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Kenneth Greenberg - A Troublesome Property

     I tuned into Kenneth Greenberg's approach to American history when, a decade ago, we co-taught a course at Suffolk University, Boston, on Film Images of the Vietnam War. Greenberg lectured that the War was up for grabs among competing interpretations, both on screen (Coming Home on the left, The Green Berets on the right) and in life. There were as many Vietnam Wars as people who remembered it. For instance, I saw the War from the vantage of a protestor who decried its immorality. Our blue-collar students, whose fathers and uncles had fought over there, thought of American involvement as a courageous cause.

     The past as shifting, subjective, contextual: that's Greenberg's position. As Chair of the History Department at Suffolk, he's a sound academic. But outside the ivory tower? Well, what to my surprise when Greenberg, also a historian of the 19th Century South, informed me two years ago that he was deep in scriptwriting with the great African-American filmmaker, Charles Burnett (To Sleep With Anger). With producer Frank Christopher as the third party, he was developing a screenplay stemming from one of his abiding obsessions: reconstructing the life of Nat Turner, who had led a notorious 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton, Virginia.

     The saga of Turner's bloody revolt (60 whites died, and 60 to 80 slaves) has been oft-told, most famously in William Styron's 1967 novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner. Greenberg has weighed in too, with the definitive edition of Turner's testimony prior to hanging, The Confessions of Nat Turner and Related Documents (St. Martin's Press, 1996).

     Another surprise, last summer: thanks to an $800,000 NEH grant, the Nat Turner film, called A Troublesome Property, was actually in production. Greenberg called me, excitedly, from the rural Virginia set. Could I come down and do a story? Sure! I was immensely curious to see how my professor friend managed on an actual movie shoot, far from chalkboards and faculty meetings.

     He did famously! And what vigor! Absent-minded about the 100-degree midday heat on the Virginia plantation, he was psyched bustling about alongside Burnett, the actors, the crew, dramatizing the Nat Turner story.

     Burnett, a modest man, believes in collaboration: there was Greenberg by the camera whispering into the director's ear what might go on in the next shot! Greenberg: "I try to talk to Charles, and Charles talks to the actors." So far from Suffolk University!

     Between set-ups, Greenberg deftly fielded questions from a Virginia PBS crew about the real Nat Turner. He was joined by William Styron himself, down from Connecticut to witness the filming; and he and Greenberg swapped supplying answers to the TV camera. Greenberg said respectful things about Styron's Turner research, and Styron returned the praise: "Ken Greenberg is a good example of the soldiers in the field. He and his colleagues have done an amazing job."

     It was producer Christopher who has read Greenberg's little book on Turner in 1996, and contacted Burnett at the same moment about doing a Turner movie. "We had zero money," said Greenberg," and we came from very different backgrounds. But we were committed to teaching each other. We argued, but we all were eminently reasonable people. Our conversation over and over again: did we want to construct one consistent version of Nat from all the versions? I found that idea personally painful: one story taking away all the complications.

     "There's a kind of dishonesty in the usual historic films, in which the filmmakers present a single understanding of the events they are describing, with the narrator as an authoritative voice. It's overwhelming for the viewer. Ken Burns, for instance, tells a simple story with old photographs, trying to maintain a theme that people can hold on to. Our basic style is to show things on the screen and then have the narration undercut what's there, complicating things, sitting on a border of fiction and history.

     "Ours is a film about history and memory in relation to Nat. It's an attempt to see Nat Turner both in the historical moment of the rebellion of 1831, and how culture has remembered him since then-in plays, novels, scholarship, folk tradition, poetry."

     For this probably-for-PBS project, Greenberg seems to have persuaded the others to adapt his approach to history: Troublesome Property offers the Nat Turner story sliced six disparate ways, with different actors playing Nat in each telling. In some versions, Nat is an African-American hero, in others he's ruthless murderer of whites.

     Competing Vietnams. Competing Nat Turners!

(October, 2001)


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