Monday, September 30, 2013

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (Charles Burnett, 2003)

The Passion of Nat Turner

Charles Burnett's documentary Nat Turner: a Troublesome Property deals with the slave who rose up and, with fellow slaves, murdered his way across the nearby Virginian countryside (the documentary opens with a re-enactment of the first few killings--of Turner sneaking into a bedroom and hacking child, husband, and wife to death with an ax). It's about knowing so little of the actual historical figure and, as a result, of the wildly different interpretations people have had of his legend, across different ages--to Abolitionists he was a freedom fighter, to Pro-Slavery whites a terrifying bogeyman, to '60s civil rights protesters an early prototype of Malcolm X (by any means necessary).

There's mention of Thomas R. Grey's "Confessions of Nat Turner," a (most historians suspect) highly fictionalized account of Turner's last words; there's mention of Harriet Beecher Stowe's bowdlerized version (Dred) and of William Styron's Pulitzer-Prize winning Confessions of Nat Turner (he took his title from Grey) and the controversy this inspired because of a scene Styron wrote, where Turner lusts after a white woman.

Burnett I think tries to be as fair as he can on the controversy--supporters and naysayers are given equal time. You can't help but notice, though, that the black historians and writers largely express anger at a white man daring to show Nat Turner's lust for white flesh, while Styron's friends--who all happen to be white, at least the ones we see in this documentary--try to explain some larger perspective.

Burnett does his best to play fair, but what I think was needed was some black historian or writer who could look beyond the indignity and show why Styron was right (or wrong, if that's his conclusion) in writing that scene. That Burnett couldn't produce this one voice is a telling lack on the part of Styron's critics (not so much Burnett, whose careful documenting uncovered this flaw).

We are also shown literary interpretations of Turner by white writers, but other than a WPA play with black performers, no major literary work by black writers--again, a telling lack that the documentary points out. Ossie Davis asks (he's talking about Styron, but he could be talking about all versions)--for whom are they interpreting Turner? For the whites? The novel that addresses this imbalance has yet to be written.

Perhaps the most unsettling moment in the documentary is Burnett's re-enactment of the crucial scene in Styron's novel, Turner's killing the white woman he lusts for. Showing this must have been more than a little painful for Burnett (I'm guessing here, but he must have hated Styron's novel), nevertheless he stages the scene with unsettling force and skill, with the suggestion (through the way the scene is staged and shot) of sexual violation, in the way Turner's sword penetrates the woman from behind.

And just when you think you've seen everything, Burnett springs a surprise (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen or plan to see the documentary). The murders seen at the beginning of the documentary are re-enacted, the camera pulled back to show us Burnett shooting the scene with his cameraman. For the last ten minutes, the same intense gaze Burnett leveled at the various artists interpreting Turner he turns on himself, and we see him questioning his own motives and methods in making this documentary.

All in all a wonderfully made piece of truth-telling that paradoxically shows us the difficulty in ascertaining what is true (though I would like to have seen the two-hour version Burnett originally wanted to make, and which his producers refused to allow), and--I'm willing to bet--possibly of the best things we'll be likely to see this year (actually one of the best documentaries I'd seen in recent years).

First published in Menzone Magazine, April 2004

(Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property is available from Independent Lens, and screened occasionally on Starz Movies)

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