In the old days, newspaper libraries, called “morgues,” kept their clips in dusty manila envelopes with neat little headers typed on the front—as in the Oscar Best Picture winner Spotlight. And the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences still does.
So we dropped in to see if the Herrick library had an envelope for The Confessions Of Nat Turner, a never-produced film, based on William Styron’s bestselling novel of the same title. The book went into development at 2oth Century Fox back in January 1968. That was some 48 years and nine months before Fox, through its Fox Searchlight Pictures division, will finally release Nate Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation, a completely different Nat Turner biopic that already has a fat clip file of its own.
But that’s another story. Sort of.
In January, Fox Searchlight set a Sundance Film Festival record by paying $17.5 million to acquire The Birth Of A Nation. But, according to those musty old clips, Fox had once before paid a record price for the Turner story, when it joined producer David Wolper (later famous for Roots) in offering $600,000, plus an added participation, for the Styron novel.
“Base price is the largest ever paid for pix rights to a book,” Variety wrote on January 15, 1968 (when our sister publication’s famous slanguage was still in full bloom).
Hopes were high. Norman Jewison, fresh off In The Heat Of The Night, which would win that year’s Best Picture Oscar, “joined project as director,” snipped Variety in that same yellow dispatch. It is Scotch-taped to a 3×5 index card, no digital tricks here.
Producers and agents would soon be circling James Earl Jones, then starring on Broadway in The Great White Hope, and already promised to Fox for a film version of that play. By February 3, 1969, Jones was set for the Turner role — but not before disaster struck, in the form of racial politics.
“NEGROES PROTEST TURNER BIO” BLARED, I mean, “blared” the front-page banner headline of The Hollywood Reporter (Price 10 Cents) on Friday, March 29, 1968.
It’s all right there in a story by Ray Loynd. Godfrey Cambridge and Ossie Davis had “joined a protest movement, headed by an ad hoc committee from the Los Angeles Negro community,” attacking the Fox film.
Organized by Lee Meriweather, a freelance writer and ex-story analyst at Universal, the Association to End Defamation of Black People sent a five-page (single-spaced) letter to Wolper and Jewison, with a copy to Jack Valenti, then head of the MPAA. It accused the filmmakers “of murdering the spirit of Nat Turner, one of the great ethnic heroes of black Americans.” Contacted on the set of the Jonathan Winters television show, Cambridge explained that having Styron, a white Southerner, tell the Turner story was worse than “hiring a repentant Adolf Eichmann to write the story of the Bible.”
In May, Styron’s book won the Pulitzer Prize. “The motion picture adaptation of this Number One Best-Seller will be released by 2oth Century-Fox” insisted the studio, in a full-page ad, in the May 13, 1968 Hollywood Reporter. (Casting notes on the back of the clip have Brenda Vaccaro set for Midnight Cowboy, and two Beatles, John and Paul, booked for tomorrow’s Tonight Show.)
Two weeks later, Fox hired Lew Peterson, a black playwright, as its Nat Turner screenwriter. But in October 1968, Ebony upped the opposition with an eight-page essay, by Lerone Bennett Jr, titled: “The Case Against Styron’s Nat Turner.” It was an excerpt from a book called William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, edited by John Henrik Clarke.
The studio eventually reached a deal with the protesters under which it agreed to drop the word “Confessions” from the film’s title, to expand its historical sourcing beyond the Styron novel, and to eliminate scenes involving rape and homosexuality — all of this according to Variety, on February 12, 1969. Three days later, the Los Angeles Times said the written agreement specified that black slaves in the film would not be depicted as “lusting after white women,” and that Fox would commit to projecting “a positive image of Turner as a black revolutionary.”
By then, the protest group, said the Times, had grown to include the activist leaders H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael and LeRoi Jones.
But to no avail. Jewison dropped out — Variety said it was due to a conflict with his commitment to direct Fiddler On The Roof. Sidney Lumet flirted with the project, but backed off.
By September 4, 2001, Styron, who died five years later, was still complaining, in a not-so-musty clip from the Village Voice, about the Fox agreement. “They wanted to give Nat a wife, and turn it into a bourgeois family,” he said.
Turner’s legacy, and the next round of clips (including a new Vanity Fair story about the Nat Turner wars, which will soon join the stack), passed to Parker, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in The Birth Of A Nation as an independent production. Through karma or quirk of history, the film found its way to Fox. And Parker’s Turner, if not quite bourgeois, is now a largely admirable black revolutionary, with a wife.