I am a son of Virginia. My late father was a native of Portsmouth and admitted to study at the University of Virginia’s Law School. He then submitted a photograph to the school that indicated that he was a man of color. His admission was promptly rescinded.
He worked his way through Howard University, carrying luggage at Virginia Beach hotels and waiting tables on a steamboat that carried commuters from Norfolk to Washington, D.C., braving the notoriously rough confluence of the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River.
He worked that his younger son might some day have the opportunity to study history and theater and to combine those interests in an ever-evolving career inspired by his Southern heritage.
To tell the story of Nat Turner, another native son of the Old Dominion, is to walk in the footsteps of my ancestors, among them aboriginals, immigrants, slaves and masters.
My grandmother was an invalid poet, my grandfather a one-eyed red-headed colored cabbie and my great grandmother was a self-educated midwife, who brought more than 500 children — of all colors — into this world. And, of course, my uncle was an undertaker.
They lived and died where Nat Turner had done the same, in bondage and, then, in nominal freedom, the promise of Reconstruction betrayed by the rise of Jim Crow.
When Douglas Wilder ran to be the first Virginia governor of admitted African descent, my parents plastered their van with Wilder posters and drove cross-country from our California home to join the campaign trail. His victory in 1989 signaled to them the rise of the “new” South and the death of the status crow.
Our nation eight years ago was emboldened by the possibility of a “post-racial” America, as my elder daughter and I celebrated her 16th birthday freezing on the National Mall, our pilgrimage to the banks of the Potomac not unlike her grandparents’ southern sojourn.
And now on that same Mall there rises a great new museum, which holds Nat Turner’s Bible, 13 pages of the Book of Revelation mysteriously torn asunder. Perhaps one day it will be reunited with his terrible swift sword, presently encased in Southampton County, where it was famously bloodied in August 1831.
And perhaps his skull — said to be in Gary, Indiana — will someday will be reunited with his other mortal remains in Southampton, which have been diligently pursued by the the makers of a forthcoming documentary about Nat Turner. This remembering is a fascinating archeological and biographical expedition and has been distinguished by scholarship that has illuminated his peculiar moment in our nation’s history.
The growing body of literary, theatrical and cinematic work inspired by Turner’s saga has in turn inspired volumes of debate and will continue to do so, at least through the coming Oscar season.
But the search for Nat Turner is not simply the pursuit of one man. It is, rather, the ongoing search for the American soul, in which our relentless pursuit of freedom has been enslaved by our collective national amnesia, as we attempt to make “great again” that which was always flawed, and still in progress.
“He’s a God of love” my Isaiah reminds Nat Turner in Nate Parker’s upcoming film “The Birth of a Nation.” “And He is also a God of wrath,” Nat responds.
The uncivil war of 1831 is still being fought in America and the weapons are just as primitive. The rebirth of this nation will be a bloody enterprise.
Just ask my Great Grandmother the midwife. And my Uncle the undertaker.
Award-winning actor, writer and director Roger Guenveur Smith co-stars in Nate Parker’s critically acclaimed film “The Birth of a Nation,” which drew praise at the Sundance Film Festival in January and recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Smith continues the national conversation of Nat Turner’s story as the host of an upcoming documentary about the historical figure, which is set to air the week of the October 7 release of “The Birth of a Nation.”
25 Fall Movies We're Dying to See: From 'The Birth of a Nation' to 'Rogue One' (Photos)
Fall Preview 2016: TheWrap picks the movies you need to see before the year's end, from superhero films to critically acclaimed indies.
"The Light Between Oceans" Cast: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz Director: Derek Cianfrance Release Date: Sept. 2 What it's about: A lighthouse keeper (Fassbender) and his wife (Vikander) rescue a baby girl who washes up in a rowboat and unofficially adopt her. When the girl grows older, an encounter with a certain woman on the mainland threatens to break up their happy life. Why we're dying to see it: This is the movie that started the real-life Fassbender-Vikander romance. We have to see the chemistry that unfolds between them on screen.
"The Magnificent Seven" Director: Antoine Fuqua Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke Release Date: Sept. 23 What it's about: A remake of the classic Western about seven outlaws as they help a town under siege by an industrialist villain. Why we're dying to see it: It's an A-list remake that showcases some good diversity. Plus Antoine Fuqua directed "Training Day," in which Denzel Washington won an Academy Award for Best Actor.
"Queen of Katwe" Director: Mira Nair Cast: Lupita Nyong'o, David Oyelowo, Madina Nalwanga Release Date: Sept. 23 What it's about: A biographical drama about Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan chess prodigy who earned Woman Candidate Master at the World Chess Olympiads. Why we're dying to see it: It's an untold story of a Ugandan chess player who grew up in the slum of Katwe. Rarely do we get to see feel-good stories about Africa on the big screen.
