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The new film on the former slave, Nat Turner, whilst deeply flawed should inspire people to find out more about this historical heroic figure, beyond populist narratives. More importantly, his legacy of revolt should inspire the generation of Black Lives Matter to struggle against new forms of domination in our capitalist, imperialist white supremacist patriarchal world.

In 1967 William Styron, a white Virginian published his novel entitled “The Confessions of Nat Turner” which caused a firestorm amongst black intellectuals for the manner in which it portrayed the historical figure of Nat Turner, who led a slave uprising in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. Styron portrayed Nat Turner as a depraved fanatical sex-craved creature. Nat Turner was wholly devoid of political and religious motivations and lusted after white women. Nate Parker’s film, “The Birth of a Nation” which depicts the famous slave revolt also caused controversy when it came out in the US in October 2016 and in London in early December.

It received a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. Soon after, Fox Searchlight purchased the film for $17.5 million. Nate Parker is a gifted actor who directed, produced, co-wrote and played the lead role in the movie. Moreover, in August this year he was dogged by controversy during the height of his publicity tour to promote the film. As Parker went on tour the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite went viral, which some anticipated could help the fortunes of the film to win an Oscar.  However, voices on social media vociferously boycotted the film on account of the fact that in October 1999 a 19-year-old Nate Parker, with his roommate Jean Celestin of the same age, were both accused of raping an 18 year old white female student at Penn State University. In 2001 Parker was acquitted of the crime and Celestin was given a two-year sentence for sexual assault that was eventually overturned. In 2012, the 30-year-old woman committed suicide.

 A candlelit vigil was held outside the ArcLight Cinema in Hollywood in mid-October during the first public screening of the film by the group called “Fuck Rape Culture.” The group issued a statement that helped cast a shadow over the film and particularly its director, Nate Parker. It said: “FRC recognizes the need to hold space for those celebrating the advancement of people of color in Hollywood while continuing to fight for the victims of sexual assault and rape around the world.”

Parker was besieged with a barrage of questions and demands for accountability during his promotional tour that many believe he handled with deflection. In August 2016 Parker maintained his innocence and stated on Facebook in relation to the alleged crime and victim: “I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name.”

Exacerbating the controversy around Parker is also his depiction of women in the film (a point, I will return to shortly).

Overall, there is a divide between those who are pro- and those who are anti- the movie as a result of the controversy surrounding its director and Jean Celestin, who assisted Parker in co-writing and developing the film.

Historical inaccuracies

Whilst the acting was excellent, particularly of Nate Parker and Aga Naomi King (respectively as Nat Turner and Turner’s wife, Cherry), in the light of considerable historical work on Nat Turner, the film is grossly historically inaccurate. As the writer-director, Nate Parker should have prefaced the film with the words: “While Nat Turner’s revolt was a true event, I have taken creative license with some aspects of the plot.” Instead at the beginning of the film there are some vague misleading words that state that the film is based on true events.

Leslie Alexander, an African American historian points out that Parker failed miserably in his mission to maintain “historical fidelity in his depiction of the leader of the rebellion.” She correctly  argues that the film “contains only a smidgen of historical fact.”

Firstly, nowhere in the film is there a depiction of Nat Turner being interviewed by Thomas R. Gray after his arrest on October 30, 1831 whilst in Southampton County prison. Gray was a Southern physician and lawyer who interviewed Turner as he awaited trial. It is this most significant interview that was published by Gray in 1831 as The Confessions of Nat Turner, that could have assisted Parker to frame the story line and give the film some valid historical authenticity and fidelity.

Whilst there are debates as to the extent to which Gray could have doctored Turner’s words, there is in The Confessions of Nat Turner several parenthetical and editorial comments made by Gray that distinguish Gray’s voice from that of Turner’s. During this trial Turner publicly endorsed Gray’s work as faithfully representing his confessions. [1]

The Confessions of Nat Turner remains an important document for, as the historian Patrick H. Breen states, “Few sources provide access to the minds of slaves, let alone the mind of a man who may be the most famous American to live and die in slavery” (p. 169)[2]


Surely, a scene in which Nat Turner narrates to Thomas Gray some of the influences on his life, why he was motivated by divine voices to fulfil his dream to liberate his people would have allowed Parker to remain faithful to the historical record that he claims he aspired to? This was a huge failure of Parker. A scene in which Nat Turner is interviewed by Thomas Gray would have given us further insight into the inner mind, motivations and values of Nat Turner which would have been based on the true historical fact that Nat Turner did in fact confess to his actions and went to his executioner with absolutely no regrets whatsoever. Imprisoned, Turner tells Gray, “I am here loaded with chains, and willing to suffer the fate that awaits me.”[3]

