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Will A Scripted Feature Film Based On Nat Turner's Story Ever Be Made? Nate Parker Thinks So! He's Working On One

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act April 23, 2014 at 4:08PM

Will A Scripted Feature Film Based On Nat Turner's Story Ever Be Made? Nate Parker Thinks So!
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Nate Parker
Nate Parker

Maybe one day, Nat Turner's revolt will finally inspire a film that we all get to see; Maybe not.

But I suppose if it were indeed to happen, Nate Parker certainly would be an actor who would be suitable for the part. And luckily, he's interested. Actually, he's more than interested. As he told us in an interview while plugging his last film, Non-Stop (the Liam Neeson airplane actioner):

One of my biggest passions is to play Nat Turner. That's a project that we're working to get done. A lot of people thought he was a bad guy, but it's perspective. I don't think he was a bad guy at all, but we all have our ideas of what we want and why we want it, and what we'll do to achieve those things.

That was in February. 

Parker emphasized his desire to see the project realized in a New York Times interview published today, a couple of months later, in which he reveals a little more that I thought was worth sharing:

I’m directing a film in the fall, a biopic on Nat Turner, who led the most successful slave revolt in American history. I call it the black “Braveheart.” I wrote the script, I’m starring. That’s where I want to go. The goal for me is to push the envelope always.

So, now we can add that he has written the script, and he not only plans to star in the film, he will also direct it, with a fall start date eyed.

Of course, when it comes to movie-making, nothing is ever entirely certain. Matters of financing are, more often than not, a hurdle that many never get over. And I suspect it's even more of a challenge when the project centers on a slave rebellion, led by black people hoping to inspire further insurrection, in which several dozen whites were killed before the revolt was defeated. When was the last time a movie with that as a premise (or something like it) was greenlit, whether by a Hollywood studio, or financed independently? There's probably only 1 filmmaker who can get a project like that in production today, and he's not black - another one of those hurdles filmmakers of African descent continue to face today. 

All that to say, not to discourage Nate Parker at all (absolutely not!), it's probably going to be a long, tough journey to completion. Of course I'm assuming he doesn't already have full financing in place, and a distributor ready. After all, with a fall shoot date in his sights, as he told the New York Times today, he may very well be on his way, which would be great!

Recall when I had Wendell B Harris Jr (Chameleon Street) on the Shadow & Act Livecast a few years ago, in 2009, and he relayed a time when he boldly pitched a contemporary lynching retribution film to Hollywood studio execs, who, not-so-surprisingly weren’t interested? And, in a later post, I made connections between Wendell's idea and another Quentin Tarantino movie (which hadn't been released at the time), Inglorious Basterds - the revisionist history movie on how WWII ended, set in Nazi-occupied France.

Revenge in Basterds, unlike Wendell Harris’ lynching retribution idea, does not take place almost a century after the crime. It happens synchronously, in the era it references – essentially one man’s fantasy about what could have been, and not what actually was.

So, it got me thinking… what if Wendell B Harris’ lynching revenge flick followed a similar story strategy? Again, revisionist history, set during the days in which the lynching of black people were de facto commonplace.

The title of Wendell Harris’s version can stay the same – Inglorious Basterds. It still works, right?

Well, it never happened obviously; And Harris never got his own very real project off the ground. There was word in the 1990s, as I recall, that Spike Lee was interested in directing something similarly controversial that Harris wrote, but nothing came of that possibility.

What we did eventually get, however, was Tarantino's divisive Django Unchained - or as I called it, the frivolity of slavery; superficial and gratuitous; exploitation cinema that I think would have worked much better, and been an easier pill to swallow, had it been made 40 years ago.

It was not the Nat Turner-esque film that many were hoping for, although many others found it absolutely entertaining and rewarding - hence, the divisiveness I mentioned. 

August 21st1831, in Virginia, Nat Turner led a slave rebellion, hoping to inspire a slave uprising in the south. Several dozen whites are killed before the revolt is defeated. Turner is later captured, tried and hanged. 

183 years later, many are still waiting for a definitive Nat Turner movie to be produced - for someone to finally make Nat Turner's rebellion an onscreen priority.

Maybe the most notable is the hour-long documentary, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, directed by Charles Burnett, and released in 2003, which played the festival circuit, and eventually aired on PBS about a year later. 

It's not the full-length, scripted, big screen biopic that many have been hoping for, so, it'll have to do for now. But good luck finding a copy on DVD to buy or rent.

There are likely other independent efforts that I'm not familiar with, so feel free to chime in below if you know something I don't. 

William Styron's 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning, though deeply problematic novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner was almost adapted to film by director Norman Jewison, in the late 1960's, with James Earl Jones as Nat Turner. The project was met with what Jewison called an "incredibly angry exchange of ideas" with black revolutionaries at the time, who objected to the idea of a white director directing the film, as well as distortions of historical facts in Styron's book.

Needless to say, the film never happened, and thank goodness for that!

So we look to Nate Parker now, and wish him all the best of luck in seeing his Nat Turner film from script to screen.

Check out his New York Times profile HERE, in which he discusses his films at the Tribeca Film Festival, About Alex and Every Secret Thing, and also shares his motivations as an actor, stating:

I decided to take on projects that I thought would break down walls rather than build them up and to perpetuate positivity rather than to enforce negativity in who I was as a black man.

It's kind of amazing (although not at all surprising) that this particular story (as a potential inspiration for a feature film) continues to be ignored, given how popular "slave movies" have been over the last couple of years, and continue to be, with new projects on the horizon.

This article is related to: Nate Parker


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