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Nate Parker, who also directed and wrote the screenplay, stars as rebel slave Nat Turner in “The Birth of a Nation.” Parker calls it “the black ‘Braveheart.’ ” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

A black director, a white author, and their differing accounts of rebel slave Nat Turner

Nate Parker, who also directed and wrote the screenplay, stars as rebel slave Nat Turner in “The Birth of a Nation.” Parker calls it “the black ‘Braveheart.’ ” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Nate Parker, who also directed and wrote the screenplay, stars as rebel slave Nat Turner in “The Birth of a Nation.” Parker calls it “the black ‘Braveheart.’ ” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

He called the novel “a defamation,” as if borrowing a page from the debate that dominated critical circles in this country half a century ago.

“By the time Styron’s ink dried,” he said, Turner was “an impotent and cowardly self-hating Uncle Tom whose ambitions regarding rebellion had little to do with the rampant torture and degradation of his enslaved people, but instead was steeped in his desperate sexual desires for white women.”

Parker’s vision of Turner is distinctly different. He describes the rebel slave as “a measured, self-determined man of faith, whose courage and sacrifice left him a martyr.” He calls his movie “the black ‘Braveheart.'”

No one can really know who Nat Turner was, but these divergent portraits are reminders of the role slavery continues to play in shaping race relations in this country, leaving black and white Americans struggling to find a common language for this largely unspoken tragedy.

The film’s reception at Sundance — “instant rapture,” by one account — has been explained in part as a reaction to the allegations of exclusion and discrimination that have fueled the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Yet the Nat Turner story has never failed to inspire a passionate response.

Suspect account

What little is known about Nat Turner — the preacher and slave who in 1831 led a bloody two-day revolt in southern Virginia — is suspect. Accounts from the time estimate about 60 whites were killed in the insurrection, and in the weeks that followed, many more blacks were killed in retribution.

Turner’s confession was published by Thomas Gray, a white attorney who interviewed him not long after his capture and just days before his hanging. It is hardly a credible document, believed to have been written mostly to calm white fears that a greater insurrection might be at hand.

The mystery of Nat Turner has done little to dislodge him from the popular imagination. A reference point for rappers, inspiration for novelists, he provided an opportunity for Parker to present an “honest confrontation” with slavery, “an injury that we’re still tethered to.”

On the interview circuit, Parker, 36, speaks eloquently about “the shortage of heroism” in the history he was taught as a child growing up in Virginia. Not until college did he learn about Turner, and he was dismayed to find out the revolt occurred less than 100 miles from his home.

Determined to tell this story, he put his acting career on hold two years ago and began to line up investors.

Styron, who died in 2006 at age 81, came to the story with the same idealism. He too grew up in Virginia, near the site of the revolt, and wanted “to portray an era of history which we are now beginning to understand to our enormous heartbreak and misery.”

He started writing in 1962, turning Turner’s confession to Gray — one of the most haunted slave narratives, half a zealot’s accounting of faith and half a terrible reckoning of the revolt — into “a meditation on history.”

Turner, according to Gray, was a man in the thrall of his beliefs, which bordered on apocalyptic millennialism. Given to fasting and prayer, he had visions, one of which he recounted to his attorney:

… white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened — the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams…

When a solar eclipse passed over Virginia on Feb. 12, 1831, Turner considered it a sign to rise up.

When Gray asked him in jail, “Do you not find yourself mistaken now?,” Turner replied: “Was not Christ crucified?”

To have written a historical novel, Styron argued, would have limited him to the facts of the confession, and Turner would have emerged as a “ruthless and perhaps psychotic fanatic.”

The novelist instead wanted to represent “what the human spirit could achieve in overcoming the most ruinous and despotic form of human bondage that men have ever imposed on other men.”

He told Turner’s story in the first person, assuming the voice and presuming to understand the life and psyche of a slave. His Turner is literate and devout but ineffectual. During the revolt, he seems incapable of violence.

“Kill him!” one rebel shouts as they storm the home of their first victim.

“But I was not ready,” Turner thinks to himself.

His sole victim comes later: a young white woman whom he desires but knows he can never have.

Published in 1967, “The Confessions” won a Pulitzer Prize and the film rights were acquired for more than $600,000 by 20th Century Fox. When awarded an honorary degree at the historically black Wilberforce University in Ohio, Styron was greeted with thanks and praise.

But black intellectuals hammered Styron’s account as a lie, arguing that “only the truth about black people, and the endless system of degradation and oppression to which they have been subjected … will set us all free from our racial nightmare,” as the chairman of the newly formed Black Anti-Defamation Assn. wrote in a 1968 letter to The Times.

Later that summer, Beacon Press issued “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond,” a collection of essays that assailed popular reception of the novel. Its writers were angry and forthright.

“Why has the book received so much applause from the established press and a large number of well known ‘scholars’?” asked its editor. “Have they failed to see Nat Turner as a hero and a revolutionist out of fear that they might have to see H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael the same way?”

