Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property

Charles Burnett's documentary "Nat Turner: a Troublesome Property" is about as startling and excellent a documentary as I've seen recently.

It's about Nat Turner, a slave that rose up and, with fellow slaves, murdered his way across the nearby Virginian countryside (the documentary opens with a re-enactment of the first few killings--of Turner sneaking into a bedroom and hacking child, husband, and wife to death with an ax); it's about knowing so little of the actual historical figure, and, as a result of the wildly different interpretations people have had of his legend, across different ages--to Abolitionists he was a freedom fighter, to Pro-Slavery whites a terrifying bogeyman, to '60s civil rights protesters an early prototype of Malcolm X ("by any means necessary").

There's mention of Grey's "Confessions of Nat Turner," a (most historians suspect) highly fictionalized account of Turner's last words; there's mention of Harriet Beecher Stowe's bowdlerized version ("Dred!") and of William Styron's Pulitzer-Prize winning "Confessions of Nat Turner" (he took Grey's title) and the controversy this inspired, in that Styron interpolated a scene where Turner lusts after a white woman.

Burnett I think tries to be as fair as he can over the controversy--supporters and naysaysers are given equal time. You can't help but notice, though, that the black historians and writers largely express anger at a white man daring to show Nat Turner's lust for white flesh, while Styron's friends--who all happen to be white, the ones in this documentary, anyway--try to explain some larger perspective.

Burnett does his best to play fair, but what I think was needed was some black historian or writer who could look beyond the indignity and show why Styron was right (or wrong, if that's his conclusion) in including that scene. That Burnett couldn't produce this one voice is a telling lack on the part of Styron's critics. (con't)

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