Do you agree with my friend Clay Cane?
“In this review, I will not argue the trite debate whether the film is or isn’t that hot-button word: racist. Racism is the Central Park Five, the execution of Troy Davis and wannabe cops who ‘stand their ground’ to unarmed Black boys — not a Hollywood film, which is meant for entertainment and includes some of the most respected and intelligent Black actors of today.”
I do not.
Respectfully, I think it’s a mistake to imagine racism can only operate as overt action and not as covert psychological assault in the form of filmic propaganda (BIRTH OF A NATION was also a Hollywood film meant for entertainment). The idea that entertainment can’t also be a vehicle for the transportation of bigotry is, to me, mind-boggling (think of vaudevillian blackface). By the logic my friend is espousing above, films that promote racist stereotypes or The White Gaze Revenge Fantasy Idea of Blackness can’t be racist if they employ respected and intelligent black people (that absolves GONE WITH THE WIND of any racism). The assumption, I suppose, being that Kerry Washington (and Jamie Foxx?) would not have agreed to act in DJANGO UNCHAINED if she thought it was racist because she’s a conscious sister and we can trust her judgment and, therefore, we can trust Quentin Tarantino. I don’t think that point of view accounts for the idea that Hollywood is a strange beast. Oftentimes, personal politics plays second fiddle to opportunity—ESPECIALLY for black actors.
I think I understand the desire to defend the things we enjoy, but how can we ignore the set-up of this film? The enslaved black man isn’t his own agent of freedom. He’s saved from slavery by a white drifter who then goes on to teach him how to be a “real man” (which is simply film-code for “civilizing the savage”) so that he can go on ahead and save his “wife” from the brutality of other white men. There are many white supremacist implications JUST in that narrative. Simply because characters have depth and a story is compelling doesn’t absolve it of white supremacist propaganda—even in a story where a few black folks win. The White Savior is a product of racism. There’s no way to escape that.
And how can we look at this film in a vacuum? How can we not look at it in the context of the fact that Hollywood told Danny Glover flat out that he couldn’t make a film about a REAL black historical hero, but Quentin Tarantino got the, not green light, but AQUAMARINE light, to create a film about a fictitious black figure in a fictitious story that Clay says is “surprisingly historically correct”?
Clay notes that the film uses the word “nigger” about 108 times, but that he felt that it was properly contextual for the film. I would like to step OUTSIDE the film for a moment and think about the filmmaker. Given his pattern of behavior and his own philosophy, I wouldn’t be surprised if he wrote this film simply as an excuse to use the word 108 times and not be called on it because he can hide behind the notion that it’s “historical.” bell hooks can speak to the problematics of Tarantino much more intelligently and eloquently than I (read REEL TO REAL), but that there are problematics is, to me, hard to question.
I don’t think going to see DJANGO UNCHAINED makes people racist. I DO, however, believe that we become complicit in perpetuating racism and complacent in our critical evaluation of what we are seeing—if we just let the film wash over us with its seductive beauty and the sense of satisfaction it gives us. I read the script for DJANGO UNCHAINED. That some people think that this is a film for black audiences is shocking. That some can read it as an empowering film for blacks and not see what I believe are massive white supremacist gazes (not to mention ignore philosopher Walter Benjamin’s notes on the danger of revenge film—ESPECIALLY when told by the Outsider) is very difficult for me to understand.
Or to put is as my grandmama used to: Just because it FEELS good doesn’t mean it’s good FOR you.
To characterize any critical debate about this film as “trite” is shade. It’s an attempt to end the conversation before it starts. Also the idea that the film “just states the way things were” strikes me as a simplistic reading that doesn’t allow for interrogative questions like: Why isn’t a black person permitted to tell the story? Why did a white man obsessed with the word “nigger” get to tell it? Why isn’t Django allowed to obtain his own autonomy without the help of the white savior? Why does Samuel L. Jackson, an already dark-skinned black man, have to appear in blackface to play his role of House Negro?
But I suppose we all come to art/entertainment with our own experiences—shared and separate.
So let’s open this up to a larger discussion. What say you, fam?
All opinions are welcome as long as they remain respectful and bigotry-free.
-The Son of Baldwin