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Nat Turner, A Troublesome Property

     "I was the great grandson of a slave owner and he was the great grandson of slaves,'' Sophie's Choice novelist William Styron, 76, recalls of his friendship with the late James Baldwin. "Jimmy dared write from a white point of view, and I thought that was admirable. It was at his prodding that I decided to jump into the soul of a black man. I never regretted it, though Jimmy predicted I would catch it, and I did.''

     The fiction that Baldwin inspired was The Confessions of Nat Turner, which reconstructs the still-controversial 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton, Virgina, by imagining the thoughts of its planner and leader. The 1967 Pulitzer Prize winner (Baldwin adored it) is now among the narratives being utilized for an omnibus movie-in-the-making: Nat Turner, A Troublesome Property, a probably-for-PBS production. Directed and co-written by Charles Burnett, this part documentary, part fiction focuses on the insurrection that led to the violent deaths of perhaps 60 whites from slave-owner families and of most of the 60 to 80 slaves who dared participate. The slaves not killed immediately were put on trial (before all-Caucasian, all-male juries), and most were hanged, Turner among them.

     A 1968 Hollywood adaptation of Confessions to star James Earl Jones was halted at the urging of African-American protestors, who felt that a white author had stolen their hero and distorted his character. In the fiery 1968 anthology William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (edited by John Henrik Clarke) the essayists accused Styron of constructing a miscegenetic fantasy - one which insinuated that Turner's slave revolt was prompted by his raging desires for a caucasian girl. Charles V. Hamilton wrote, "We will not... leave unchallenged an image of Nat Turner... who dreams of going to bed with white women, who holds nothing but contempt for his fellow blacks.''

     Styron admits he has felt the sting of his critics, but remains unrepentant. "I find almost all the complaints invalid, irrational, and hysterical, based on bigotry and prejudice,'' he says today. "I don't want to seem self-assured, but I wouldn't change much.''

     On the occasion in late June when we speak, on an outdoor movie set at a working plantation in Louisiana County, Virginia, the Connecticut-based writer feels especially vindicated. He's been invited here as a guest to observe the shooting of key dramatic scenes from his novel, more than three decades after the studio filming was stopped dead. "It's high time, after 33 years,'' he says.

     The trio of collaborators – director Burnett, producer Frank Christopher, and co-screenwriter Kenneth S. Greenberg – debated for several years how to frame their dramatized collective history. Finally they rejected a Ken Burns-style omniscient voice-over for a postmodern approach. Their movie would not present a definitive "Nat Turner'' but shifting, contradictory ones – recreating episodes from Turner's life from six chosen texts, in which six different actors would interpret him. One features a sub-literate, primitive Nat, the way he's portrayed in Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist novel, Dred (1856); in another, he's the eloquent,articulate Negro leader put forth in Randolph Edmonds' 1935 agitprop play Nat Turner.

     "We take the stories we're given as almost etched in stone,'' Burnett explains on the set. "Stowe's Nat is a simple, angelic innocent, so we show him with a skunk and a mountain lion. In another story, there's the murderous Nat, so this violent person emerges with a sword.''

     Styron's Freudian creation is one of the competing Nats. "Nat Turner has conformed to all those who consider him, and been rewritten in the image of people writing about him,'' says Styron, who approves of the film's Rashomon aesthetic.

     "Even his actual confession is suspect, taken down when he was imprisoned by a lawyer, Thomas R. Gray, who had every reason to twist the words.''

     Courtly and approachable, Styron plants himself in a director's chair, trying to get by in the 97-degree Virginia heat. He will watch shooting of the horrific scene that climaxes his novel - the only occasion that Nat Turner murdered someone. Turner (today, Virginia stage actor James Opher) chases, stabs, and bludgeons to death Margaret Whitehead (high schooler Megan Gallagher), the daughter of a slave-owner.

     This is the area where the novelist got into the deepest trouble, according to detractors: for fabricating the steamy encounters pairing Margaret and Nat. "In the novel, she teases him mercilessly, practically does a striptease in front of him,'' Styron says. "That's the way slaves were viewed, as dogs who couldn't be turned on."

