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.
"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." - Cornel West, Princeton University "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. And most tellingly, this film unravels the enduring dilemma of knowing and representing this most vexing aspect of American history - revolutionary violence by slaves seeking their own freedom. Finally, the elusive Nat Turner story, and the multiple ways of representing it, has been captured in this stunning and original film." - David W. Blight, Yale University "Both public and academic library collections, alike, will be enhanced by this film, which is highly recommended." - Educational Media Reviews Online
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