Charles Burnett, Frank Christopher, Kenneth S. Greenberg. Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property. San Francisco: California Newsreel. 2002. VHS. 60 minutes. Reviewed for the Journal of Southern Religion by Maxine D. Jones

In August 1831, Nat Turner and his small band of black rebels wreaked fear, violence and murder in Southhampton County, Virginia. Attempting to strike a crushing blow against the institution of slavery, Turner and slave insurgents killed approximately sixty whites, many of whom were children. Within a short time, whites mobilized and suppressed what has become known as the Nat Turner Revolt. In the days following the bloody rebellion, nineteen blacks were hastily tried and executed, while others were transported and sold out of the state. Turner was not captured until October 1831. He gave his confessions in a three-day interview to attorney Thomas R. Gray before he was hanged. Much of what is known about Turner and his deeds come from Gray's published interview with the condemned Turner.

"Turner emerges as an inspiring hero and revolutionary to some, and as a villain and cold-blooded murderer of women and children to others."  


Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, written and produced by Charles Burnett, Frank Christopher and Kenneth S. Greenberg, cleverly looks at Nat Turner by thoroughly examining the various images that have been created about him. Beginning with Gray's 1831 The Confessions of Nat Turner and concluding with William Styron's 1967 novel of the same title, the film demonstrates that the search for the "real" Nat Turner has been a continuous pursuit. Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property employs noted historians, scholars, playwrights, actors, novelists, and voices from the black community to help uncover the "meaning" of Turner. Descendants of both Turner and his white victims also add their interpretations of the man and of his place in history. Turner emerges as an inspiring hero and revolutionary to some, and as a villain and cold-blooded murderer of women and children to others.

Actress Alfre Woodward narrates this intellectually stimulating and bold examination of the many myths, contradictions, and re-creations of Nat Turner through time. Turner has been re-constructed in both white and black folk memories, which have been passed from generation to generation. From 1831 to the turbulent 1960s, Turner symbolized black resistance to white oppression and served as a source of inspiration to Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and to the freedom fighters of the civil rights movement. Thomas R. Gray and Harriet Beecher Stowe shared versions of their Nat Turner in published works in 1831 and 1856. Black playwright Randolph Edmunds gave a stage presence to Turner in his 1935 production of The Nat Turner Story, and Southampton County resident and artist James McGee placed his rendition of Turner on canvas. William Styron attempted to humanize Nat Turner in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel by, among other things, having him lust after a white woman; an act of literary license that brought condemnation from a group called the Ten Black Writers.

The interviews with historians Eric Foner, Peter Wood, and Herbert Aptheker; scholars Henry Louis Gates, Ekewueme Michael Thelwell and Vincent Harding; Actor Ossie Davis and law professor Martha Minow offer interesting perspectives on such a complex character. Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property is an excellent teaching resource. Although it fails to reveal the "real" Nat Turner and leaves unanswered the meaning of Turner and the Southampton revolt, it succeeds in encouraging critical thinking about this figure who remains shrouded in mystery.

Maxine D. Jones, Florida State University

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