Let me start by saying that I fully intended to hate every moment of Quentin Tarantino’s new film, “Django Unchained.” I hate old things. So, a ‘Spaghetti Western’ about a German (Christoph Waltz), a freedman turned bounty hunter (Jamie Foxx), an evil slaver (Leonardo DiCaprio), and a damsel in distress (Kerry Washington) just didn’t strike my fancy from the get. And, let me also say, this is not a social commentary post from a film buff whose sole goal in life is to critique the uncritique-able. You know, one of those preachy ivory tower posts where folks analyze every moment of a film with the sole intention of raising themselves above the piece, cast, and basic premises of the work itself. Instead, this is simply an article about who gets to make black movies and why. I posit that even those outside the black community, like Tarantino, have an important and needed perspective when it comes to the black cinematic arts.
Tarantino’s parodied take on the 1966 “Django” was truly an awe-full (not awful) event. The script was wittily written and punchlines were delivered with the keen timing of a seasoned comedic professional. To add, Tarantino successfully minced the monolithic nature of American slavery with the mundane humanity of pre-Civil War Southern living. There was gore galore, as one would expect for any Tarantino film. But, being extremely squeamish myself, it all seemed to fold seamlessly into the bravado, macabre, and virulent backdrop of an archaic and disgusting institution of slavery. Though difficult to take at times, Tarantino’s spin was palatable nonetheless. And, unlike other ‘white gone black’ films like “The Help,” Tarantino went there full throttle. He didn’t pussyfoot around the issue. He left nothing on the table and earned every bit of notoriety this film will most certainly garner in the upcoming round of awards shows.
Regardless of the film’s quality, it spawned a host of criticisms. The most prominent of those evaluations came from none other than Mr. Spike Lee, notable black filmmaker and self-proclaimed guardsman of all things black cinema. He recently took to Twitter to express his disdain for the film.
“American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western.It Was A Holocaust.My Ancestors Are Slaves.Stolen From Africa.I Will Honor Them.” [sic].
Not only that, Lee told VibeTV that he wasn’t going to see the film at all because “it’s disrespectful to [his] ancestors.” He has sited the overt use of the n-word in the film as his primary basis for boycotting it all together. And, while this is understandable, one would expect Lee to speak out similarly against most rap and hip hop music which employs this racial epithet about as much as we all breathe air. Now, before you go and grab the universe’s most minuscule violin to play for this man, let’s give him some context.
Spike Lee, who has been making black films for over thirty years now, might be best known for “Malcolm X” (1992) or “Bamboozled” (2000). These films are indicative of his blunt ended approach to film-making for upper-crest black thinkers. Both films dealt with issues of racism, class conflict, and the pathology of the black self. But, neither was a major box office hit. Juxtapose that schema with Mr. Tyler Perry. Most well known for his outlandish sequence of “Madea” films, he is typically seen as the generic brand when it comes to black film. Though his movies deal with the same issues as Lee’s, he often wraps them in highly mainstream, highly stereotypical, and slightly minstrel-esque packages. So, while this has yielded a steady stream of cash flow for Perry, he and Lee have had little commonality in cinematic methods.
But, what is interesting about Lee, Perry, and, now, Taratino is that they are all telling the same story. Lee, though sometimes in your face with his messages about the beaten down black race, generally tells the story of the black American ghetto. His films discuss colorism, self-hatred, and remnants of slave mentality. Similarly, Perry tells the coming of age version of Lee’s age old stories. And, though he sometimes employs a mammy-like character to do so, he does it while interweaving a host of characters that we (the black ‘we’) probably grew up with. His intentional watering down of difficult issues facing the black community like teen pregnancy, rape, and absent fathers is coupled with prominent images of hope, triumph in the face of adversity, personal faith, and an innate desire to better one’s social position. Aren’t these things that we can all relate to?
However, Lee has had extremely harsh words for Perry over the years. He’s compared Perry’s work to Amos ‘n’ Andy, coonery and buffoonery. And while I am inclined to understand his complaints, I find them unimportant in the grander picture of what paradigmatic shift is occurring in television and film right now. Black people are being pictured on the big and small screens…regularly. They are not only pictured one dimensionally. I would argue that the 90s were a time of predominantly one dimensional black movies from “BAPs” (1997) to “Friday” (1995) to “Booty Call” (1997). Movies depicting black people as anything other than weed-smoking losers, baby mommas, and materialistic whores are relatively new. Even into the early 2000s we saw the release of utterly nonsensical films like “Pootie Tang”(2001) which no one can truly explain nor recount due to its inherent incoherence.
Tarantino’s contribution to this narrative, I believe, is intensely needed right now. You know that saying, “I can talk about my momma but you can’t talk about my momma?” Well, I think it is about time we let other folks start talking about our mommas. This is likely to piss some folks off but the fact remains, the “Black Experience,” just like race, is experienced differently by everyone. And, from the vantage point of the non-black, the experience itself is probably still inspiring and worth examination. Lee’s castigation of Tarantino smacks of arrogance and disregard for the road he himself paved for Perry and Tarantino. Without films like “Girl 6,” the numerous characters in Perry’s films who struggle with sexuality might not have had context or breadth. Without Lee’s “Clockers,” the violent black figure trope might have encroached on Tarantino’s “Django.” Now, black folks have a multitude of roles. Sometimes they are doctors. Sometimes they are crack heads. Sometimes they are grandmothers. And, sometimes, they are heroes. And Lee himself trail-blazed that pathway for them to be so.
One major critique I have of the film is the understated and generally lackluster role of Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Though Washington has spoken candidly of her desire to play the damsel in the film, it was difficult to watch such a prominent female figure in the black community spend 3 hours waiting to be saved by her pompous hero. She has noted that the “fairy tale” like imagery of her story was what contributed to her desire to do the film. But, my core issue with her character was less about how her relationship appeared on screen but how little she contributed to the film at all. For ‘Hildy’ to be the primary focus of Django’s affections, she did little to show why she was able to do so except for the fact that she was a pretty ‘house slave.’ So, I would lodge this critique with much more justification than Lee’s flaccid argument that the movie doesn’t respect our ancestors.
In summation, I suggest that instead of an exclusivity which allows some voices and suppresses others, maybe Lee should be praising Tarantino’s efforts. It signals a major transition away from garbage movies with invisible scripts and terrible casting toward popular black film that is still of quality. I theorize that this film underscores a new spectrum for the black cinematic voice. This being a spectrum where many voices contribute to an increasingly complex perspective of the black life. It also being a spectrum where each contribution is notable if only for the added dimension it provides. What we (again the black ‘we’) should be most concerned about is whether or not we hold these voices responsible when they get it wrong and laud them when they get it right. In this case, Taratino got it right. Instead of shutting him down, boycotting, belly-aching, or whatever else, we should be proud of the story he told. And, we should hope that more and more folks feel inclined to tell the ‘right’ story in the future.