- The Concessions of Nat Turner
Perhaps the reader will wish to draw a moral from this narrative, but it has been my own intention to try to re-create a man and his era, and to produce a work that is less an "historical novel" in conventional terms than a meditation on history.—William Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner
Nat Turner is a far more contemporary figure than Martin Luther King. Both men derive their inspiration from the Bible and both are preachers, yet one preaches (and practices) absolute non-violence, while the other preaches (and puts into terrible practice) a doctrine of absolute violence. In this resort to violence Nat Turner is truly a man of the Twentieth Century, which Martin Luther King, unhappily, is not.—Dalton Trumbo, letter to David L. Wolper, 12 March 1968
The years spanning 1968 to 1970 represent an important transitional period within the history of black-themed commercial film, albeit a period frequently neglected by studies of African American cinema practice during the rise of the so-called New Hollywood from the middle 1960s to the middle 1970s. In many of the surveys produced by both first-wave and second-wave scholars of black-themed film history, the much-derided "blaxploitation" cycle of the early and middle seventies is the most salient effect of the social and economic pressures afflicting Hollywood at the end of the sixties with reference to race relations. In his book Framing Blackness, Ed Guerrero persuasively identifies "the rising political and social consciousness of black people" and "an outspoken, critical dissatisfaction with Hollywood's persistent degradation of African Americans in films" (69–70) as factors that made possible the ascent of the street-savvy, victorious blaxploitation hero of the following decade. Yet the factors named by Guerrero were also unmistakably in effect for many of the Hollywood-made, race-based "problem" or "message" pictures in the years immediately preceding the blaxploitation era.
Perhaps the most important project attempted by a major Hollywood studio in this period, however, was one that never saw the light of projection. The strange story of Twentieth Century Fox's The Confessions of Nat Turner (later shortened to just Nat Turner) is rooted at the crossroads of two significant historical arcs that intersected at the end of the 1960s. One arc reflects the stunted trajectory of the commercial film industry at the end of Hollywood's Golden Era: a period of extreme economic uncertainty in which the entrenched studios, faced with the desertion of the "mass audience" that had propped them up for decades, desperately tried to woo niche audiences back into theaters through formal, thematic, and stylistic innovation (of, granted, a relatively mild sort).
Specifically, as the decade wore down and the industry's fortunes worsened, many film people were made aware of the seemingly untapped purchasing power of the black movie audience. The spike in Hollywood's interest in this audience coincided with a general surge in awareness among sociologists and industrialists of the African American consumer base, or, in the parlance of the day, "the Negro market," a market defined, according to Ebony publisher John H. Johnson, by its "geographical, social and psychological" (119) exclusion from the mainstream white market. Nearly everyone who wrote on the subject around the turn of the decade believed that African Americans comprised a percentage of the overall American moviegoing public disproportionate to their actual numbers. Most probably, this belief stemmed from Lee Beaupre's November 1967 piece for Variety, "One-Third Film Public Negro," in which the writer asserted that nearly one-third of the American moviegoing audience—those patronizing "major city first-run houses" (3), at least—was black, even though blacks made up only [End Page 38] 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population. Though Beaupre produced no hard evidence in support of this claim, the assumption that blacks attended movies to a greater extent than whites, even before the boom years of the blaxploitation era, almost certainly guided the thinking of studio executives desperate to improve business in a period of declining domestic attendance and increasing restrictions on exports.
The second historical arc that I will trace...