The Reason We May Never Have Another bell hooks, Eve Babitz, or Joan Didion
Once, while researching a piece for the New York Times Magazine , I came across a debate between William Styron and Ossie Davis moderated by James Baldwin. The reason for the debate: Styron, a white guy, had written a first-person historical novel from the point of view of Nat Turner, the real-life historical figure who, as you will recall, led an 1831 slave rebellion in which he and his fellows literally killed every white person they saw including babies and children. Turner even wrote a short pamphlet explaining himself before he was hanged and it really is a primary source that is not taught nearly enough as either an historical or literary work. I guess we don’t really have the stomach for it. But we probably should.
Some 135 years later Baldwin suggested (or maybe “dared” is the better word) Styron to write about the event in the first person and Styron accepted the challenge. The result was 1967’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, a book which enjoyed a wild but brief success — it dominated the bestseller list and won a Pulitzer Prize — before the backlash came. A year later, a compendium of Black authors critiquing Confessions was published and suffice it to say a lot of people weren’t feeling Stryon’s work. Hollywood, however, was all in. In 1968 20th Century Fox and producer David Wolper — who would later produce Roots — paid a whopping $600,000 for the adaption rights to Confessions, at the time reported as the largest sum ever paid for book-to-film rights. Academy Award winner Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night) was tapped to direct and James Earl Jones, who was the hot new actor after dazzling Broadway with his turn in The Great White Hope, was eyed for the lead role.
Ossie Davis was among the first of Black actors in Hollywood to say “not so fast,” to the movie project, taking particular issue with Styron’s depiction of Turner as a revenge rapist which was purely an act of invention on Styron’s part. Davis reasoned that while the book was bad enough, transferring this image to screen could very likely lead to real and material death for real Black people in America. It was not long before the likes of Stokely Charmichael (a.k.a. Kwame Ture) and H Rap Brown were on board with the Davis-led boycott. Jewison wanted precisely none of the smoke and backed out, citing scheduling conflicts with Fiddler on the Roof, an…