NAT TURNER: A Troublesome Property

Slave Rebellions

The Film

Actor playing Nat Turner in his jail cella close-up of the

handwritten The Confessions of Nat TurnerActor playing Thomas Gray, the white lawyer and author of The Confessions

“Required viewing by all who are deeply concerned about the nature of race relations in America.”

 —Cornel West

In 1831, Nat Turner led a slave rebellion in Virginia that resulted in the murder of local slave owners and their families—as well Turner’s execution. At once an ambivalent cultural hero, a revolutionary figure and a subject of countless literary works, Turner has remained a "troublesome property" for those who have struggled to understand him and the meaning of his revolt, often resulting in controversy. As literary critic Henry Louis Gates explains: "There is no Nat Turner to recover… you have to create the man and his voice."

The earliest source of information about Turner, The Confessions of Nat Turner, was not written by him at all, assembled instead 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 "confession" raised the question of whether Turner was an inspired and brilliant religious leader in search of freedom for his people or a deluded lunatic leading slaves to their doom.


NAT TURNER: A Troublesome Property examines how the story of Turner and his revolt have been continuously re-told since 1831. Historians Eugene Genovese and Herbert Aptheker discuss how the figure of Turner became a metaphor for racial tension. Religious scholar Vincent Harding and legal scholar Martha Minow reflect on America's attitudes towards violence. Professor of psychiatry and race relations expert Dr. Alvin Poussaint and actor Ossie Davis recall how Nat Turner became a hero in the black community. And when William Styron published his 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner—inventing a sexually charged relationship between Turner and a white teenaged girl he later killed—it unleashed one of the most bitter intellectual battles of the 1960s. Turner's rebellion continues to raise new questions about the nature of terrorism and other forms of violent resistance to oppression.

A unique collaboration between MacArthur Genius Award feature director Charles Burnett, acclaimed historian of slavery Kenneth S. Greenberg and Academy Award-nominated documentary producer Frank Christopher, NAT TURNER adopts an innovative structure by interspersing documentary footage and interviews with dramatizations of different versions of the story, using a new actor to represent Turner in each. The filmmakers have interviewed a broad range of contemporary African American and white descendants of those involved in the revolt, historians, writers and artists, and weave these interviews with dramatic recreations based on folklore, novels and plays—reflecting the multifaceted legacy of Nat Turner in America today.

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