Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” was seen by many critics as an unrealistic story about a rebellious slave. However, there were multiple stories of slaves fighting the system and seeking justice. Nat Turner was one of them.
When Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was released, his life-long nemesis Spike Lee spoke out, claiming that the story of his ancestors (referring to slavery times) wasn’t a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. Well, of course, it wasn’t, but there’s no doubt that there were some strong, badass characters who fought hard to change the situation. One of them was Nat Turner, considered in his time to be one of the greatest heroes for the abolitionist cause. Nevertheless, as a historical character, he isn’t talked about enough. Sure, his story might not have a cool soundtrack, and his outfits weren't the most stylish, but he was definitely a dissident, and his rebellion was bloody enough to put any Tarantino film to shame.
Turner was born in 1800 in Southampton, Virginia. Like many slaves at the time, Nat got his last name from his owner, Benjamin Turner, not his father, about whom he really didn’t know anything other than that he had managed to escape. As accounts from the time state, Nat had always been a curious boy, to the point that he learned how to write and read, an opportunity very few slaves got. This introduced him to religion in a deeper and more profound way. Having access to the Bible shaped his mindset and helped him in his quest to end slavery.
When he was 21, he managed to escape from the plantation. However, he returned just one month later, claiming he had had a vision à la Moses telling him he still had things to do in the plantation. Back in the plantation, and probably after receiving a severe punishment, Turner started preaching and giving sermons. His speeches were so intensely emotional and deep that his popularity rose throughout the region, even earning him white followers. Turner had become “the Prophet” of Southampton, a role that would make his later rebellion one of the biggest in the antebellum South.
It all came together one day while he was working on the fields and he had a vision from God himself telling him that the evil Serpent had been let loose and that, like Christ, it was his job to fight it to save humanity from sin. He became convinced God wanted him to fight evil with its own weapons, and thus, he started thinking about ways to inspire his people to join him in the fight. Years later, in February 1831, a major solar eclipse occurred, and it was highly visible in the state of Virginia. For Turner, an avid believer, this was a message God was sending for him to start the rebellion. He interpreted the moon covering the sun as a symbol of a black fist rising to fight their oppressors.
After months of sermons and planning, Turner was ready to act. He had originally planned the rebellion for Independence Day of that year, but he fell sick and took this as a sign they had to get more preparation for the uprising. It finally happened on August 21, when a group of 70 slaves led by Turner, joined by an important number of free black men, took Southampton, visiting one house after the next, freeing the slaves, and killing their owners. They decided not to use guns to avoid alerting the others, so, armed with knives, axes, and basically anything sturdy enough to give a hefty blow, they ended up killing about 60 white slave owners and their families.
However, the uprising didn’t last long. Just a few hours later, the local militia arrived with double the men and better weapons. On that day, while they were trying to stop the rebellion, about one hundred black people (most of whom hadn’t even taken part in the rebellion) were killed by the militia. The next day, armies from neighboring towns and states arrived to help end the revolt once and for all. Around 56 of all the conspirators were arrested and executed within a few days, and thus ended that brief light of hope for slaves throughout the US.
Things didn't get any better afterwards. Word spread fast about the revolt, and the slave owners, panicking and paranoid about future uprisings in their land, started killing slaves whenever they saw anything they found suspicious. There’s no way to know how many people were killed in the following weeks, but there are estimates that range from hundreds to even thousands. It stopped when the government issued an act asking slave owners to stop the violence.
Meanwhile, Nat, who had managed to flee before the authorities reached him, had a warrant on his head. Six weeks after the rebellion, he was found in Southampton, hiding near the settlement of the Nottoway, a Native tribe. He was tried on November 5th and sentenced to die for “conspiring to rebel and making insurrection.” The execution date was set for just six days after. That day, already on the plank, he was asked if he had any regrets, and he just answered: “was Christ not crucified?”
His body was quartered, flayed, and thrown away to send a message to potential conspirators. And though his remains are probably lost forever, his rebellion remains a reminder of fight and resilience. While in prison, his lawyer, Thomas Ruffin Gray, compiled his confessions and published them that same year as The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia. Though historians believe Gray’s comments were biased against Turner, it’s considered to be the only written evidence of a story no one thought was possible in the times of slavery. A story of dissidence, strength, and justice.
Yes, Nat Turner’s story is not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western nor a Tarantino revenge fantasy, but perhaps, if we look past his fervent religious drive, Turner was, in fact, a true badass hero willing to risk everything to do the right thing. His rebellion was short-lived, but the message he left has resonated in all black movements since then. From abolitionist crusades to the Civil Rights movement, Nat Turner sparked a flame that’s still burning.
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Images taken from the film Birth of a Nation inspired by Nat Turner's life.