Walt Disney Pictures
"The Girl on the Train" Cast: Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett Director: Tate Taylor Release Date: Oct. 7 What it's about: The story follows a recently divorced woman (Blunt) who fantasizes during her daily commute about the seemingly perfect couple who live in a house that her train passes every day, until she sees something shocking and becomes entangled in a mystery. Why we're dying to see it: It's based on Paula Hawkins' best-selling novel and has the same feel as "Gone Girl."
"The Birth of a Nation" Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Mark Boone Junior, Gabrielle Union Director: Nate Parker Release Date: Oct. 7 What it's about: Parker stars as the 19th-century slave Nat Turner, who was taught to read the Bible to preach to fellow slaves but wound up leading a famous rebellion in 1831. Why we're dying to see it: Parker's directorial debut was phenomenon at Sundance, where it was bought for a festival-record $17.5 million.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
"Kevin Hart: What Now?" Cast: Kevin Hart Director: Leslie Small Release Date: Oct. 14 What it's about: A stand-up comedy film that features his performance from the recently concluded "What Now?" tour. Why we're dying to see it: It's been five long years since his last stand-up film, "Laugh at My Pain."
"A Monster Calls" Cast: Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones Director: J.A. Bayona Release Date: Oct. 21 What it's about: A young boy deals with a terminally ill mother and bullies at school with the help of an ancient monster tree (voiced by Liam Neeson). Why we're dying to see it: Patrick Ness' fantastical children's novel, based on an idea from a woman with terminal cancer, was adapted for the screen by Ness himself.
"Doctor Strange" Cast:Rachel McAdams, Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelson, Tilda Swinton Director: Scott Derrickson Release Date: Nov. 4 What it's about: Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is an egotistical but brilliant surgeon whose career is destroyed after a car accident ruins his hands. Searching the globe to repair them, he encounters the Ancient One (Swinton), a sorcerer who trains Strange to defend the world from evil. Why we’re excited to see it: Doctor Strange is one of Marvel’s more eccentric (and lesser known) heroes and the trailers have promised plenty some seriously trippy, magical mayhem.
Walt Disney Studios
“Hacksaw Ridge” Cast:Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Teresa Palmer Director:Mel Gibson Release Date: Nov. 4 What it’s about: It's based on the true story of U.S. Army medic Desmond T. Doss (Garfield) during World War II. Doss refused to kill anybody or bear arms, becoming the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman. Why we’re excited to see it: The story sounds fascinating, and this is Mel Gibson’s first film as a director since 2006’s “Apocalypto.”
"Loving" Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Nick Kroll Director: Jeff Nichols Release Date: Nov. 4 What it's about: An interracial couple wages a legal fight against imprisonment in the mid-20th-century South, leading to the landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia. Why we're dying to see it: The film has been building buzz since its debut at Cannes, particularly for co-star Ruth Negga.
"All Eyez on Me" Cast: Demetrius Shipp Jr. Danai Gurira, Lauren Cohan Director: Benny Boom Release Date: Nov. 11 What it's about: A biopic on Tupac Shaku's rise to fame all the way to his death during a drive-by in Las Vegas. Why we're dying to see it: Tupac has had multiple films made about his life, but the last one worth watching ("Tupac: Resurrection") was released 13 years ago. Plus, Tupac.
Open Road Films
"Arrival" Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker Director: Denis Villeneuve Release Date: Nov. 16 What it's about: After alien spacecrafts descend on Earth, a linguist (Adams) is hired by the U.S. government to investigate them. Why we're dying to see it: The film has a strong pedigree, Adams has been nominated for five Oscars and the director's last film, "Sicario," received three Oscar nominations.
"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" Cast: Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Vin Diesel, Garrett Hedlund Director: Ang Lee Release Date: Nov. 11 What it's about: Based on a novel of the same name, the film follows an Iraq war hero whose victory tour back in the U.S. is interrupted by jarring flashbacks. Why we're dying to see it: Great source material, and Ang Lee's first film since another eye-catching literary adaptation, "The Life of Pi."
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” Cast:Eddie Redmayne, Ezra Miller, Colin Farrell Director: David Yates Release Date: Nov. 18 What it’s about: Before Harry Potter even existed, there was Newt Scamander (Redmayne). The wizard -- and future author of a textbook mainstay at Hogwarts — visits the Magical Congress of the United States in 1926, but loses control of a special briefcase containing a number of dangerous beasts. Why we’re excited to see it:J.K. Rowling. Wizards. Eddie Redmayne.
“Nocturnal Animals” Cast:Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer Director:Tom Ford Release Date: Nov. 18 What it’s about: In an adaptation of Austin Wright's 1933 novel “Tony and Susan,” Adams stars as an art gallery owner who begins receiving the manuscript of her ex-husband’s violent thriller novel. As Susan reads more of the story, she begins to interpret it as a threat. Why we’re excited to see it: This will be fashion designer Tom Ford’s second directorial feature, following 2009’s “A Single Man.” The dynamic cast is sure to make this thriller a memorable one.