Even as the New York Review of Books published a defense — an analysis of the attacks and an assessment of the Black Power movement — Styron began to retreat.

The movie — to be produced by David Wolper and directed by Norman Jewison and starring James Earl Jones— stalled. Styron stopped getting calls. “In typical Hollywood fashion,” he told The Times in 1982, “they knuckled under pressures, and they were preparing a bastardized version with the help of two black historians.”

When the filmmakers went to scout locations in Virginia, they were met with dissent from blacks and whites, who didn’t like Styron’s portrayal of them either. The project was abandoned. Styron, unrepentant, admitted to being “lacerated and hurt.” Ten years later, he came out with “Sophie’s Choice.”

Parker shot “The Birth of a Nation” in Georgia.

Changing times

“The Confessions” had born the brunt of a cultural shift in America. As Styron later wrote, “the dream of amity, concord and the hope of mutual understanding” from the civil rights movement had turned to the politics of confrontation.

The death of Medgar Evers, Bloody Sunday, Birmingham, bombings and churches set on fire demanded nothing less, and a country that had little experience talking about race — and in particular, slavery — struggled to find the right words.

“The old images no longer work,” said actor and social activist Ossie Davis during a discussion in Beverly Hills on May 28, 1968. In a cabaret on Roxbury Drive, Davis shared the stage with Styron and their mutual friend, the black novelist, essayist, poet and playwright James Baldwin.

“The old language no longer holds water,” Davis said. “What is really happening … is that the black community is speaking in a new language to which it hopes the white community will respond in a new fashion.”

Time would eventually make these conversations easier, especially as popular culture began to wear down the sharp edges. When Alex Haley’s portrait of slavery, “Roots,” was turned into a miniseries in 1977, an estimated 130 million Americans tuned in.

Fans of Styron’s “Confessions” also began to speak up. Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., an African American, called the novel “brilliant” and disputed the premise that a white man lacks “the authority, the authenticity, the moral claim to write responsibly about an event in African American history.”

“Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice, and it’s just as disgusting when blacks do it as whites,” Gates told the New Yorker in 1999.

African American culture, it has been argued, has formed around resistance to racism in America, and Parker seems ready to follow in this tradition.

“Resistance lives in the air in this current moment,” he said. “Anyone who sees this film should leave the theater and feel compelled to be a change factor with respect to relations that are taking place in this country.”

Columbia University historian Eric Foner, an authority on slavery and 19th century America, argues that Turner occupies a different place in the nation’s consciousness than such rebels as Crazy Horse because the conversation about slavery has been either one-sided or muted, saddled with either guilt or recrimination.

Foner points out that there is only one museum to slavery in this country, in Wallace, La., and that public memorials to Turner are mostly limited to road signs in Southampton County, Va., site of the revolt he led.

“Slavery was not a footnote in the history of American freedom,” Foner says. “It is an essential part of American history, and until we grapple with what that means to our society, watching a movie about slavery or electing a black president is not going to solve that problem.”

In discussing Styron’s book, Davis chided the black community for not writing Turner’s story itself. He called for another portrait, of a majestic, forceful and intelligent leader.

“I need from Nat Turner and the facts of his history to make that thing which glorifies blackness in a society which is horrified by blackness,” said Davis.

Whether Parker’s portrait of Turner will answer this call remains to be seen. The need for a hero is different than the need for a historical reckoning and an understanding of what fostered this brutal revolt.

Source: Thomas Curwen LA Times thomas.curwen@latimes.com Twitter: @tcurwen

‘Birth of a Nation’ director Nate Parker responds after learning of the suicide of his college rape accuser

By: Libby Hill
Nate Parker at the Sundance Film Festival. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Director Nate Parker penned a message Tuesday night expressing his “profound sorrow” at learning of the 2012 suicide of a Penn State classmate who accused him of rape in 1999.

“I look back on that time, my indignant attitude and my heartfelt mission to prove my innocence with eyes that are more wise with time. I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name,” Parker wrote in a message posted to his Facebook page.

Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin, his college roommate and wrestling teammate, were charged with raping a young woman (referred to as Jane Doe), a Penn State freshman who alleged that she was intoxicated and unconscious at the time. Parker and Celestin both maintain that the encounter was consensual.

Parker was acquitted in 2001 after testimony was given that he had previously had consensual sex with the woman. Celestin was initially convicted of sexual assault, but that verdict was overturned in 2005 when he was granted a mistrial on grounds that his counsel was ineffective. The case was dropped a year later when prosecutors could not gather enough witnesses to testify in a retrial.

Renewed scrutiny of the 17-year-old incident comes in anticipation of Parker’s latest directorial effort “The Birth of a Nation.”

The film — written by, directed by and starring Parker — details the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, a preacher turned revolutionary. The film and Parker were both met with effusive praise at the Sundance Film Festival, earning both the grand jury and audience prizes in the U.S. Dramatic competition, with Fox Searchlight acquiring the film for $17.5 million.

