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500px-nat_turner_capturedLUMPENPROLETARIAT—As Netflix describes it:  “This documentary film combines historical documents, interviews and re-created scenes to dramatize the still controversial 1831 Nat Turner Slave Rebellion.”  By saying “still controversial”, Netflix is apparently referring to the powerful emotions stirred in the wake of this year’s box office release of Nate Parker‘s, Birth of a Nation, which offered the world an incredibly compelling interpretation of the story of Nat Turner, the revolutionary slave, who led a rebellion of slaves and free blacks in Southampton County, Virginia in the summer of 1831.

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003), a documentary film narrated by Alfre Woodard and directed by Charles Burnett is as relevant today, as the day it was debuted at the Pan African Film Festival.  The film was sponsored by the Film Arts Foundation, San Francisco and produced in association with KQED Public Television.  Today, we view this 2003 documentary in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, understanding the origins of modern-day policing evolving out of slave-catching patrols to today, with police killing unarmed blacks and others with impunity, and in the context of thousands of people standing off against corporate praetorian guards in North Dakota backed by the state, as water protectors stand together to protect clean water, the environment, and indigenous people’s rights, as attack dogs gnaw at the flesh of peaceful demonstrators.  To this day, America has much to answer for, as it continues to trample the rights of Native Americans, blacks, workers, women, immigrants, economic refugees, and anyone attempting to defy the inhumane demands of capital.  Charles Burnett’s A Troublesome Property, added to Netflix on December 1, 2016, offers thoughtful interviews from academics and scholars, such as Dr. Henry Louis GatesDr. Vincent Harding (Professor of Religion and Social Transformation), and Dr. Ekewueme Michael Thulwell (Professor of Afro-American Studies), helping us parse through the mythology in order to get at the humanity of Nat Turner and, in so doing, helping us learn about ourselves as Americans and our understanding of the institution of slavery.  Check out this 57-minute documentary film on Netflix (or other platforms), while you can, before it’s taken down.



Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003), film clip posted by California Newsreel on 26 AUG 2016

The Confessions of Nat Turner“, Recorded [interpreted] by Thomas R. Gray on November 1, 1831.  Reading by Frank Blissett.


Messina’s Notes on Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003)

[The film opens with a re-enactment based on Thomas R. Gray’s account, which claimed to faithfully preserve Nat Turner’s own confessions.]

NARRATOR (ALFRE WOODARD): [Opening context…]


[Thousands of troops were eventually called out to put down some 50 to 60 rebel slaves…]

DR. ERIC FONER, HISTORIAN:  [The balance of power was weighted heavily against slaves…]

MARY KEMP DAVIS, PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH LITERATURE:  (c. 3:30)  “Slavery, itself, was such an abomination that I could see how it would drive men and women to do desperate things.  Um, and a slave revolt, by its nature, to me, is a pretty desperate act.”

NARRATOR (ALFRE WOODARD): [Militias and vigilantes retaliated by summarily executing and mutilating slaves and free blacks in response to Nat Turner’s Rebellion…]



DR. EKEWUEME MICHAEL THELWELL, PROFESSOR OF AFRO-AMERICAN STUDIES:  (c. 5:40)  “If a lot of those black people were not the property of white people, a lot more of them would be killed.  Wasn’t it the Virginia law, that said if you killed somebody’s slave the state had to reimburse them the cost of the slave or something like that?”

[On the rubber-stamp court proceedings, which sentenced rebel slaves and free blacks to death by hanging or forced relocation…]  (c. 6:00)


[In the matter of Nat Turner’s ultimate captivity, the film seems to assume the commonly held notion that Nat Turner was captured, as depicted in a wood engraving of anti-Nat Turner propaganda by William Henry Shelton (1840–1932).  In this narrative, On October 30th, 1831, “seventy days after the outbreak of the rebellion,” explains the narrator, “that Benjamin Phipps stumbled onto Nat Turner’s hiding place.”  Adding that, “The slave had never wandered further than a few miles from his home farm.”  Much more heroically, Nate Parker’s interpretation depicts Nat Turner as successfully evading slave catchers, but, ultimately, turning himself in after he learns of the wanton retribution, which was being waged against innocent slaves and free blacks.]

