Nat Turner in Hollywood
KENNETH S. GREENBERG
Nat Turner arrived in Hollywood in October 1967, when producer David Wolper paid $600,000 for film rights to the image of the slave rebel in William Styron's novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. 1
Nat Turner departed from Hollywood in January 1970. 2 By then he had been much transformed. He was no longer William Styron's Nat Turner, but some other mixture of fact and fiction. An extraordinary series of events led to that departure. Overall, these events illustrate the deep and bitter racial divisions that made it virtually impossible for the nation to remember collectively its most important slave rebel during the 1960s, even in fictional Hollywood form. The dispute sometimes produced harsh and pointed debate—but at its most divisive moments the controversy generated a breakdown in language and in the ability of people to communicate across the racial divide. What made Nat Turner's passage through Hollywood such a disturbing event for our culture was less the expressions of anger that it produced than the moments of silence it generated.
The broad outlines of the rise and fall of Nat Turner in Hollywood can briefly be summarized. After the successful purchase of Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner, Wolper immediately sold the rights to Twentieth Century Fox and they, in turn, hired him to produce the film. This was to be a major production. Wolper recruited Norman Jewison to direct and James Earl Jones to play the starring role. Jewison had already dealt with racially sensitive issues in In the Heat of the Night, and Jones was fresh from his Broadway triumph in The Great White Hope. 3
While Wolper was beginning to piece together the group to complete