After an Oscars season that again spurned the efforts of people of color, “The Birth of a Nation” looks to be an early contender for the 2017 Academy Awards.

In an interview with Deadline published Friday, Parker spoke of both his film and the charges he previously faced.

“I was sure it would come up,” Parker said of the case. “I was cleared of everything, of all charges. I’ve done a lot of living, and raised a lot of children. I’ve got five daughters and a lovely wife. My mom lives here with me; I brought her here. I’ve got four younger sisters.”

“The reality is, this is a serious issue, a very serious issue, and the fact that there is a dialogue going on right now around the country is paramount. It is critical,” Parker said of the conversation surrounding the incident, maintaining that while he has never hidden from his past, all he can do now is focus on what his legacy will be with what he does in the future.

“I can’t control the way people feel. What I can do is be the most honorable man I can be. Live my life with the most integrity that I can, stand against injustice everywhere I see it,” Parker said.

Consent was a central issue in the original case. In a phone call transcript submitted into evidence, Jane Doe asked Parker what had taken place that evening at his apartment.

“How did that happen, him having sex with me?” Jane Doe asked.

According to testimony from Tamarlane Kangas, a third man who was at the apartment, Jane Doe and Parker were engaged in sex when Parker waved Celestin and Kangas into the bedroom. Kangas said he declined the invitation, but Celestin accepted and joined the pair. Kangas testified that he did not see Jane Doe move or hear her speak during that time and that he left the apartment shortly thereafter.

The jury, which had questions about what constituted consent, acquitted Parker. Lance Marshall, the former prosecutor who worked the case, declined to comment on the matter when contacted by The Times.

According to Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, matters of consent and even matters of acquittal can be a source of confusion for the general public.

“In general, [people] want to believe that if a sexual assault is real, then it’ll be reported and investigated and successfully prosecuted and if there’s an acquittal it means it didn’t happen,” Houser told The Times during an interview Wednesday. “But that’s not true. An acquittal can mean that it wasn’t investigated properly. It can mean that there wasn’t enough evidence to convince a jury. It can mean there was a technical error. But an acquittal does mean that you get to move on with your life and not be incarcerated.”

A 2002 civil suit brought against Penn State by the Women’s Law Project, a Pennsylvania advocacy group, on behalf of Jane Doe claimed that after she accused Parker and Celestin of assaulting her, the pair engaged in a harassment campaign that eventually drove her from campus in fear for her safety.

The suit argued that the university favored student athletes and that Penn State did not do enough to protect Jane Doe.

The civil suit also revealed that Jane Doe twice attempted suicide in the weeks after going to the police about the initial incident.

In 2012, Jane Doe was found unresponsive by staff at the drug rehabilitation facility where she was staying, next to two 100-count pill bottles of Benadryl-type medication, Variety reported. Jane Doe died at the age of 30.

There is no proof that Jane Doe took her life because of the events that took place at Penn State, though her brother Johnny told Variety, “If I were to look back at her very short life and point to one moment where I think she changed as a person, it was obviously that point.” Johnny asked that his last name not be published to protect the identity of his deceased sister.

“She was trying to find happiness. She moved around frequently and tried to hold a job. She had a boyfriend. She gave birth to a young boy. That brought her a good bit of happiness,” he said. “I think the ghosts continued to haunt her.”

Jane Doe received a $17,500 settlement from Penn State in the civil suit brought by the Women’s Law Project. She left the university without a degree but with an assurance that Penn State would review its sexual harassment policies.

In 2011, the Penn State football program was rocked when assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was revealed as a child molester.

The Women’s Law Project said it would not comment on cases involving an anonymous complainant.

In Deadline, Parker spoke of “The Birth of a Nation” in terms of catharsis. “Psychologists will tell you, until there is honest confrontation, there can be no healing,” he said. “We can’t just skip the healing part and say, ‘Get over it.’ It’s in me, you, and the air we breathe. If I have a gash and it’s infected, one of two things is going to happen: Put some alcohol and let it burn away infection, sew it up and heal it, or it gets worse to the point real complications occur that maybe had nothing to do with that initial gash. That is what we’re dealing with.”

It’s a similar sentiment to one espoused by Parker in a 2014 dialogue with Interview in reference to his project “About Alex.”

“That’s what this film is about; there are so many deep wounds that you kind of glaze over. It’s like when someone does something to hurt you in your life, and it’s never been addressed. Ten years from that moment you still remember, and it still affects you, but you feel ridiculous for bringing it up because it was so long ago. But it affects your walk and your friendship every day until there’s an honest confrontation,” Parker said.

With news of his accuser’s death, there is little opportunity for catharsis in this narrative.

“I know what she would’ve said,” said Sharon Loeffler, Jane Doe’s sister told the New York Times, “and that would be, ‘I fought long and hard, it overcame me. All I can ask is any other victims to come forward, and not let this kind of tolerance to go on anymore.’”

Source: Times staff writer David Ng contributed to this story.

libby.hill@latimes.com

Twitter: @midwestspitfire