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 The film like most white media purports to be objective

 but in reality upholds an underlying premise of white supremacy.



The Trouble With Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property


By Junious Ricardo Stanton


Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory


When film producer/writer Frank Christopher and co-producer/writer/historian Kenneth S. Greenberg set out to create a film about Nat Turner they took on a truly Herculean challenge. The two white producers enlisted Charles Burnett an African-American to direct the film. This collaboration possibly is the film's undoing. This is not to say Burnett is not a skilled director. The trouble with Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property is it lacks a definite point of view or vision.

The film exhibits the ambiguity Nat Turner holds within the AmeriKKKan culture and psyche. He is demonized and vilified by whites who defend this nation's legacy of slavery and no matter how "liberal" or "objective" the white historians and scholars in the film profess to be, they are in effect rationalizing or trivializing the institution of slavery. For Africans in AmeriKKKa, Nat Turner represents an admirable figure, a man who refusing to be dehumanized by an untenable situation challenged the violence and degradation he experienced daily using a spiritual calling and the weapons of his oppressors against them, quite effectively.

The problem with this film is it depicts Turner through both white and black eyes which is troublesome enough; but it also interprets him through the eyes of the few people, black or white, who wrote about him. The film makers used material from Thomas R Gray the white (there were no black lawyers in 1831) Southampton County lawyer who visited Turner in the Jerusalem jailhouse following his capture who allegedly chronicled what Turner told him about the rebellion: abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, black essayist William Wells Brown, black playwright Randolph Edmunds and novelist William Styron whose book The Confessions of Nat Turner created a major controversy in the late 1960's.

In each vignette director Charles Burnett attempts to remain faithful to each writer's vision of Turner. Sadly at the conclusion of the film we still don't have a clear picture of who Nat Turner was, what motivated him to organize and lead a small band of avengers in Southampton County to lash out against all the white slave owning families they encountered as they traveled from farm to farm on August 21, 1831. To white folks Turner is a madman, a fanatic at best, and. at worst, an aberration, a man whose actions sent shock waves of fear and dread throughout the United States of AmeriKKKa long after he was captured and hanged in November of 1831.

To black people, conscious black men especially, Nat Turner is the quintessential hero, a man of uncompromising conviction who took bold action in an attempt to secure his freedom. Alas, what we get after watching this film is a picture of Nat Turner based on the race of the writers and producer is an attempt by the black director to be inclusive of limited material written about Turner. To me the film embodies more of the white view of Turner, the irrational fanatic, who based upon obscure visions and apocalyptic signs went on a murderous rampage in Southampton County. That's how whites see him.

Except for one or two brief sound bytes by black historians and writers, nowhere in the film does the viewer actually see or hear how egregiously dehumanizing the institution of slavery actually was. The film reinforces white supremacy, somehow those sixty or so whites killed by Turner and his men were more valuable than the millions of blacks who were brutalized, degraded and worked to death by the system upon which AmeriKKKa was built. While the filmmakers intentions may have been honorable, the result is a fiasco.

Little is known about Nat Turner's background. The film does not endeavor to shed any light on him as a person caught in the mire of a debasing and degrading social system. To do so would have given the film a definitive point of view, shown Turner's world through his eyes and engendered sympathy for his plight, if not his actions. Christopher and Greenberg were not about to do anything like that. To do so would have been a revolutionary act on their part and they never would have gotten funding to make the film in the first place! Even if per chance they somehow secured funding based on a rational vision of Nat Turner, they would have been ostracized from the white filmmaking and historiography communities.

So what we have is a film that fails to educate us about Nat Turner the man, his times or the psycho-social and political forces swirling around and shaping him. It is a film, except for a few superficial details about people who wrote about Turner, that only succeeds in reinforcing the contradictory views and notions of Nat Turner held by whites and blacks. At no time in the film does it occur to the white commentators Nat Turner did what any man languishing in a violent and insane environment would have done. To take this point of view would force them to see themselves, AmeriKKKan history, and black people in a different light. The chasm between the black interpreters of Nat Turner and their white counterparts due to our hostile power relationships, experiences, and history in this country appear irreconcilable.

The last portion of the hour long film is given over to novelist William Styron's explanation (rationalization?) why he depicted Turner the way he did, why he introduced the element of unrequited lust for a white teenager, Margaret Whitehead, as the reason Turner killed her, the only person Turner is credited with slaying during the rebellion. Again, responses to Styron's literary license were strictly along racial lines he was defended by whites and denounced by blacks. The film like most white media purports to be objective but in reality upholds an underlying premise of white supremacy. They try to balance the various depictions of Turner juxtaposing the differing racial sentiments about the man. However, the depictions are not equal, the white views predominate which for me is the film's most troubling aspect.

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Books on Nathaniel Turner  (1800-1831)


     The Manichean Leitmotif by Arthur Graham / Nat Turner A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory by Kenneth Greenberg


     Nat Turner Before the Bar of Judgment by Mary Kemp Davis / Nat Turner's Tragic Search  by Catherine Hermary-Vielle


     The Rebellious Slave Nat Turner in American Memory by Scot French

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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update 17 February 2012




Home   Nathaniel Turner Page  Christian Martyrdom in Southampton Lynching Index   JR StantonTable

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 

Nat Turner Troublesome Property2