Segments in this Video

Inspiration and Massacre (01:37)


Nat Turner's description of a mystical experience urging him to take on Christ's burden and fight for slaves' freedom is recited. A dramatization shows the ax murder of white people in their sleep; the killing of an infant is narrated.

Turner and his Interpreters (01:15)

Turner, whose slave rebellion massacred whites, told his story before being hanged, but his story has belonged to its interpreters in a nation unable to come to terms with slavery's legacy.

White Vigilantes (03:01)

Turner's rebellion sparked opposing vigilante units. Dramatization shows them prowling the forest and killing blacks; graphic violence is described. Black victims, unlike Turner's victims, are forgotten.

Turner Captured (02:27)

Other rebels were killed or captured for trial, but Turner remained at large. A wanted poster is our source of knowledge of his appearance. We see a dramatization of his capture by Benjamin Phipps.

Turner's Lawyer (01:48)

Publication by his lawyer, Thomas Gray, of Turner's story became the main source for future interpretations. An actor narrates Gray's preface. A historian speculates on Gray's motives.

Doubts about Gray's Record (02:04)

To explain his motives, Turner tells Gray of his demonstration of prophetic abilities in his youth. Many historians doubt Turner actually said everything Gray attributed to him.

Turner's Mystical Experiences (02:12)

Turner tells Gray the Spirit spoke to him and recounts supernatural experiences involving blood. He must take on Christ's yoke and fight the Serpent.

Embracing Martyrdom (01:38)

Asked if he had been proven wrong, Turner asks "was not Christ crucified?" Experts comment on the seemingly heroism and lunacy this reveals.

Moral Status of Turner's Actions (01:39)

Turner spared neither age nor sex. A person condemning Turner argues war must be declared for killing to be justified. A historian says successful revolutions have to be thorough and ruthless.

Goal Behind Killing Children (02:21)

Turner's descendant explains that his goal in killing children was to terrorize whites into giving up slavery. Many white people identify with innocent children rather than slaveholders as an excuse for opposing Turner, an expert says.

Turner's Fanaticism (01:19)

An actor narrates an account of Turner's calm as he described his actions, and his enthusiasm and zeal.

Fragmentary Record (01:19)

Those who search for the meaning of Nat Turner begin with The Confessions. A brief dramatization shows his hanging, about which we know little.

Dred: The Dismal Swamp (02:14)

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a book based on Turner confronting the question of ending slavery violently but softened him. Many others have shaped Turner's story to their own ends.

Black Abolitionists on Nat Turner (02:01)

Frederick Douglass and other black abolitionists voiced admiration for Nat Turner. Whites have regarded him as a villain attacking a benign institution of slavery.

WPA and Nat Turner (01:39)

Black folk memories of the rebellion surfaced in the WPA's 1930s interviews of former slaves. We listen to one former slave discuss stories he had heard of Turner killing his mistress's baby.

1930s Writers on Turner (03:04)

In the racially tumultuous 1930s, writers told Nat Turner's story. We watch clips of a play written for schools. Artists have created their own Nat Turners to fill their own needs.

Civil Rights Movement and Turner (01:56)

Amid the 1950s civil rights movement, some frustrated blacks sought inspiration from Turner. Clips show black leaders expressing militant ideas.

"The Confessions of Nat Turner" (02:05)

William Styron's 1967 "The Confessions of Nat Turner" used Turner's story as an illustration of slavery's evils by showing what it turned him into.

Styron and James Baldwin (01:17)

James Baldwin is shown talking about white attitudes toward Africa; Styron talks about Baldwin's influence on his book, "The Confessions of Nat Turner."

Styron Creates Love Affair (02:25)

Styron created a love affair between Turner and one of his victims in "The Confessions of Nat Turner." A dramatization is shown.

Black Critics of Styron's Turner (01:23)

Styron's creating a love affair between Turner and a white girl angered black critics, who saw it as a rejection of black women.

Turner's Portrayal as Contemptuous of Blacks (02:57)

The contemptuous reflections of Styron's Nat Turner on the apathy of his people in the face of slavery are recited. The passage angered black critics.

Styron's Presentation of Turner's Sexual Desires (01:58)

A dramatization of Styron's Turner being tempted to abandon his mission and have sex with a white woman is shown. Black men interviewed express contempt for this idea.

Complex Feelings in "The Confessions of Nat Turner" (02:04)

Styron talks about the complexities of Turner's feelings toward Margaret Whitehead; dramatization shows Whitehead's murder.

Context of Styron's Book (02:02)

Styron began work on "The Confessions of Nat Turner" amid the optimism of King's heyday, but by 1967, when it appeared, the country saw racial strife. Experts discuss the legacy and response to the book.

Role of Art in Interpreting Nat Turner's Revolt (01:33)

Painter James McGee's work seeks to spread his ancestors' desire to be recognized. Director Charles Burnett, amid filming a documentary about Turner, talks about art, racial reconciliation, and interpretation.

Interpretation and Art (01:48)

Filmmakers talk about the role of interpretation, and the need for dialogue between interpretations of Turner.

Interpretation and Reality (01:46)

A scholar emphasizes the truth beneath the interpretations about Nat Turner. Other scholars talk about the search for meaning of the historical facts.

Credits: Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (02:21)

Credits: Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property

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Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property

3-Year Streaming Price: $169.95



Nat Turner’s slave rebellion is a watershed event in America’s long and troubled history of slavery and racial conflict. This program deftly weaves academic commentary with dramatizations to examine that violent confrontation and the multiple, conflicting ways its story has been told. The earliest source of Turner imagery, The Confessions of Nat Turner, was based on jail cell interviews by a white lawyer and was the first to raise the question that continued to be asked for the next two centuries: Was Nat Turner a brilliant religious leader or a deluded fanatic leading slaves to their doom? With Henry Louis Gates Jr., Vincent Harding, Alvin Poussaint, Ossie Davis, and others. Some content may be objectionable. (60 minutes)

Length: 58 minutes

Item#: BVL49786

Copyright date: ©2002

Closed Captioned

Reviews & Awards

“Magnificent. It is required viewing by all who are deeply concerned about the nature of race relations in America.”  —Cornel West, Princeton University        


“Brilliant work. The myth and reality of this slave rebel are both explored in an unblinking and historically informed way....stunning and original film.”  —David W. Blight, Yale University             


“Both public and academic library collections will be enhanced by this film, which is highly recommended.”  Educational Media Reviews Online

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