murdered someone.

Turner (today, Virginia stage actor James Opher) chases, stabs, and bludgeons to death Margaret Whitehead (high schooler Megan Gallagher), the daughter of a slave owner.

The novelist got into the deepest trouble from his detractors in fabricating the steamy encounters pairing Margaret and Nat. 

"In the novel, she teases him mercilessly, practically does a striptease in front of him," Styron says. "In his confession, Nat admitted this murder, so it had to be incredibly significant that he chose this particular person." 

Styron looks on as the camera rolls: Poor Margaret flees down a country path and trips at a log fence. Coming up behind her, Nat draws his weapon, and stabs.

"Very good! Very powerful!" Burnett announces after three quite chilling takes.

"I never thought I'd see this scene I dreamed up," Styron says, stirred. 

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It's after 10 p.m. and 13 hours of shooting when Burnett finally sits down for a formal interview. He's weary, he hasn't eaten dinner, and he loathes doing publicity. He's also doubtful about the prospect of theatrical distribution for A Troublesome Property. "It's a small film, and it's a major proposition, a theatrical release. My films are not just for entertainment's sake."

Postmodernist relativism notwithstanding, who is Charles Burnett's Nat Turner? "When I visited Southampton County," he replies in a roundabout way, ." 

"I met white people still fighting the Civil War, who say of Nat, 'He's a murderer!' They can't reconcile that his men killed women and children who were sleeping. They identify with the dead whites but not with the rest of humanity. They don't think about this institution of slavery that didn't care about human life.

For his part, Burnett, a famously gentle man, offers an unequivocal endorsement of Turner. "He's every man who'd fight for the liberation of others, who realized the evils of slavery and wanted his people to live in a normal way. Everyone has inalienable rights, and he, in a sense, was interpreting the Constitution. Nat Turner was more American than those whites who denied him." 

Photographer: Eric Dahan / Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory

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Charles Burnett -- born in Mississippi in 1944-- 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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Nathaniel Turner TimeLine  / 1831 Confessions     /  Sonnets in Memory of Nathaniel Turner (Rudolph Lewis)

Nathaniel Turner: Christian Martyrdom in Southampton: A Theology of Black Liberation (Rudolph Lewis)

Nat Turner in History's Multiple Mirrors  (Felecia R. Lee, NYTimes)  /  Hatcher Plans to Exhibit Turner Skull


Insurrection Of The Blacks Niles’ Register  Sept. 3 1831  Sept. 10, 1831  Sept 17, 1831

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Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music

By Amiri Baraka

For almost half a century, Amiri Baraka has ranked among the most important commentators on African American music and culture. In this brilliant assemblage of his writings on music, the first such collection in nearly twenty years, Baraka blends autobiography, history, musical analysis, and political commentary to recall the sounds, people, times, and places he's encountered. As in his earlier classics, Blues People and Black Music, Baraka offers essays on the famous--Max Roach, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane--and on those whose names are known mainly by jazz aficionados--Alan Shorter, Jon Jang, and Malachi Thompson. Baraka's literary style, with its deep roots in poetry, makes palpable his love and respect for his jazz musician friends. His energy and enthusiasm show us again how much Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and the others he lovingly considers mattered. He brings home to us how music itself matters, and how musicians carry and extend that knowledge from generation to generation, providing us, their listeners, with a sense of meaning and belonging.

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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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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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

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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