Why is Nat Turner’s story necessary?
It’s a question that’s often subtly animated an ongoing debate about Nate Parker’s film The Birth of a Nation, which tells a version of Turner’s infamous 1831 slave revolt in Virginia. While it shouldn’t enter conversations about Parker’s acquittal of sexual assault charges and his subsequent comments about the case, the question of Turner’s importance has lingered after The Birth of a Nation’s struggles at the box office. Some of the film’s most ardent advocates have charged that its problems result from plots among black feminists to harpoon the work of a duly acquitted man. More reasonably, some reviewers and supporters have called the film necessary viewing in spite of its creator. But those who defend The Birth of a Nation share a common concern: Does the movie’s underperformance somehow damage the underlying story of Turner and his rebellion?
Most of the movie’s defenders believe that Turner’s story carries a unique, overriding weight in black culture, whether for its historical significance or as a sort of animating founding legend of black resistance, and that Parker’s film does a prima facie service in telling such a vital account. Whether The Birth of a Nation actually carries that burden, and whether it can be appreciated in spite of the besmirchment of its creator, depends on understanding the phenomenon of Nat Turner himself and what he has come to symbolize. The main problem with figuring out that phenomenon is that so much of the Turner we know is historical fiction, an impenetrable legendarium of many things that cannot be verified.