Last spring I blogged some about jurisprudence in Django Unchained and other parts of the movie that related to law (like the missing duel scene and the echoes of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin), as well as one part that didn't make its way from the screenplay into the movie. I suggested that Django had more than a little in common with Nat Turner.
And now I learn that there's a movie in the works, Nat Turner Unchained. As I commented last spring, the violence during and in the wake of the Nat Turner rebellion rivaled -- I'd say even exceeded in many ways -- what we saw in Django. I mean, my God, what do you make of this account of the aftermath:
if the conduct of the blacks was outrageous, that of the whites was most barbarous towards many of those who were arrested, for instance, they burnt off the foot of a negro whom they had taken into [custody] on suspicion & found at last that he was innocent. They had one of the ears cut off of another (who had to be sure been guilty of murdering his master in a most barbarous manner) & after rubbing the wound with sand, they tied him on a horse, had the horse mounted and rode, & then turned loose into the woods. Certainly this negro deserved to be punished in the most severe manner warranted by civilized society, but this Indian like treatment casts a great reflection on the troops by whom it was authorized.
I see that the screenplay is up on the net already. They have Nat Turner with a copy of David Walker's Appeal, which was probably unlikely given how difficult communication was -- but I certainly believe that Turner easily could have been influenced by the ideas in Walker's Appeal. And I want to believe that he was influenced by those ideas. Though it's entirely possible that a desire for freedom sprang from his own thinking and observations, rather than from ideas set in motion by Walker. At the end of the screenplay, when Turner is brought before a couple of judges, he invokes the Declaration of Independence to explain his actions. What motivated Turner -- some larger ideas about justice or a desire for vengeance -- is an important question and one unlikely to be settled. But it's grounds for a lot of speculation and this is a question that people at the time asked. One of the things that really sticks out of the screenplay is the mysticism. The movie opens with slaves looking at strange colors in the sky, something that Turner said in The Confessions was important.
Thomas Ruffin Gray makes an appearance in the screenplay at the end when Turner is in jail, but not James Strange French.... Alfred (whom they call Albert) is there, though they have him falling off his horse in a drunken stupor rather than wounded before he's disabled by the local militia. Later he's shot by the Greensville militia. The screenplay doesn't identify him as the person at the center of Blackhead Signpost Road. And I am uncertain whether he's the person whose head was placed there or not. There were at least several people whose severed heads were placed on poles. Violence was everywhere and extreme, for sure.
Here's to hoping that the movie will have a lot of talk about the defense lawyers, the trials in Southampton and surrounding counties, and larger issues of jurisprudence, as well as depictions of violence before, during, and after the rebellion. I'm going to be following the developments with the movie closely. And I'll post some more about the jurisprudence of Nat Turner Unchained once I've had a chance to read the screenplay more thoroughly.
Update: I was in my physician's office this afternoon and had the screenplay with me, so I was able to read a lot of it. Couple of other thoughts here -- I don't know as there's a great sense of Turner's history before the rebellion. His reputation as a mystic and as a healer and preacher aren't well developed, though I'm not quite sure how one does that effectively. What is also left out some is the violence in that community. When Mark Chilton and I were talking about the rebellion last spring what really stuck out to me was Mark's emphasis on the way that the people who rebelled and who were attacked knew each other. I think the movie offers a chance to tell a story of violence and animosity that may have gone back years and to locate the rebellion in the relationships between slave-owner and enslaved. And I'd think that there might be more of Turner speaking to Thomas Gray at the end as he dictated (presumably) his confessions.
What's maybe most interesting to me is the relative lack of references to law here. And maybe that is as it should be, for so much of slave law was about removing owners from the constraints of law and letting them have uncontrolled authority over the body of the slave (as Thomas Ruffin said). Then again, I'd think that some more references to the ways that the militia and later the white community used the technology and process of law to re-establish control might be helpful.