[Re-enactment of Nat Turner’s alleged capture.]

[Thomas R. Gray interviews Turner and publishes his interpretation of Turner’s confessions, upon which all future interpretations of Nat Turner would be based.]

THOMAS PARRAMORE, HISTORIAN:  [On Thomas R. Gray’s possible motives…]


DR. HENRY LOUIS GATES, DIRECTOR, W.E.B. DUBOIS INSTITUTE:  (c. 11:25)  “There is no Nat Turner back there, whole, to be retrieved.  You would have to go and create Nat Turner.

NARRATOR (ALFRE WOODARD):  (c. 25:00)  “In the years leading up to the Civil War, Frederick Douglass and other black abolitionists repeatedly voiced admiration for Nat Turner and other slave rebels.”

DR. ERIC FONER, HISTORIAN:  (c. 25:12)  “What Douglass said was that the Nat Turners were more legitimately the heirs of the American Revolution than the whites, who celebrated July 4th every year in the 1840s and ’50s but owned slaves and deprived millions of Americans of their freedom.”

NARRATOR (ALFRE WOODARD):  (c. 25:30)  “Continuing in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, an abolitionist leader, who had escaped from slavery invoked a heroic image of Nat Turner in an essay written during the Civil War.  In the midst of this essay, he imaginatively constructed the speech Turner might have delivered to his fellow conspirators at Cabin Pond.”

Nat Turner (re-enactment), according to William Wells Brown:  Friends and brothers, we are to commence a great work tonight.  Our race is to be delivered from slavery.  And God has appointed us as the men to do his bidding.  And let us be worthy of our calling.

OSSIE DAVIS[As youth, we wanted to imagine Nat Turner in our own idealised way…]

NARRATOR (ALFRE WOODARD):  [Whites didn’t view Nat Turner as hero in the 19th century…  On the WPA interviews of former slaves and their recollections and narratives about Nat Turner…]


DR. MARTHA MINNOW, PROFESSOR OF LAW:  (c. 53:02) “I think there’s a great danger of sliding into a kind of relativism—and:  There are multiple different versions of history.  And let’s just line ’em all up.  And I think that the great challenge would be how to devise a structure, that permits some degree of interpretation and reflection on multiple perspectives without implying there was no truth of the matter.”

DR. EKEWUEME MICHAEL THELWELL, PROFESSOR OF AFRO-AMERICAN STUDIES:  (c. 53:40)  “The fact is there was a historical Nat Turner.  The fact is that certain things were known about him.  The fact is that, as a consequence of his actions, he occupied a very prominent and important role in the collective memory and imagination of the black community—and, perhaps, possibly, in the white community, too.”

WILLIAM STYRON, AUTHOR:  (c. 54:07)  “I think that the mysteriousness of the man, the absolute mysteriousness of the man, will perpetually provoke people’s imagination.  He represents an incredible need and hunger—just the fact that he did what he did, right or wrong or whatever the moral implications of what he did, he did it.”

DR. VINCENT HARDING, PROFESSOR OF RELIGION AND SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION:  (c. 54:31)  “And it seems to me that trying to figure out Turner and his meaning for those, who lived and died is an arduous task.  And that, whether we like it or not, is what we are called to as Americans.”


[Wood engraving of anti-Nat Turner propaganda by William Henry Shelton (1840–1932)—image was found on Encyclopedia Virginia.  (The print is in the Bettman Archive.  The image has been printed on p. 321 of 1882’s A Popular History of the United States, and p. 154 of 1894’s History of the United States from the Earliest Discovery of America to the Present Day, Public Domain.]

[5 DEC 2016]

[Last modified at 16:13 PST on 5 DEC 2016]