Second, among the many flaws in the film, is that Turner did not kill his master,  Samuel Turner. Nat Turner had a number of owners and the owner that was killed was a Joseph Travis. Even in the killing of Travis, if Nate Parker had read The Confessions of Nat Turner, in the narration Nat Turner himself declared that on entering his master’s house armed with a hatchet: “accompanied by Will [a co-conspirator], I could not give a death blow, the hatchet glanced from his head, he sprang from the bed and called his wife, it was his last word. Will laid him dead, with a blow of his axe, and Mrs Travis shared the same fate, as she lay in bed.”[4] Nat Turner confessed to Thomas Gray that he killed the young teenager Margaret Whitehead “by a blow on the head, with a fence rail.” [5]

Third, whilst rape of enslaved women was intrinsic to the horrors of slavery, there is no historical evidence that Nat Turner’s wife was raped by slave patrollers as depicted in the film. More importantly, how many people who see or have seen the movie will leave the cinema believing this to be a historical fact and therefore a critical factor in Nat’s Turner radicalisation that led to insurrection? The reality is, Nat Turner was prepared to die because he was motivated by the unshakeable political and religious belief that as a God-fearing Black man he and all Black people had a right to be free. 

In addition to this, how Parker depicts the rape of Cherry (Nat Turner’s wife) and that of Esther, another enslaved woman (played by Gabrielle Union) is grossly problematic. Esther is voiceless. It appears that in the film Nat Turner seeks to save the women around him and is emasculated in doing so.  In the view of Leslie Alexander, “the rape storyline is carefully constructed to redeem Black masculinity at Black women’s expense.” Or is the rape storyline calculated on the part of Parker in order to redeem himself in the lingering shadow of the 1999 allegations against him, whereby Parker can project love and empathy for the character of Cherry but failed to do so for the real-life victim who he was acquitted of raping?

The only small redeeming act on the part of one of the female characters that we see in the film is when Nat Turner’s grandmother faces the white slave patroller who is looking for Nat Turner’s father. The slave patroller stands on a floor board that allows a stolen jar to roll from under his foot and the grandmother’s quick witted action dictates she throw herself at the feet of the white man to conceal this stolen jar. Her action shows her dissembling, which many slaves cultivated to an art in order to survive life under the control of whites.  Her feigned contrition as she retrieved the jar in her long flowing skirts saves her and the young Nat from the prospect of further verbal or physical abuse from the white patroller. 

Fourth, there is no historical evidence that Nat Turner convinced his master, Samuel Turner, to buy the enslaved woman Cherry, who later in the film was to become his wife. This storyline is likely to be the fanciful imagination of the film director.  

Fifth, the young Black boy who becomes a turncoat and betrays Nat Turner and his small band of insurrectionists is a falsification of history. Turner who had a bounty of $500 on his head [6] (that was later increased to a thousand) [7] was eventually captured after six weeks of being a fugitive. He confesses: “I know not how long I might have led this life, if accident had not betrayed me, a dog in the neighbourhood passing by my hiding place one night while I was out, was attracted by some meat I had in my cave, and crawled in and stole it, and was coming out just as I returned.”[8] The dog barked and two slaves saw Nat Turner and fled. Turner was aware that the two slaves would betray him and therefore he was forced to find a new hideout “under the top of a fallen tree.”[9] Two weeks later, he was discovered by Mr Benjamin Phipps who was taking a walk across farmland and saw the overturned pine tree under which Turner hid.[10] Phipps tied up his prisoner who was to be taken to the Southampton County prison.

The historical reality is that the revolt failed not because Turner was betrayed but that Turner’s band of men, who amounted to no more than between 60- 80 men, were in reality not only poorly equipped (initially with axes, clubs and later rifles) but his group of men were ill-disciplined and fell into disarray, drunkenness and confusion as they moved from plantation to plantation killing all whites – men, women and children. Their aim was to get to the town of Jerusalem – a few miles away, to capture the cache of arms, but they were stopped in their tracks by the whites. [11] Turner’s men had not moved as rapidly and mobilised as effectively as they should have and therefore alarm had spread among the whites. However as the historian Herbert Aptheker points out, “…had Nat Turner been successful in capturing Jerusalem, with its arms and ammunition, he might have prolonged the conflict for many days; perhaps, with guerrilla warfare, for weeks.”[12]

Dilemmas and tensions of art and history

History is a narrative that is often told from varied and conflicting ideological visions and perspectives. Tensions arise between historians on what are the facts, sequence of events and interpretations of events within the prevailing socio-political and economic contexts in which the past occurred. There is also a long-standing tension between art (i.e. creative writing, film making, etc.) and history in terms of to what extent should filmmakers and novelists remain faithful to the historical record and/or engage in literary and creative imagination? If they do engage in unleashing their creative imaginations, should novelists and filmmakers not openly tell us they are inspired by historical acts/events and depart from the historical interpretation into their own imaginations? Or is “historical fidelity” paramount?

I appreciate the power of film to reach far wider audiences than a mere academic history book could ever wish for. Film and novels have a power to evoke understanding and a spirit of the times in a manner terse abstract historical jargon and description often fails to do.

