Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion Happened Today - Past and Upcoming Films on the Historical Event
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Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion Happened Today - Past and Upcoming Films on the Historical Event

nullToday in history… August 21st, 1831, in Virginia, Nat Turner led a slave rebellion, hoping to inspire a slave uprising in the south. Several dozen whites were killed before the revolt was defeated. Turner was later capture, tried and hanged. 

Soon after Turner’s execution, a local lawyer, Thomas Ruffin Gray, took it upon himself to publish "The Confessions of Nat Turner," derived partly from research done while Turner was in hiding and partly from prison conversations with Turner before trial.

182 years later, many of us are still waiting for a definitive film based on Nat Turner’s historic revolt (and not necessarily a Nat Turner biopic) to be produced.

Maybe the most notable that currently exists is the hour-long documentary, "Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property," directed by Charles Burnett, and released in 2003, which played the festival circuit, and eventually aired on PBS about a year later. Howeverm it’s not the full-length, scripted, big screen project that many have been hoping for.

You will also recall William Styron’s 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning, though deeply problematic novel, "The Confessions of Nat Turner," which Norman Jewison almost directed an adaptation of, in the late 1960’s, starring James Earl Jones as Nat Turner. Styron, to put it simply, imagined Turner as a fictional character, and as you’d expect, the project was met with what Jewison called an "incredibly angry exchange of ideas" with black revolutionaries at the time, who objected to the idea of a white director directing the film, as well as distortions of historical facts in Styron’s book.

Needless to say, the film never happened, and thank goodness for that!

Maybe the most promising project that we know is definitely currently in development is the one Nate Parker is working on. 

As he told us in an interview while plugging his last film, "Non-Stop" (the Liam Neeson airplane actioner) earlier this year:

One of my biggest passions is to play Nat Turner. That’s a project that we’re working to get done. A lot of people thought he was a bad guy, but it’s perspective. I don’t think he was a bad guy at all, but we all have our ideas of what we want and why we want it, and what we’ll do to achieve those things.

That was in February. 

Parker emphasized his desire to see the project realized in a New York Times interview published in April, in which he revealed a little more useful info:

I’m directing a film in the fall, a biopic on Nat Turner, who led the most successful slave revolt in American history. I call it the black “Braveheart.” I wrote the script, I’m starring. That’s where I want to go. The goal for me is to push the envelope always.

So we can add that he has written the script, and he not only plans to star in the film, he will also direct it, with a fall start date eyed.

We later learned that the film will be called "The Birth of a Nation" (I can only guess as a reaction/response to D.W. Griffith’s incendiary 1915 film of the same title). And what makes the project’s completion even more likely is that it was the recipient of a fellowship with the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program this year. 

Also worth noting, a Norfolk, Virginia native, Parker grew up less than 30 miles from the site of Turner’s unprecedented slave rebellion.

Of course, when it comes to movie-making, nothing is ever entirely certain. Matters of financing are, more often than not, a hurdle that many never get over. And I suspect it’s even more of a challenge when the project centers on a slave rebellion, led by black people hoping to inspire further insurrection, in which several dozen whites were killed before the revolt was defeated. When was the last time a movie with that as a premise (or something like it) was greenlit, whether by a Hollywood studio, or financed independently? There’s probably only 1 filmmaker who can get a project like that in production today, and he’s not black (what he gave us was the divisive "Django Unchained") – another one of those hurdles filmmakers of African descent continue to face today. 

All that to say, not to discourage Nate Parker at all (absolutely not!). Of course I’m assuming he doesn’t already have full financing in place, and a distributor ready. After all, with a fall shoot date in his sights, as he told the New York Times earlier this year, he may very well be on his way, which would be great!

While we wait, underneath, if you’ve never seen it, watch Charles Burnett’s documentary "Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property," in full.

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