The 2003 documentary film Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property discusses the Nat Turner Rebellion that resulted in the murder of several white slave owners. As a result, Nat Turner was later captured and hanged for leading the rebellion. The Nat Turner Rebellion has continued to interest scholars, each offering a different representation of Nat Turner from hero to crazed fanatic. These different representations have created a lasting impression on how people perceive Black males.
The film describes two differing texts on Nat Turner: The Confessions of Nat Turner, published by lawyer Thomas R. Gray in 1831, and William Styron’s 1967 award winning The Confessions of Nat Turner. Gray interviewed Turner in his jail cell as he awaited trial. Gray published Turner’s “confessions,” presenting his version of Turner’s story. Gray’s interview, however, had a lasting effect on Turner’s legacy. Many scholars remain unconvinced, arguing that the words allegedly spoken by Nat Turner were fabricated by Gray himself.
While Styron adopts the same title as the 1831 “first-hand account,” his novel is still just as problematic. Styron changes the meaning of Nat Turner’s revolt by depicting Turner as love-struck and pining for the affections of a young white woman named Margaret Whitehead. The documentary includes a dramatization of Styron's novel with Margaret and Turner conversing, presenting Turner as someone with strong feelings of sexual desire towards Margaret.
The problem with these two representations is their portrayal of Black men. Both texts demonized Black men. In the case of Styron’s Confessions, he created a narrative that continues the hypersexualization of Black men. Hypersexualizing the Black male body has a long history. In 1955, Emmett Till was visiting relatives from Mississippi and allegedly whistled at a white woman. He was later kidnapped, beaten, and found dead in the Tallahatchie River. Sadly, demonizing Black men continues to this day. Just last year, Lena Dunham made comments about Odell Beckham, Jr., who she claims ignored her at the Met Gala, that perpetuate these negative stereotypes of Black men.
One of the ways to end these negative stereotypes begins with education. Inform yourself on these issues and why they're problematic, and spread the word to bring awareness.