In our society and world that forever seeks to simplify complex realities in a “dumbing down,” popular and populist films on which millions have been spent may not stimulate ordinary people to seek to find out more about Nat Turner and be inspired to read a little of the copious amounts that have written on him, nor seek to find out the truth about what really happened during the revolt and why it failed. How many audience viewers will leave the cinema and be inspired to dig further into history and read The Confessions of Nat Turner or any book on Nat Turner?

A filmmaker claiming “historical fidelity in his depiction of the leader of the rebellion,”(i.e. of Nat Turner)  should be judged on whether he (or she) has lived up to this noble aspiration or not. Sadly, Nate Parker does not fulfil this aspiration.

Ultimately, Roxane Gay, the feminist writer and professor, succinctly captures the position of some who decided not to see the film. In her piece in The New York Times entitled “Nate Parker and the Limits of Empathy,” she writes:

“As the movie’s publicity machine roars to life in advance of the October release, there is renewed interest in Mr. Parker and his history with sexual assault. There are renewed questions about whether we can or should separate the artist from his art. I am reminded that I cannot. I cannot separate the art and the artist, just as I cannot separate my Blackness and my continuing desire for more representation of the Black experience in film from my womanhood, my feminism, my own history of sexual violence, my humanity.”

For some of us the prism of how we view the film is predetermined by the actions and words of the filmmaker both on screen and off screen because the personal is political. There can be no separation between the two. In separating the two, we have a distorted understanding and analysis of the filmmaker, ourselves and the world.

Nat Turners of the 21st century

Nate Parker deliberately gave the film the title of D. W. Griffith’s silent film, “The Birth of a Nation”, which portrays the racist Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force. Certainly, for white liberals Nat Turner’s rebellion was part of the long tortuous and brutal birth of a new American nation in which slavery, Jim Crow, segregation were to become relics of the past. However, in the 21st century new manifestations of “colour blind racism”  as Dr Eduardo Bonilla-Silva cogently argues in his book entitled “Racism without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America” (2013), have become the reality. Covert racism or “new racism” has replaced the more overt forms of the atrocities of chattel slavery and segregation. Instead of lynchings and beatings, Black people in both the UK and US are open season for police killings and institutional racism that has led to death at the hands of mental health systems, prisons and police stations.

The rebellion that Nat Turner set in motion – though short-lived and small-scale, created a deep-seated panic and fear among southern whites that remained for decades – and some would argue, that, that specific fear and white supremacist attitude remains among some whites in the US (and elsewhere) today. Nat Turner in the history of African American and Pan-African history is part of the continuum of resistance of people of African descent. His life and actions need to be known by people of African descent and all progressive individuals as a life that stood in opposition to domination and injustice.  

Nat Turner was only 31 years old when he was hanged. He was therefore a young man, just like the millions of young men and women involved in the civil rights movement, the anti-colonial struggles in Africa, and the millions involved in the present day Black Lives Movement. There is a historical umbilical cord of struggle that links Nat Turner to the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in August 1955, as well as to the lives and conditions of people of African descent today, for we remain engaged in a struggle for economic, social and political justice whether in the US, UK or in Africa. We continue to struggle demanding justice for the Mario Woods, Trayvon Martins, Michael Browns, Sandra Blands, Stephen Lawrences, Jermaine Bakers  and numerous other Black women and men killed in a white supremacist society that sees no justice for these modern day lynchings. People of African descent continue to struggle for reparations; for recognition that our bodies and lives be respected; that our dignity and humanity be respected no less than it should be for any other human being.

Will the emergence of President-elect Donald Trump who will take office in January 2017 produce new Nat Turners in the 21st century? The great 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass once remarked: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”  Douglass also said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

As the 21st century continues to unfold there needs to be new embodiments of Nat Turners seeking to overturn the system of capitalist, imperialist white supremacist patriarchy. And there needs to be the equivalent Sojourner Truths, Harriet Tubmans, Yaa Asantewas, Mekatilili wa Menzas and Nzingas alongside the future Nat Turners.

* Dr Ama Biney is a historian and political scientist living in the U.K. She can be contacted at [email protected]

[1] This Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt by P. H. Breen, Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 175.

[2] This Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt by P. H. Breen, Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 169.

[3] Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion Including the 1831 Confessions by H. Aptheker, Dover Publications, 2006, p.146.

[4] Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion Including the 1831 Confessions by H. Aptheker, Dover Publications, 2006, p. 139. See also This Land Shall be Deluged in Blood p. 38

[5] Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion Including the 1831 Confessions by H. Aptheker, Dover Publications, 2006, p. 141; see also This Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood, p. 46.

[6] This Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood, p. 85.

[7] Op cit, p. 140.

[8] Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion Including the 1831 Confessions by H. Aptheker, Dover Publications, 2006, p.145-146.

[9] p cit, p. 146.

[10] Op cit, p. 146. See also This Land Shall Be Deluged, p. 142.

[11] Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion Including the 1831 Confessions by H. Aptheker, Dover Publications, 2006, p. 53.

[12] Op cit, p. 53.