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Another look at Nat Turner: An Amherst writer shopped his own screenplay to Hollywood about the pivotal 1831 slave uprising

  • Greg Oates, left, with his father, Stephen Oates, a retired UMass Amherst history professor, has written a screenplay about the Nat Turner slave revolt in Virginia in 1831. The screenplay is based on his father's 1975 history of the rebellion, "The Fires of Jubilee." Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • Greg Oates, left, and his father Stephen Oates, a retired UMass Amherst history professor, pose for a portrait Oct. 28 in the older Oates' Amherst home. Greg Oates has written a screenplay on the Nat Turner slave revolt in Virginia in 1831, which is based on his father's 1975 history of the rebellion, "The Fires of Jubilee." —Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • Greg Oates, left, with his father, Stephen Oates, a retired UMass Amherst history professor, has written a screenplay based on the Nat Turner slave revolt in Virginia in 1831, which is based on his father's 1975 history of the rebellion, "The Fires of Jubilee." Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • Greg Oates based his screenplay on his father’s 1975 history of Nat Turner and the rebellion he led, “The Fires of Jubilee.” —

  • Nate Parker, wearing a vest in center of front row, plays Nat Turner in the film “The Birth of a Nation.”


Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 23, 2016

By STEVE PFARRER

For years, Greg Oates had thought the slave uprising led by Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831 would make for a moving and riveting film.

In fact, he’d thought that ever since, as a teenager, he read “The Fires of Jubilee,” the book his father, historian and retired University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Stephen Oates, wrote in 1975 about the rebellion.

A couple of years ago, the younger Oates, a screenwriter who, like his father, lives in Amherst, made that idea a reality. He’d completed a screenplay called “Nat Turner’s Insurrection,” and he and his agent in California were just starting to shop the work to Hollywood studios; hopes were high, Oates says.

Then along came a juggernaut called “The Birth of a Nation” — another film project about Nat Turner’s rebellion.

Just what are the odds, exactly, that two screenplays, based on an historical event that’s not that well known, surface at the same time in Hollywood?

“The Birth of a Nation,” written and directed by and starring Nate Parker, wowed audiences at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It opened nationwide in October to mixed reviews and (so far) has had disappointing box office returns. Though some critics have praised the film’s energy and ambition, others have said the storyline deviates significantly from history.

Greg Oates, who’s 51, says he applauds Parker for bringing the Nat Turner story to national attention and, much like “12 Years a Slave” did in 2013, using his film to re-examine the horrors of U.S. slavery, at a time when some revisionists have suggested African-American slaves weren’t treated that badly.

But Oates also wonders why Parker did not incorporate more of the story told in “The Fires of Jubilee,” which he used as the basis for his own screenplay; he consulted closely with Stephen Oates over his script to insure it was accurate.

“It’s all there — the details, the narrative, the drama,” he said of his father’s book. “There was really no need to change anything.”

Indeed, a number of aspects in “The Birth of a Nation” are inaccurate, adds Stephen Oates, 80, who has also written biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., abolitionist John Brown and the Civil War nurse Clara Barton. “Greg’s screenplay is accurate, and it really captures the spirit and life of Nat Turner,” he said.

But then it’s possible Parker did tap some of “The Fires of Jubilee” for his screenplay — which is all part of a strange journey that father and son took in the past two years, as Greg Oates found his Nat Turner screenplay sidelined, while “The Birth of a Nation” moved forward.

A tough sell

Oates, who’s worked as a screenwriter since the 1990s — he’s currently developing a script for the Civil War novel “Glory Enough For All” — says he first pitched the idea of a Nat Turner film to a number of people, including a former agent, more than 20 years ago. He once met Monty Ross, co-producer of several of Spike Lee’s earlier movies, and tried to sell him on the idea as well, he says.

“Everyone said the same thing — it’s too violent,” he said. The idea of black-on-white violence was off-putting to some, Oates added, and historical dramas in general “are a tough sell.”

The August 1831 uprising, in southern Virginia near the North Carolina border, was bloody indeed. Turner, who had taught himself to read and was a charismatic preacher to fellow slaves, became convinced God wanted him to throw off slavery’s brutal yoke. He and his followers killed close to 60 whites, including women and children.

