'Birth of a Nation': Who Was the Real Nat Turner? (Guest Column)

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

A historian of slavery explains the historical figure behind the slave revolt movie and how black protests doomed an earlier movie about his life.

Nate Parker’s film The Birth of a Nation, which recently received a rapturous reception, a record distribution deal and the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, tells the story of Nat Turner and the Southampton Rebellion of 1831. To professional scholars, the events at the heart of the film are familiar ones. Indeed, they are standard components of any introductory-level college course in the history of the United States, as the rebellion was easily the most famous and important slave revolt in American history. But it remains unknown to most white Americans, and even to some black Americans. Parker himself has said he had never heard of Nat Turner until he got to college, although he attended high school in the 1990s roughly fifty miles from where Turner lived and died.

Equally remarkable is that the revolt has never before been the subject of a feature film, as its high drama would seem to make it a natural subject for Hollywood. But Nat Turner has always been a wildly controversial figure, celebrated by some as a heroic freedom fighter and condemned by others as a deranged murderer. Indeed, controversy over how to understand Turner doomed a previous attempt at filming the story in the late 1960s that would have given us James Earl Jones in the protagonist’s role.

The true story of Nat Turner and the rebellion he led is a compelling one. Turner grew up enslaved in southeastern Virginia’s Southampton County and he was deeply convicted in his Christian faith. In his twenties he began to experience visions and revelations that he was certain could only have come from God, and by 1831 he believed he had received divine ordination to rise up against slavery, vanquish white slaveholders, and usher his fellow bondspersons to freedom. Late in August of that year, Turner and a small number of recruits began moving from house to house, killing nearly every white person they could find and being joined by several dozen additional enslaved and free black rebels. As the numbers grew and word began to spread about what was going on, white Virginians sent a militia unit to confront Turner and his small army, and it proceeded to scatter, kill or capture nearly all of Turner’s men. In the end, the rebellion lasted less than forty-eight hours. The rebels killed roughly sixty white people, while the militia and white mobs killed around 200 black people, some of whom were beheaded and mutilated and many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion in the first place. The state of Virginia tried fifty black people in Southampton County for insurrection over the next several months, convicting thirty and executing eighteen. Nat Turner himself managed to elude capture for more than two months before he was taken into custody, tried and hanged on November 11, 1831.

Though ultimately unsuccessful in its goal of overturning slavery, the Southampton Rebellion was a crucial turning point for the institution and for the political history of the United States. White southern fears of slave rebellion, which were already a powerful force in the white southern imagination, became amplified significantly, and not merely in Virginia. Throughout large portions of the South, extralegal white violence against enslaved people noticeably increased in the immediate wake of the rebellion. In state after state, legislators passed laws designed to keep black people from learning to read and write, gathering in any kind of crowd without a white presence or worshipping without a white minister. And nearly everywhere in the South, even the hint of antislavery sentiment soon became verboten lest it inspire another Nat Turner. Arguably, the siege mentality that would lead white southerners to the Civil War began in Southampton County, Virginia, in the summer of 1831.

Turner remained a deeply divisive figure long after the Civil War ended. Well into the twentieth century, most white historians described slavery as a benign institution against which violent rebellions like Turner’s could only be understood as deluded acts of lunacy. The broader white populace, meanwhile, was generally uninterested in black equality and believed the Civil War to have been a tragic fraternal squabble rather than a moral and political conflict over slavery, and thus thought relatively little about black history at all. By and large, only African Americans and a small number of white radicals held an alternative view of Turner as a valiant warrior committed to the liberty of himself and his people by any means and at any cost.

Still, one would imagine that a story so important and so dramatic — filled with conflict and violence and desires for freedom so powerful that they were worth killing and dying for — would not only be more well-known, but would have been made into a feature film long ago. And it nearly was. In the late 1960s, Twentieth Century Fox optioned novelist William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, which had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1967. The studio brought in Norman Jewison to direct with James Earl Jones attached as Turner.

But the film was embroiled in controversy from the very beginning. Styron’s work, though not unsympathetic toward Turner, depicted Turner as an uncertain and sometimes fearful leader, his followers as alternately gullible fools and psychotic monsters, and both Turner and one of his fellow rebels as lusting after or desiring to rape white women. These sorts of inventions were liable to provoke controversy no matter who conceived them or when, but a white author presenting a black revolutionary so problematically during the civil rights movement became untenable for the studio. Criticism of the novel by leading black intellectuals could not stop its publication or prevent its being awarded literary prizes. But when an organization known as the Black Anti-Defamation Association took its concerns about a film version of Styron’s work to Fox and threatened a boycott, the studio promised to expand its source material for a Turner film well beyond Styron’s book and not to use The Confessions of Nat Turner as the film’s title. In 1970, Fox decided to shelve the production altogether.

Neither the timing nor the material was right for a feature film to be made from The Confessions of Nat Turner, but today may be different. The success of films such as Twelve Years a Slave demonstrates that increasing numbers of Americans are willing to grapple with some of the bottomless horrors of slavery. Perhaps the growing force of contemporary movements against racial and economic injustice also points toward an audience that wants to see stories of those men and women who confronted slavery and its perpetrators head-on and who gave their lives in pursuit of righteousness and freedom. Whether or not Americans are "ready" for such stories, they are long overdue.

Joshua Rothman is Professor of History and Director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama. He is the author of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson and tweets @rothmanistan.

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