     "In his actual confession, Nat admitted this one murder, so it had to be incredibly significant that he chose this particular person. Novelistically, it was important that there was a connection with the girl. I'm convinced that there was a connection. And if justification is needed, the relation of Nat Turner and Margaret is just a carbon copy of Bigger Thomas murdering that white woman in Native Son... (by) … Richard Wright, the most illustrious black writer."

     Burnett, directing, is perhaps the quietest person on the set, and the most peculiarly dressed in the Virginia sun. To guard against virulent mosquitoes, he keeps his blue-jean jacket buttoned to his neck. He has been explaining softly to his Mary Pickford-curled Margaret (Megan Gallagher) how to act when Nat swipes her with the sword: "When he sticks you, scream out. Then scream again, and stumble back a bit.''

     Styron looks on as the camera rolls: poor Margaret flees down a country path and trips at a log fence. Coming up behind her, Nat draws his weapon, and stabs.

     "Very good! Very powerful!'' Burnett announces after three quite chilling takes.

     "I never thought I'd see this scene I dreamed up,'' Styron says, stirred. He expresses his approval of the casting choices for his leads of Opher, a Virginia-based stage actor, and Gallagher, a petite high school girl from Virginia Beach. He signs a paperback of his novel offered him by the young actress: "To Megan, Best Wishes for the new Margaret Whitehead.''

     "I studied Nat Turner in my history class,'' she tells him. "When you read about slavery in a textbook, you kind of feel unaffected. Your book personalized it, so you felt the moral injustice.''

     "I'm glad it came home to you in that way,'' Styron says, shaking her hand.

     It was producer David Wolper who bought Hollywood rights to The Confessions for the then-astounding price of $600,000.

     "They gave me a lot of money. Fox went bankrupt, I kept the money," Styron says. "They were going to change the story, which bothered me a great deal. They wanted to give Nat a wife and turn it into a bourgeois family. Norman Jewison was going to direct, then Sidney Lumet. I myself got a black screenwriter, Louis Peterson, who'd done a respectable play called Take a Giant Step. But it didn't help that it was always a white director.

     "Later, Spike Lee was thinking of doing it and took an option, but his company decided not to. There had been disasters like Beloved and Amistad which seemed to indicate that historic movies about blacks are poison at the box office. I didn't see either but heard they were Worthy with capital letters and rather empty. Spielberg I find an atrocious sentimentalist,vastly overrated.

     "sThis time for Nat Turner there's a black director who is also respected as a filmmaker. It makes a lot of difference. It stamps the project with authenticity.''

     A UCLA film school graduate and probably the most revered African-American cineaste among critics and scholars, Burnett is best known for the Danny Glover-starring To Sleep With Anger (1990), a subtle, complex tale set in a contemporary middle-class black family, and the TV movie Nightjohn (1996), about the private lives of slaves on a harsh Southern plantation. His precocious first feature, Killer of Sheep (1977), was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

     It's after 10 p.m. and 13 hours of shooting when Burnett finally sits down for a formal interview. He's weary, he hasn't eaten dinner, and he loathes doing publicity. He's also doubtful about the prospect of theatrical distribution for A Troublesome Property. "It's a small film, and it's a major proposition, a theatrical release. My films are not just for entertainment's sake."

     Might he go where his new movie refuses to venture: who is Charles Burnett's "real" Nat Turner? "When I visited Southampton County,'' he replies in a roundabout way, "I met white people still fighting the Civil War, who say of Nat, 'He's a murderer!' They can't reconcile that his men killed woman and children who were sleeping. They identify with the dead whites but not with the rest of humanity.

     "They don't think about this institution of slavery that didn't care about human life.''

     What is the filmmaker's view?

     Burnett, a famously gentle man, offers an unequivocal endorsement of Turner and his bloody insurrection. "He's every man who'd fight for the liberation of others, who realized the evils of slavery and wanted his people to live in a normal way. Everyone has inalienable rights, and he, in a sense, was interpreting the Constitution. Nat Turner was more American than those whites who denied him.''

(The Village Voice - September 4, 2001)


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