Descendants discuss Nat Turner, "The Birth of a Nation"

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation," presenting the story of Nat Turner's 1831 slave insurrection in Southampton County, has drawn acclaim and criticism since its premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

On Dec. 3, three individuals with ties to the rebellion gathered to discuss the film's accuracy in a local panel organized by All Together.

"It is a powerful movie. It does tell a powerful story. It does reflect slavery at its worst forms," said Bill Bryant, museum program assistant at Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and author of a book on the insurrection. "Our concern is that it's not the real story."

In addition to Bryant, a distant nephew of Turner's jailer, the panel included Bruce Turner, descendant of Nat Turner, and Rick Francis, descended from a family nearly wiped out by the rebellion.

"We're here to talk about that true history of Nat Turner," said panel moderator Stephen Seals, program development manager at Colonial Williamsburg.

As Southampton County's Clerk of Court, Rick Francis said he draws truth from existing courthouse records, from Turner's confessions to Thomas Gray and from a handful of other trusted books on the insurrection.

"I am holding (Parker's) feet to the fire, at least as far as the truth that is gleaned from these resources," said Francis, who doesn't believe the film very accurate.

"Does it matter?" Bryant asked. It's a feature film, after all. "Does it really matter, whether it's 'Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer?' We can take that because we know Abraham Lincoln, or most of us do. But we don't know Nat Turner, most of us."

In everything, that's Bruce Turner's aim: presenting Nat Turner as person, not myth.

"He had the capacity to rationally conceive of slavery as being a moral and a legal wrong, and he was able to formulate a plan on how to end it and then also implement that plan," said Turner, a retired computer systems analyst and great-great-great-grandson to Nat. "What is the mindset of a person who can conceive of that and convince other people to follow him? He must've been a dynamic individual."

A discussion that would resurface through much of the panel centered on Nat Turner's motivations. Though the film implies Turner's wife and friend's wife were raped, Bryant said there's no record either happened. In another scene, Nat is whipped by his master. Bryant believes the film suggests these incidents moved Turner to rebellion, thus diminishing his actual motivations.

"None of it motivated him," Bryant said. "Slavery motivated him. The conditions in which he lived motivated him, and some would say God motivated him."

On the other hand, Turner thought Parker justified in including the incidents, because they represented cruelty inherent in slavery.

While Bryant believes "The Birth of a Nation" didn't tell a full enough story, Turner didn't think this problematic: "It's supposed to reach to the mass of people, to give a well-enough understanding that someone who knows nothing would be able to come away and can at least speak about Nat Turner in a way that says, yeah, he was a real person, it actually happened."

Towards the end of the panel's nearly two hours, the discussion veered from the film, touching on broader themes: whether a slave master could ever be described as "good," the importance of point of view in telling the African American story, to name a few.

"These conversations that we're having right now about Nat Turner, and about race and about language, these are some of the most important conversations that we can as Americans have," Seals said in closing.

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

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