There’s a line of thinking that calls out the problem of “slavery movies”—the apparent overabundance of depictions of Black people being enslaved, the way those depictions can too comfortably glide into voyeuristic pleasure at Black suffering. Why not portray other periods and experiences in Black history, this line of thinking goes. It’s an important point.
My problem is different: as someone who wants to think about resistance to oppression, I’m on the lookout for ethical depictions of slavery in the Americas, and as a teacher in the year of our Lord 2023, I’m always trying to find movies on the subject for when I just can’t get my overworked students to read a book. Besides, there can be a low bar of entry for movies. I once put on a little “Nat Turner Day” for my campus and the local community. It was a real success, not least because I screened a film about Nat Turner. I still remember one attendee—a student, although not one of mine—stopping me in the hallway the next semester to tell me how much she loved the event because she learned something new to her about the past.
But I have pretty high standards. I’m a literature scholar, and in recent years I’ve also become what my partner teasingly refers to as “a film guy.” I don’t want to just beam data into someone’s head. If I’m going to screen something, it has to be good as a movie too. So I ask myself, what are educational, historically accurate, novice-friendly depictions of enslaved rebellion that a normal person might actually want to watch? What are examples that don’t turn Black suffering into a crass spectacle?
I’ve been at this subject for years and only recently discovered a neglected gem titled A House Divided: Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion (1982). Directed by Stan Lathan, this PBS-film belongs to a tradition of Black cinema that has fallen from mainstream view, made up of working Black actors who became venerable figures long before our current slate of Black movie stars first appeared: Mary Alice, who was everywhere in Black film and television in the 1980s and 1990s and only died in 2022; the also recently deceased Yaphet Kotto as Vesey himself; Cleavon Little in a starkly different mode than his star turn in Blazing Saddles; and one of my favorite recurring Star Trek actors, Brock Peters. The regal Alice unfortunately takes up little screentime here, partly owing to the ensemble cast and partly to the widespread preference for telling stories of enslaved revolt as men’s stories. Kotto’s Vesey, meanwhile, is taut and stoic. Set against his performance in Paul Schrader’s 1978 meditation on the multiracial working class Blue Collar, Kotto’s performance as Vesey displays a range that makes me think he deserves more recognition than he gets now. Kotto’s late-in-life turn to Trump makes me mourn where all that talent went. Peters, for his part, plays a small role as the moderate minister to the historic Mother Emanuel congregation, which Vesey helped found. Where Peters shines, though, is in the film’s prologue, in which he sets the stage with a history lesson as necessary in 2023 as it was in 1982. An epilogue mirrors Peters’s introduction, ending the film with a short conversation between two of the period’s most significant scholars of Black Studies, Nathan Huggins and Armstead Robinson.
A House Divided stands out for that reason: it takes careful historical research and simply poses it to viewers using great Black actors of the period to tell a moving story. It’s a straightforward historical drama, introducing audiences to the 1822 Denmark Vesey conspiracy in an accessible, realist mode. Although their plot for rebellion was interrupted before even beginning, Denmark Vesey and his co-conspirators had planned to rise up on Bastille Day, sacking the city of Charleston, SC before sailing to Haiti. Some historians have argued that the conspiracy never actually happened—that it was cooked up by the whites of the city in order to suppress the activity of free Black people like Vesey. However, one scholar has pointed out that such a plot by whites would have been “an act of surpassing stupidity” for creating in the press the same kind of revolutionary hero that whites feared. I for one can think of nothing more historically plausible than Black people seeking to liberate themselves from oppression. The film’s realist style takes the historically questioned story—it was, after all, a secret plot—and portrays it in a way to not only assert its reality but to teach it. Peters, Huggins, and Robinson appeared on screen to help viewers learn Black history at a time when it was being variously ignored and denied. Why not screen this film now, when an ascendant fascist movement is trying to accomplish the same things again?