"Manchester by the Sea" Cast:Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedge Director: Kenneth Lonergan Release Date: Nov. 18 What it’s about: An uncle (Affleck) must take care of his teenage nephew (Hedge) and return to his hometown after the death of the boy’s father. Why we’re excited to see it: The film received high praise when it premiered at Sundance and Lucas Hedge delivers a breakout performance as the nephew, Patrick.
"Moana" Cast:Dwayne Johnson, Auli’i Cravalho, Phillipa Soo Director: Ron Clements, John Musker Release Date: Nov. 23 What it’s about: A young woman, Moana (Cravalho), sets sail for a fabled island and is joined by demigod Maui (Johnson) along the way. Why we’re excited to see it: The animated musical is Disney’s first story about a Polynesian princess and will feature original music by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Plus, the Rock sings!
"La La Land" Cast:Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock Director: Damien Chazelle Release Date: Dec. 2 What it’s about: Stone and Gosling star as an aspiring actress and a jazz pianist, respectively, in modern-day L.A. The two meet and soon fall in love, but as each begins to find success in their dream careers, their relationship threatens to tear apart. Why we’re excited to see it: We’ve already seen the chemistry between Stone and Gosling in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “Gangster Squad,” so we can’t wait to see what happens with the two of them when dancing and music are added in this romantic comedy-drama musical.
"Fences" Director: Denzel Washington Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo Release Date: Dec. 16 What's it about: A once-promising baseball player ends up working as a garbageman in 1950s Pittsburgh. Why we're dying to see it: August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning play with two amazing actors -- who won Tonys in 2010 for playing these very roles on Broadway.
20th Century Fox
"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" Cast:Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen Director: Gareth Edwards Release Date: Dec. 16 What it’s about: Essentially a prequel to “Star Wars: A New Hope,” the film follows a group of Rebel spies as they attempt to steal plans for the Death Star. Why we’re excited to see it: Not only is it the first standalone film in the "Star Wars" franchise, but the trailer promises a badass female lead and plenty of fight scenes.
"Collateral Beauty" Cast:Will Smith, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton Director: David Frankel Release Date: Dec. 16 What it’s about: An advertising executive in New York faces a downward spiral after a tragic event, prompting his colleagues to seek a plan to get him out his funk. Why we’re excited to see it: “The Devil Wears Prada” director returns to New York City with an all-star cast.
"The Founder" Cast:Michael Keaton, Laura Dern, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch Director: John Lee Hancock Release Date: Dec. 16 What it’s about: The biographical film follows Ray Kroc (Keaton) meeting Mac and Dick McDonald and developing the first McDonald’s franchise. Why we’re excited to see it: Aren’t you curious to hear how McDonald’s started? And Keaton could be back in the Oscar race for the third straight year.
"Passengers" Cast:Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne Director: Morten Tyldum Release Date: Dec. 21 What it’s about: Lawrence and Pratt play two passengers aboard a spacecraft that’s on a 120-year journey to a distant planet. Due to a malfunction, two passengers are prematurely woken up with 90 years left to go on the voyage. Why we’re excited to see it: Two of Hollywood's biggest stars team for a sci-fi romance that seemed very promising from the first footage shown at CinemaCon in April.
"Why Him?" Cast:James Franco, Zoey Deutch, Bryan Cranston, Keegan-Michael Key, Adam DeVine, Megan Mullally Director: John Hamburg Release Date: Dec. 25 What it’s about: A father (Cranston) meets his daughter’s wealthy and eccentric boyfriend (Franco) and immediately dislikes him -- and resists all of Franco's attempts to win him over. Why we’re excited to see it: Cranston and Franco seem like the perfect oddball pairing-- plus it's great to see them both in a comdy.
20th Century Fox
"Toni Erdmann" Cast: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Michael Wittenborn Director: Maren Ade Release Date: Dec. 25 What it’s about: An older father (Simonischek) tries to reconnect with his adult daughter (Hüller) by playing pranks on her. Why we’re excited to see it: The comedic film, a hit at Cannes, boasts a 91 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. TheWrap’s Steve Pond described it as a “hysterically funny but deeply touching father-daughter story that ... doesn’t waste a moment.”
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Fall Movie Preview 2016: TheWrap picks the films you need to see before year’s end
Fall Preview 2016: TheWrap picks the movies you need to see before the year's end, from superhero films to critically acclaimed indies.
Roger Guenveur Smith has acted in over 80 films, including "American Gangster," "He Got Game," "Dope," "Summer of Sam" and, most recently, the critically acclaimed "The Birth of a Nation." His television work includes a starring role in Steven Soderbergh's "K Street" for HBO and the Peabody Award winner "A Huey P. Newton Story" for Starz, directed by Spike Lee. Smith also has an internationally acclaimed body of historically infused solo stage performances, including "Inside the Creole Mafia," "A Huey P. Newton Story" and "Rodney King."