On Sixty Minutes, when filmmaker Nate Parker was asked if Birth of a Nation was historically accurate, he noted, “There’s never been a film that was 100% historically accurate. That’s why they say based on a true story and doesn’t say, ‘A true story.’” Hollywood may not be the best place to learn one’s history, but here are ten things that the new movie Birth of a Nation got right about Nat Turner’s revolt:
- Nat Turner was a literate slave. While most slaves were illiterate, Nat Turner could read. We do not know exactly how he learned to read. When he was recounting the story of his life, he saw it as a miracle that he learned to read without being taught, but Thomas R. Gray, the man who transcribed Turner’s confession, explained his literacy in the same way that Nate Parker did: he had been taught by his owners.
- Nat Turner had a family, including parents, a wife, and a child. As Turner told his story to whites, he even recalled a “very religious” grandmother, to whom “I was much attached.” Unfortunately, we do not know as much about his family as we would like. We do not even know Turner’s wife’s name: some historians think that her name was Cherry while others think that her name was Mariah or even possibly Fanny. He also had a child, although that child was not a girl, as Parker imagined him, but a boy named Redic.
- Nat Turner’s father escaped slavery. In a dramatic moment in Birth of a Nation, Turner’s father is forced to run away and is never seen again. We actually know nothing about the circumstance of Turner’s father’s escape, but Turner believed his father had escaped “to some other part of the country.”
- Nat Turner was a religious man. According to the Confessions, Nat Turner recalled “devoting my time to fasting and prayer.” He believed that “The Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former days” spoke to him as well.
- Nat Turner baptized a white man. Turner’s confessions describe him baptizing a white man, Ethledred T. Brantley. Brantley and Turner requested that a church baptize them both, but “the white people would not let us be baptised by the church.” So both Turner and Brantley were baptized together “in the sight of many who reviled us.”
- Nat Turner believed that God spoke to him through prodigies including the eclipse of the sun. Turner interpreted unusual appearances in the natural world as signs from God. As portrayed in Birth of a Nation, Turner “discovered drops of blood on the corn as though it were dew from heaven”. He also saw signs in the sky and hieroglyphs on leaves. Birth of a Nation suggests that an eclipse of the sun was the sign that set the revolt in motion. Actually, the eclipse, which happened in February, was the sign that led Turner to begin telling others about the revolt. The plan itself was set in motion by a different sign, a strange appearance of the sun. Turner never described this second sign, but on August 13 people up and down the East Coast of the United States described the sun’s unusual appearance, a woman in Richmond describing it “as blue as any cloud you ever saw.”
- Nat Turner called his master a kind master. Unlike the movie, Turner had multiple masters. When the revolt began, Turner was owned by Putnam Moore, a nine-year old, but since January of 1830, he and Moore both lived with Moore’s stepfather Joseph Travis. Turner described Travis, the first victim of the revolt, as “a kind master.” He then added, “in fact, I had no cause to complain of his treatment to me.” Turner believed that the fight for freedom was righteous independent of the master’s behavior.
- The rebels were on their way to Jerusalem. While the name of the town toward which the rebels headed, Jerusalem, sounds like it came out of central casting, the county seat for Southampton was actually called Jerusalem. You won’t find Jerusalem on a map if you look. The town changed its name to Courtland in 1888. While the moviemakers are right about the rebels’ goal, they incorrectly suggest that the rebel army made it to Jerusalem. The rebels were defeated in a battle at James Parker’s place about 3 miles southwest of the town.
- Nat Turner remained at large for a significant amount of time after the revolt. The revolt was suppressed quickly. The rebel army was dispersed by Tuesday 23 August 1831 and most of the rebels were killed or captured at that time. But Turner himself disappeared for more than two months and some whites began to think that he had escaped. Eventually the governor issued a reward for his capture and he was spotted first by a slave then by a white near where the revolt began. Although Birth of a Nation portrays Turner’s ultimate surrender differently, Turner was captured by Benjamin Phipps on 30 October 1831 near where the revolt began.
- Nat Turner kept his cool on the day that he was hanged. There are only two accounts of Turner’s death on 11 November and they do not always agree about what happened. (One report described an “immense crowd” but the other noted that “there were but few people.”) But they do agree that Turner kept his cool. One reported that Turner “exhibited the utmost composure during the whole ceremony;” the other noted that Turner “even hurried the executioner in the performance of his duty.”
Featured Image Credit: annual solar eclipse by Takeshi Kuboki. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.