Charles Burnett’s Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003), on the other hand, appeared at a time when that history felt comparatively secure, so Burnett takes a different approach with his film. Burnett is arguably the greatest Black director from the US, and Nat Turner is maybe my favorite Burnett film. (That said, Burnett’s Danny Glover-showcase To Sleep with Anger (1990) is, in my opinion, both the greatest and the most under-watched piece of Black cinema, full stop). Nat Turner is a documentary, although everything Burnett does simultaneously undoes the genre. This is a meditation on interpretation, on competing versions of the past, and on the way figures like Nat Turner live on in popular culture. In between interviews, Burnett stages reenactments of Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt, yet each reenactment presents a different version of the event, complete with a different actor portraying the revolutionary. So whereas A House Divided uses historical drama to assert the reality of debated Black history, Nat Turner leans into the debate itself, coming up with a way to make competing interpretations of Nat Turner a part of the film’s very form. By the end, Burnett’s documentary becomes about its own making, documenting the director’s efforts to plot and film a movie portraying many competing Nat Turners.
Burnett’s film succeeds partly because its premise allows him to bring in not only a range of actors but scholars, writers, and others. Much of the film consists of interviews about the history and contested cultural meaning behind Nat Turner: the legendary actor Ossie Davis, literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., stalwart communist historian Herbert Aptheker, and sometime communist historian Eugene Genovese all weigh in. “The Styron controversy” understandably takes up a lot of screentime, with founding figures of Black Studies like Ekwueme Michael Thelwell and Vincent Harding and the white novelist William Styron revisiting a 1960s debate they waged about Styron’s, well, fraught novel The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). Arguably the urtext of our own debates on cultural appropriation, the Styron controversy will strike Burnett’s audience as immediately recognizable. And like today, abstract questions about identity and ownership subsume the more immediately relevant fact that Styron’s novel just sucks. One of my personal favorite touches in the film is Burnett’s casting of Alfre Woodard as the narrator, which, along with Burnett’s direction and Ossie Davis’s interview, connects the film, like A House Divided, to an earlier moment in Black filmmaking. Carl Lumbly also stands out in his role as Thomas Gray’s version of Nat Turner, what I would argue is an ideal depiction of the rebel alongside Kyle Baker’s 2005-7 graphic novel Nat Turner. If you want to learn about Nat Turner, turn to Burnett and Baker instead of Nate Parker’s politically anemic, misogynistic, and woefully misnamed biopic from 2016, The Birth of a Nation.
Through dramatic realism and meta-documentary, A House Divided and Nat Turner educate audiences but also assert the reality of what Cedric Robinson called the Black Radical Tradition. But both films are decades old. Where are we now in our depictions of enslaved rebellion, especially in the wake of the George Floyd Rebellion and the reactionary “anti-CRT” panic? 2019’s Harriet stands as possibly our closest major example of historical enslaved revolt onscreen. The star-powered Oscar bait had will and potential, to be sure. In my opinion, though, it fell flat because it also took a formulaically historical realist approach. Like A House Divided, it uses itself to assert the factuality of its subject, but in Harriet’s case, the subject is one of the only things about Black history that most people know anything about. I’m not sure our moment calls for that biopic treatment, although as the fascist creep continues, that might change. Considering that General Tubman (as none other than John Brown called her), Prophet Nat, and many practitioners in the long line of African diasporic belief systems like Vodou all received spiritual visions, it would be exciting to see a depiction of enslaved rebellion that rejected a straightforwardly realist mode for something like the surrealism that Robin D.G. Kelley recognizes throughout the Black Radical Tradition. Maybe that’s why the best depiction of enslaved rebellion in recent years hasn’t been in a realist mode or even a historical one, but rather the speculative horror film Us (2019) by Jordan Peele.
A House Divided and Nat Turner, though, are underappreciated classics. Ethical depictions of enslaved rebellion that also reconnect viewers to an increasingly obscured tradition of Black cinema, the two films are especially valuable for new viewers, like that student who stopped me in the hall. Both films are probably freely available online right now, including through your local library’s video services like Kanopy, so no need to give the movie capitalists any more money. You might learn something, but someone else definitely will, so think about screening one of these films for your friends, your school, or your community. Let’s give the reactionaries something to really panic about.
The photo at the top of the page is a still from a 1914 adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This scene, in which an enslaved man kills the villainous Simon Legree, is one of the earliest onscreen portrayals of slave revolt. According to Stephen Railton, the shot is also notable for positioning the viewer as the Black rebel.