In the minds of black and white Americans, Nat Turner quickly emerged as more than simply a man who had led a slave rebellion. Even before he was captured and executed, Nat Turner became regarded as a powerful symbol – a lightning rod for the hopes and fears of individuals on different sides of the slavery issue. For some, Nat Turner was a symbol of all that was wrong with the slave system and of the potential for black retaliation and liberation. For others, Nat Turner embodied the dark savagery of African Americans and slaveholders’ often repressed fears that that savagery would lead to their destruction.
For nearly two centuries, Americans have represented and re-represented Nat Turner in ways that directly reflect their views on slavery and race. Nat Turner has appeared in popular culture in guises as far-ranging as a desperate fanatic, a manipulative opportunist, and a worthy hero. At times, depictions of the rebel leader have caused widespread controversy, as with the publication of William Styron’s novel The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1967. Into the present century, authors and artists continue to depict this divisive historical figure in provocative ways, as Kyle Baker’s 2008 graphic novel Nat Turner demonstrates. The first-ever feature film about Turner and the rebellion, produced by and starring Nate Parker, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016 and was released in theaters in October of the same year.