115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Portraying Nat Turner: Parker versus Styron

Laurie Leach, Hawaii Pacific University

Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation can be seen as repudiating William Styron’s 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, which was widely viewed by Black Americans  as an intolerable act of cultural appropriation.  Ironically, comparing the two works and the two authors’ reflections on their works reveals a surprising number of parallels in their approaches and in critical responses to them.


In an essay on the making of his Nat Turner biopic, The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker declares that before taking an African American Studies class in college, he had never heard of Nat Turner’s rebellion (despite having grown up in Virginia only about 40 miles from the site of the revolt).  “A decade of history courses and yet not once had there been a lesson, a lecture, or an assignment about the slave preacher, ‘General Nat’-the literate man of God who would engage in  a holy war, sacrificing all he had to lead his people out of bondage.”   Parker soon determined to bring this story to the screen, consciously counteracting the malignant influence of another film, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and led to its resurgence, further poisoning race relations and leading white audiences to embrace white supremacy. Parker wanted to use the vehicle of film to draw intentional parallels between racial injustice in slavery times and in today’s America and to inspire what he termed “a riotous disposition toward injustice” among his viewers.

While Turner and his rebellion had never been the subject of a feature film before Parker’s, they have been the subject of several novels, an off-Broadway play, a documentary film and numerous historical studies.  The story was almost brought to the movie screen once before, after the rights to William Styron’s novel The Confessions of Nat Turner were purchased in 1967, but a threatened boycott organized by the Black Anti-Defamation Association as well as financial challenges eventually scuttled the project.  Protestors did not want to see a film of Styron’s novel, which portrayed Turner as weak and doubting his own actions and the rebellion as a failure, and, in the eyes of many readers, reinforced many of the racist ideas promoted in Griffith’s film.  Styron was further criticized for not giving Turner a wife, and for instead inventing a relationship between Turner and a young woman he killed.  Finally Styron was attacked for stressing the idea of Turner’s rebellion as the only sustained successful slave revolt in North America, and suspected of trying to discredit the idea of violence as a response to injustice.  Parker’s film and tie-in book are the anti-thesis of Styron’s novel in these respects. 

Yet comparing the two works and the two authors’ reflections on their work reveals a surprising number of parallels: both believed that Turner was an obscure figure before their telling of his story captured the public’s attention, both intended their works to contribute toward better racial understanding, both were accused of historical inaccuracies, both claimed to humanize Turner—but in so doing were criticized for misrepresenting the true meaning of his rebellion, both employed stereotypical plantation settings not found in the real Southampton County and depicted Nat as “adopted” into the white family who owned him, both were criticized for their depiction of rape, and both, though for different reasons,  faced readers and viewers refusing to engage with their work on principle.