Charles Burnett’s insightful, if somewhat foreshortened documentary on controversial slave-revolt leader Nat Turner underlines the subtitle: “A Troublesome Property.” Turner was, of course, a troublesome “property” to his masters, who he would eventually slaughter. And his story has remained troublesome for historians, novelists and filmmakers — including Burnett. Inasmuch as the film is about how authorial biases influence artistic representations of history to create legend, Burnett and collaborators Frank Christopher and Kenneth S. Greenberg encompass the enigma. Originally fashioned to feature length before being edited down to current, PBS-friendly incarnation, some of the power of “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property” has been lost in the translation.
Burnett’s goal is to take an evenhanded approach to the various literary accounts (both fictionalized and allegedly non-fictional) of Turner’s life and revolt, starting with Thomas R. Gray’s 1831 “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and continuing through to William Styron’s 1966 novel of the same name. Drawing on additional source material by Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Wells Brown and Randolph Edmonds, Burnett has filmed scenes from these disparate dramatic interpretations, in each case trying to remain as true as possible to the original author’s viewpoint. A different actor plays Turner in each sequence (beginning with the marvelous Carl Lumbly as Gray’s Turner).
At the same time that he tries to examine all angles, Burnett acknowledges the futility of objectivity in history and art, and he never positions himself outside the material or manipulates viewer sentiments to further his own polemic. Ultimately he turns his camera on himself and his film crew (in a wonderful, Kiarostami-style reversal) to acknowledge his own “documentary” is but another inevitably biased interpretation.
Pic’s dramatizations offer Turner as hero, martyr, fanatic and even hot-blooded lothario. In-between, Burnett presents a diverse assortment of interviews with contempo writers and thinkers who do little to clear up the confusion. From historians Eric Foner and Peter Wood to civil-rights activists Ossie Davis and Ayuko Babu to the surviving descendants of Turner and his masters and, finally, to author Styron (very much the big “get” here), the only thing anyone can agree on is how little is known about Turner and how that anonymity has made Turner’s icon so enduring and so malleable. And Burnett comes at the argument from all sides, always one step ahead — though sometimes too fastidious about considering all points of view.
Probably Burnett’s most provocative — and, again, rhetorical — query –is whether artists should be forced to account for historical accuracy to the point that it stifles their creative impulses. It’s a timely discussion, given recent media fracases surrounding films like “The Hurricane” and “A Beautiful Mind”; though with respect to Turner, the situation is even touchier, given his standing as a radical icon in the struggle for African-American civil rights.
Burnett’s film was even stronger on this account in its original version (shown as a “work in progress” at last year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival), which was 26 minutes longer and included an entire section about the abortive 20th Century-Fox filming of Styron’s novel, to have been directed by Norman Jewison with James Earl Jones as Turner. There was also more material from Burnett’s interview with Styron and, most intriguingly (both for its original inclusion and eventual deletion) a more elaborate analysis of the incendiary aspects of Styron’s text.
While this re-edit is an improvement over the original in other respects — the cutting is more fluid, the narration has been re-recorded and the archival material (still photos, news clippings, etc.) has been three-dimensionally embossed (a la “The Kid Stays in the Picture”) — it seems, overall, a more timid, less confrontational movie.
Tech aspects are superior for a docu, particularly in the staged dramatic scenes (shot on 24P video for a film-like look), which have a bigscreen lushness.