Set This House on Fire


“I was the great-grandson of a slave owner, and he was the great-grandson of slaves,” says Sophie’s Choice novelist William Styron, 76, recalling his friendship with the late James Baldwin. “Jimmy dared write from a white point of view, and I thought that was admirable. It was at his prodding that I decided to jump into the soul of a black man. I never regretted it, though Jimmy predicted I would catch it, and I did.”

The fiction that Baldwin inspired was The Confessions of Nat Turner, which reconstructs the infamous 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton, Virginia. The 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (which Baldwin adored) is now among the narratives being used for an omnibus movie in the making that’s part documentary, part fictional re-creation: Nat Turner, A Troublesome Property. Directed and cowritten by Charles Burnett, it focuses on the insurrection that led to the violent deaths of perhaps 60 whites from slave-owner families and of most of the 60 to 80 slaves who participated. The slaves not killed immediately were put on trial (before all-Caucasian juries), and most were hanged, Turner among them.

A 1968 adaptation of Confessions to star James Earl Jones was halted in part by the efforts of African American protesters, who felt that a white author had stolen their hero and distorted his character. In the fiery 1968 anthology William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, the essayists accused Styron of insinuating that Turner’s slave revolt was prompted by his raging desires for a Caucasian girl. Charles V. Hamilton wrote, “We will not . . . leave unchallenged an image of Nat Turner . . . who dreams of going to bed with white women, who holds nothing but contempt for his fellow blacks.”

Styron admits he has felt the sting of his critics, but remains unrepentant. “I find almost all the complaints invalid, irrational, and hysterical, based on bigotry and prejudice,” he says today. “I don’t want to seem self-assured, but I wouldn’t change much.”

On the occasion in late June when we speak, on an outdoor movie set at a working plantation in Louisiana County, Virginia, the writer feels especially vindicated. He’s been invited here to observe the shooting of key scenes from his novel, more than three decades after the studio filming was stopped dead. “It’s high time, after 33 years,” he says.

The trio of collaborators on A Troublesome Property—director Burnett, producer Frank Christopher, and co-screenwriter Kenneth S. Greenberg—debated for several years how to frame their dramatized history. Finally they rejected a Ken Burns-style omniscient voice-over for a postmodern approach. Their movie would not present one definitive “Nat Turner” but shifting, contradictory ones—re-creating episodes from Turner’s life from six chosen texts, in which six different actors would play him. One features a sub-literate, primitive Nat, the way he’s portrayed in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Dred (1856); in another, he’s the eloquent, articulate leader put forth in Randolph Edmonds’s 1935 agitprop play Nat Turner.

“We take the stories we’re given as almost etched in stone,” Burnett explains on the set. “Stowe’s Nat is a simple, angelic innocent, so we show him with a skunk and a mountain lion. In another story, there’s the murderous Nat, so this violent person emerges with a sword.”

Styron’s Freudian creation is one of the competing Nats. “Nat Turner has conformed to all those who consider him, and been rewritten in the image of people writing about him,” says Styron, who approves of the film’s Rashomon aesthetic. “Even his actual confession is suspect, taken down when he was imprisoned by a lawyer, Thomas R. Gray, who had every reason to twist the words.”

Courtly and approachable, Styron plants himself in a director’s chair, trying to get by in the 97-degree Virginia heat. Today he will watch the shooting of the horrific scene that climaxes his novel—the only occasion that Nat Turner murdered someone. Turner (today, Virginia stage actor James Opher) chases, stabs, and bludgeons to death Margaret Whitehead (high schooler Megan Gallagher), the daughter of a slave owner.

The novelist got into the deepest trouble from his detractors in fabricating the steamy encounters pairing Margaret and Nat. “In the novel, she teases him mercilessly, practically does a striptease in front of him,” Styron says. “In his confession, Nat admitted this murder, so it had to be incredibly significant that he chose this particular person.”

Styron looks on as the camera rolls: Poor Margaret flees down a country path and trips at a log fence. Coming up behind her, Nat draws his weapon, and stabs.

“Very good! Very powerful!” Burnett announces after three quite chilling takes.

“I never thought I’d see this scene I dreamed up,” Styron says, stirred.

Producer David Wolper originally purchased the rights to Confessions for $600,000 more than 30 years ago. “They wanted to change the story, which bothered me a great deal,” Styron says. “They wanted to give Nat a wife and turn it into a bourgeois family. Norman Jewison was going to direct, then Sidney Lumet. I myself got a black screenwriter, Louis Peterson. But it didn’t help that it was always a white director.

“Later, Spike Lee took an option, but his company decided not to [proceed]. Beloved and Amistad seemed to indicate that historic movies about blacks are poison at the box office.”

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.”

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.”