' ' Cinema Romantico: Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property

Friday, July 03, 2020

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property

The most haunting image in Charles Burnett’s 2003 documentary “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property” is one that already existed – a wanted poster that appeared in the wake of Turner famously leading an 1831 slave insurrection in Virginia. There is no known image of the real Turner, so this is as close as we’re ever gonna get, and what we are left with isn’t all that much, hardly a face at all, just a crude impression of one beneath a black hat, putting a face to the idea of African-American slaves’ facelessness. As Burnett’s film points out, the white people slaughtered in Turner’s uprising were dutifully remembered by history, though the Black people slaughtered in retaliation were not, demonstrating which historical record was considered more valuable. And so even if Turner’s revolt was and remains well known, little is known of Turner himself, leaving historians, as one of them interviewed explains, to peel back the historical onion and find the real person. Burnett, however, is a filmmaker, not a historian, and so what he renders here is not a search for the truth but a demonstration of how the lack of truth has transformed Turner into an emblem. “A Troublesome Property”, then, brings that notion to life by casting multiple actors as Turner in various historical re-creations but purposely hiding his face when staging scenes culled from actual history; he is no one and everyone.

Most accounts of Turner drawn from his so-called Confessions, written by a lawyer named Thomas H. Gray who interviewed the insurrectionist in jail. “Over and over again,” Alfre Woodard tells us as narrator, “those who search for the meaning of Nat Turner begin their inquiry with a search for the meaning of the Confessions.” So “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Party” begins there too. As several historians tell us, these Confessions are no longer accepted as gospel, and in his recreation of them, Burnett first has Gray pause outside Turner’s jail cell, turn to the camera and speak directly to us, a stagy flourish suggesting it’s all for show. And as the subsequent scene between the two men plays out, Gray writing down what Turner is saying, Burnett cuts back and forth between historians, not debating the veracity of these, cough cough, confessions but, real, invented or in-between, their emergent meaning.

Nothing is settled. A descendant of a victim of the revolt suggests Turner would have been remembered in a fonder light had he refrained from killing women and children (would he have been remembered at all?) while a descendant of Turner himself notes that the only way to destroy an institution as evil as slavery was “to make the price so high that those who were practicing slavery would eventually sue for peace and say, ‘We cannot keep slavery because it will cost us too much.’” If one historian cites Turner’s equating himself with Christ being crucified as among the greatest moments in human history, the novelist William Styron implicitly states it’s difficult not to come away thinking Turner is a lunatic. Indeed, as the recreation of Gray’s interview ends, he turns again to the camera, deeming Turner a fanatic, as if putting his stamp on the predominant presentation of his ostensible subject passed down through generations.

That sort of folklore is glimpsed in a recreated interview from the New Deal Federal Writers Project, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives, where a former slave talks about having heard the stories of Turner from his elders. In the advance of the Civil War, noted abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison framed Turner’s story in a heroic light, as someone embodying the ideals of the American revolution more than white men who obliviously celebrated every 4th of July, while whites presented it as a savage cautionary title, dueling points of view you can still see through today, as the interviewees, half-black and half-white, evince, and render him as a convenient metaphor, whatever your argument, as novelist William Styron notes.

Styron wrote “Confessions of Nat Turner” (1967), the explosive Pulitzer Prize winning book of admitted fiction which is discussed at length for its explosive reaction stemming from familiar stereotypes, fictionalizing a sexually charged relationship between Turner and one of his victims, an 18 year old girl. If Styron cites no less an authority than James Baldwin encouraging him to write from the perspective of a Black man, it does not necessarily leave his Black critics, like Ossie Davis, content. Styron argues his rendering of Turner was meant to imbue “human dimension” though Davis counters that he already viewed Turner as human, suggesting fictional license can be as much an impediment to empathy as an agent.

Burnett, though, is not condemning the limitations of a White man trying to write from a Black man’s perspective but demonstrating the limits of an alternate perspective in the first place. In point of fact, Burnett presents himself on camera being interviewed and filming one of his reenactments, not auteurist vanity but an admission that his own documentary is tagged with his own perspective, sort of an eternal loop feeding back into what is not so much a conundrum as the infuriating truth of slavery and how one’s very humanity was dispossessed. “After his death,” Woodard says of Turner, “his words became the property of others, as his body was during his life.”

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