Set This House on Fire

Nat Turner’s Second Coming

A UCLA film school graduate and probably the most revered African American cineast among critics and scholars, Burnett is best known for To Sleep With Anger (1990), a subtle, complex tale starring Danny Glover set in a contemporary middle-class black family, and the TV movie Nightjohn (1996), about the private lives of slaves on a harsh Southern plantation. His first feature was Killer of Sheep (1977), selected for preservation by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

It's after 10 p.m. and 13 hours of shooting when Burnett finally sits down for a formal interview. He's weary, he hasn't eaten dinner, and he loathes doing publicity. He's also doubtful about the prospect of theatrical distribution for A Troublesome Property. "It's a small film, and it's a major proposition, a theatrical release. My films are not just for entertainment's sake."

Postmodernist relativism notwithstanding, who is Charles Burnett's Nat Turner? "When I visited Southampton County," he replies in a roundabout way, "I met white people still fighting the Civil War, who say of Nat, 'He's a murderer!' They can't reconcile that his men killed women and children who were sleeping. They identify with the dead whites but not with the rest of humanity. They don't think about this institution of slavery that didn't care about human life."

Director Charles Burnett (center) on the set of A Troublesome Property
photo: Eric Dahan
Director Charles Burnett (center) on the set of A Troublesome Property

For his part, Burnett, a famously gentle man, offers an unequivocal endorsement of Turner. "He's every man who'd fight for the liberation of others, who realized the evils of slavery and wanted his people to live in a normal way. Everyone has inalienable rights, and he, in a sense, was interpreting the Constitution. Nat Turner was more American than those whites who denied him."

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