Co-authored by Joshua D. Smith
Despite setting a record for the highest price paid for a film at Sundance ($17.5 million), Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016) flopped under a firestorm of controversy. Not only did critics question the moral integrity of Parker and his co-writer, Jean McGianni Celestin (both stood trial for raping a young woman in 1999), they also decried the film’s historical inaccuracies and cinematic failures. Yet, enough critics liked the film to give it an overall 74 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The story of Nat Turner was born in controversy. Nat Turner’s life as a slave, preacher, and prophet who led a violent slave rebellion was provocative then and now. Yet, the seminal document on Turner’s life—The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831)—was not written by Turner but by Thomas Ruffin Gray, a 31-year old white attorney. The Confessions is purportedly a transcription of Gray’s interview with Nat Turner three days before his execution.
As a cultural gatekeeper of his local community, Thomas Gray had few compelling reasons to represent Turner faithfully. Some believe the book was “written mostly to calm white fears that a greater insurrection might be at hand.” Furthermore, Gray was set to profit from the sale of the interview transcription. Looking to capitalize on Turner’s story, Gray was likely more interested in marketability than veracity. It is estimated that Gray sold over 50,000 copies in just a few months.
However, the controversy does not diminish the significance of Gray’s The Confessions of Nat Turner as a historical document. Even if Gray was not completely transparent, aspects of the interview may be true. For example, Turner’s reference to signs in the heavens, blood droplets on corn stalks and messages from the Holy Spirit seem too peculiar for Gray to invent. Even Turner’s voice, “straightforward and calm, stoic and unrepentant,” is “too strange” to be entirely fabricated.
Representations of Nat Turner
There are countless versions of Nat Turner’s story, most of which began immediately after his revolt. The early reasons offered for Turner’s motivations were documented in newspapers and changed weekly. Some reports blamed the revolt on abolitionist melding. Other reports challenged Turner’s sanity. Still others blamed the influence of Christianity.
There were also versions of the revolt documented in the Black community—much of it through the oral tradition—but some of it was in print. The most notable examples were in the slave narratives of Fredrick Douglass (My Bondage and My Freedom, 1855) and Harriet Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861), and in the fiction of William Wells Brown (Clotel, 1853). These representations maintained Nat Turner’s reputation as a mythic prophet-hero in the Black community.
Before Nate Parker’s film, there was a potential film adaptation of William Styron’s novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). White producer David Wolper (who would co-produce the mini-series Roots 10 years later) purchased the film rights to the novel for a record $600,000. Twentieth Century Fox had plans to make the film starring James Earl Jones as Nat Turner.
While receiving some early praise (like the Pulitzer Prize in 1968), The Confessions of Nat Turner was critiqued by a number of Black writers who accused Styron, a white southern author, of historical inaccuracies and racist characterizations of Turner. The potential film adaptation sparked even more controversy. Prominent Black actors challenged the film and it was never produced.
In 1968, writer James Baldwin moderated a debate between novelist William Styron and actor Ossie Davis, who led the protest against the film adaptation. Baldwin concluded that both Styron and Davis were right: Styron, “because no one can tell a writer what he can write,” and Davis, because “Bill’s novel is a private act, but what happens when it’s onscreen and disseminated at this time in our history? There’s a possibility that thousands of Black people will die.” The volatility of the times made the dangers of a film on Nat Turner a real possibility. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in the month prior to this debate and a week after the debate, civil-rights champion Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles.
Here is a rare audio recording of the debate.
There are striking similarities between the controversies surrounding Styron’s 1967 novel (that never made it to film) and Parker’s 2016 film. Both adaptations of Turner’s story received criticism from the Black intellectual community regarding historical accuracies and stereotypes. Black intellectuals denounced Styron for “attributing Nat’s revolt to Nat’s fictional lust for a white woman rather than to his hatred for oppression and love of freedom.” Similarly, Nate Parker was critiqued for reducing Turner’s rebellion to a fictionalized need to avenge his wife’s rape rather than his documented moral belief that slavery violated God’s law. Both versions took creative liberties that Black intellectuals found offensive and even dangerous.
Controversy seems to follow Nat Turner’s story. Yet, sentiments can shift over time. After several decades, William Styron’s version of Turner’s story obtained a modest redemption. Before Styron died in 2006, his work received praise from two prominent Black scholars—Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West. Gates even tried to bring filmmaker Spike Lee and William Styron together for a renewed attempt to adapt his novel into a film. Lee eventually abandoned the idea for financial reasons.
As with Styron’s novel, opinions of Nate Parker’s film may evolve over time or at least become more nuanced. Someday, critics may revisit The Birth of a Nation as the first cinematic version of Nat Turner’s legacy. Historians may recognize the film as a cultural marker in a historical period of heightened Black political activity and shifting public opinion on sexual assault and consent. Perhaps Nat Turner’s legacy is to court controversy and, in so doing, expose the wounds of racism and sexism in U.S. society.
Joshua D. Smith is an Assistant Professor at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University and an expert in American literature, popular culture, media and race. Dr. Smith has written extensively on Nat Turner and is an ordained minister.
Nancy Wang Yuen is the author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism (forthcoming December, 2016).