Angry whites hung Turner and 17 other insurgents, while perhaps 200 slaves and free blacks with no connection to the uprising were also killed in retaliation.

In “The Fires of Jubilee,” Stephen Oates writes that the event shook slavery’s foundation to its core, foreshadowing the Civil War by turning the South into “a closed, martial society determined to preserve and perpetuate its slave-based civilization come what may.”

By 2013, Greg Oates had signed with a new agent, Jon Levin of Creative Artists Agency (CAA) in Los Angeles, and Oates shared his Nat Turner ideas with him (Levin’s wife, Diane, is a movie producer who has optioned Stephen Oates’ book on Clara Barton).

“Suddenly things were more receptive,” Oates said. “Jon was really interested.”

Levin made an initial arrangement to have Reggie Hudlin, the producer of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” produce and possibly direct a film, while Diane Levin would also help produce it.

In summer 2014, Oates showed his first act to the Levins and to Hudlin and was given the go-ahead to submit the full screenplay, which he says got an enthusiastic internal review — called “coverage” — from CAA. Discussion followed on which studios and financiers to approach with the script.

Then in early 2015, word came out about Nate Parker and “The Birth of a Nation,” and, Oates said, Jon Levin told him to “sit tight.” Over the following months, as Parker’s movie gained steam, “the bottom dropped out” of his own project, Oates said.

Mysterious phone calls

Then earlier this year, things got weird. Oates and his father received a mysterious series of phone calls from an editor — they declined to identify him — from Stephen Oates’ publisher, Harper Collins, about bringing out a new edition of “The Fires of Jubilee” with a tie-in to Parker’s movie, including some related artwork. That deal had supposedly been floated by Fox Searchlight Pictures, the producer of “The Birth of a Nation.”

The editor also told them that Parker had used “The Fires of Jubilee” as a source for his film; then he said Parker wanted to meet father and son. The Oates said they’d like to see a screening of “The Birth of a Nation” before committing to any tie-in between movie and book. Greg Oates says the film company, through the editor, initially agreed to that, then canceled the plan.

“It was all very mysterious, all done through this editor,” Greg Oates said. “We never heard directly from [Fox Searchlight].”

Calls from the Gazette to Fox Searchlight seeking comment were not returned.

Today, the only tie-in between film and book is a front-cover blurb on a new paperback printing of “The Fires of Jubilee,” which says “The True Story Behind the New Motion Picture The Birth of a Nation.”

Got it wrong

Though they acknowledge not having seen Parker’s movie, the Oates say multiple reviews of the film they’ve read reveal numerous inaccuracies about the story. For instance, in the film, Nat Turner kills the first white person during the uprising, while the insurgents also have a climactic battle with white militia at the end. Neither of those things occurred, Stephen Oates said.

Other critics, including African Americans, have also faulted the movie’s historicity. In an article last month in The Nation, Leslie M. Alexander, a professor of African American and African Studies at Ohio State University, called Turner’s film “a deeply flawed, historically inaccurate movie that exploits and distorts Nat Turner’s story and the history of slavery in America.”

Film reviewers, however, note that movies often take liberties in historical dramas for storytelling purposes. Ty Burr, the Boston Globe’s film critic, says “The Birth of a Nation” has its merits, despite some other controversy surrounding it (Parker has been dogged by a rape charge from 1999 that resurfaced this past summer, even though he was cleared of all charges).

“There is a movie here amid the uproar and it’s worth attending to: powerful but imperfect, both a dramatization of an overlooked chapter in American history and a clichéd gloss on it,” Burr wrote last month. “[It’s] very much a first film, its hesitancies disguised as bluntness, and the best things about it are Parker’s acting and his ambitions.”

Greg Oates says the whole experience “has been a long, strange journey.” And though disappointed his screenplay didn’t make it to the next stage, he hopes it might reach a larger audience. It’s now been published by Levellers Press in Amherst, and his agent is exploring other avenues for it, such as television.

“It can deepen the dialogue that Nate [Parker] has started,” he said. “Nat Turner’s story has so many connections to today, things like Black Lives Matter … Nat was an agent of change, and what he did was a call to action.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.