Some reviewers, especially those of tender years, are struggling to be kind to “Birth of a Nation,” a new movie about an 1831 Virginia slave revolt, conceived and led by the famous rebel Nat Turner. The title plays ironically upon the title of D.W. Griffith’s early-20th century cinematic glorification of the Ku Klux Klan: a great hit of the Jim Crow era. The new film is also in the updated heroic mode now popular in characterizations of slavery.
Until the early 1970s, few knew anything solid about Nat Turner. The only documents were those material to Turner’s trial and hanging for the murder of his only victim. Then, in 1972, William Styron, a fine storyteller educated at Duke University under a legendary writing teacher, Bill Blackburn, published a novel called “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” and at the same time a historical essay based on his own legwork entitled “This Quiet Dust.” Styron had grown up in south-side Virginia, as had Turner, and was fascinated by the titular leader of one of the first slave rebellions. Styron’s novel, which he called “a meditation on history,” deserved, and won, major awards, and — significantly — the praise of such contemporaries as Ralph Ellison, author of the formative novel “Invisible Man.”
Viewers who emerge from the theaters today with enhanced curiosity — who might like a dollop of fact along with the heroics — need to know an important but dimly remembered back story.
In his determination to portray a believable figure with historical veracity but without the condescension long prevalent in the fictional characterization of black people, Styron adopted controversial techniques. The need was understood by those who grasp the demands of good fiction but not by those for whom the paramount function of a story is propaganda. He wrote his novel in the first person as Turner’s “confession” and presumed that a southern-born 20th century white man could imagine what it was like to be a black man in bondage more than a century earlier. Underlying that presumption, however, was a humane premise — that people, regardless of “race” or skin color, experience life similarly. And for many Americans in AD 1972 that was a leap into the incredible.
But to get to the back story:
Styron’s brilliant recreation of Nat Turner and his state of mind fell foul of the developing black consciousness of the 1970s. The approval of eminent literary contemporaries like Ellison notwithstanding, this presumption was vehemently censured by the radical fringe of the civil rights movement. Styron, an artist of the first order, was simply incapable of playing the phony game of heroes-against-villains with the past.
Any reader, noting this perennial conflict, could see a storm coming; and it arrived full blast when a movie based on the “Confessions” was scripted and announced, with Styron as chief consultant. The opposition became so noisy and violent that the movie was canceled and Styron’s story withdrawn, to this day, from the Hollywood maelstrom.
So — here we are nearly half a century later, with a film that portrays slaves as paragons and masters as heartless villains, all as much in the current mode as was Griffith’s encomium of the Klan a century ago. Meanwhile, the historical Nat Turner resurrected by Styron has been transformed into the stick-figure proto-founder of a “nation” — fair enough, perhaps, if you prefer fantasy to history and an imaginary Turner to the real founding figure of, say, Martin Luther King Jr. Nonetheless, it would be a pity to leave the matter there. An enterprising producer ought to revive and film the version shaped 42 years ago from Styron’s novel. And the novel itself is likely to enjoy a revival among those who, having digested a melodramatic Nat Turner caricature, might like to make their own comparisons.
Whoever entitled Styron’s Harper’s article “This Quiet Dust,” whether it was Styron himself or my friend Willie Morris, who as an adventurous editor of Harper’s oversaw this eloquent excavation from obscurity, never used words casually. The dust of a bygone slave rebellion is “quiet” no longer.
Edwin Yoder Jr. is a former North Carolina and Washington newspaper editor and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.