News Column

OPINION: Railey says Hollywood is scared to make this slavery movie

November 24, 2013


Nov. 24--The movie "12 Years a Slave," being one of Hollywood's most brutal and honest depictions of slavery, should rightly cause millions more Americans to confront the sins of America's "peculiar institution."

The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped in New York and sold into slavery in Louisiana. He is ripped away from his family and beaten, as are many of his fellow slaves. It's a needed continuation of the story about slavery that all Americans need to hear. If you don't feel for the slaves in this movie, maybe even cry for them, and feel outrage at their owners, you're probably dead.

At one point, the main character fights back against one of his overseers, beats him severely, and survives a lynching. But how would you feel if the black slaves in the movie had banded together and risen up against their captors, killing men, women and children?

That's what happened in my homeland, Southampton County, Va., in August 1831. A major movie about the revolt, based on William Styron's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel "Confessions of Nat Turner," has been talked about for years, during which time blacks have called Turner a hero and whites have called him a cowardly murderer. And I suspect Hollywood has run away from the movie idea about as fast as a deer hightailing it across one of our fields.

Turner, a black slave and preacher, led a band of slaves in the only sustained slave revolt in American history. They killed almost 60 white men, women and children. Consider this line from Styron's "Confessions," in which Turner imagines how his band must have looked to a white man they descended upon:

Twenty Negroes and more in a jagged line -- all mounted, light glistening from ax and gun and sword -- who burst from the distant woods in a cloud of dust which, obscuring us at the same time that it revealed our relentless purpose and design, must have appeared to him borne from the hellish bowels of the earth ... Hark and Henry enveloped him on either side, and slackening pace only long enough to take aim, struck him dead with two swift hatchet chops to the skull.

Armed whites ended the insurrection within several days. Turner and most of his revolutionaries were tried and hanged. When I was growing up in the strange new days of integration, Turner was a boogeyman among whites. I was raised among the descendants of slaves, but I was also raised among the descendants of Turner's victims. Even liberal adults said his violence was dead wrong.

But for the last 20 years in Southampton, there have been serious efforts to tell all sides of Turner's story, including by preserving one of the houses he hit. Whites and blacks are honestly talking about his legacy and what it means to them.

My rural homeland is way ahead of Hollywood.

For all the talk about how cutting edge Hollywood is, it's usually pretty mainstream, especially in dealing with race. Hollywood likes blacks as victims who are nobler than whites, meeting violence with nonviolence. That's certainly been true at times, and it was wonderfully true in the case of Martin King and his followers.

But it's not the whole of history. The whole of history includes Turner and his men fighting back with the only means available to them: violence.

Styron eloquently tells their story in "Confessions." The book that came out in 1967 angered blacks and whites. Some blacks were mad because Styron, who was white, told Nat's story in the first person. Styron painted Turner as brilliant, brave and neurotic.

Some whites from my county were mad because Styron used the names of real victims in creating their fictional portraits.

I liked the book for the power of its language. It made me realize, for the first time, what it really must have been like to be owned by another human being. I'll never be able to condone what Turner and his band did, but I can understand it.

In the first few years after the book came out, there was often talk of it being made into a movie. Styron told me in a letter in 1996 that the project, while indeed the subject of much criticism, was cancelled because the studio in charge of it went bankrupt. There'd been recent rumors of the project being renewed, he wrote.

Financial problems killed the movie once. But controversy would kill it now.

Styron, who died in 2006, had seen his novel "Sophie's Choice," about a Holocaust survivor who is Polish and Christian, made into a fine movie starring Meryl Streep.

"Confessions of Nat Turner" would make a fine movie as well. Look for it in theaters, maybe as soon as 2050. And Hollywood will call it cutting edge.


(c)2013 Winston-Salem Journal (Winston Salem, N.C.)

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