The Audacity of Django and Unpopular Opinions
This is only my opinion and before I say what I’m about to say, these are facts. I’m a black man. I was born and raised in Georgia. I was a minority in the predominantly white schools that I attended in the predominantly white Atlanta suburb that I grew up in. I’m a big fan of both Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee as filmmakers. Both of these men are largely responsible for inspiring me to become a filmmaker myself. I saw “Django Unchained” a week before it was released and had already made up my mind about it before Spike made his now infamous comments about the film. My thoughts on those comments are nuanced. I saw the film at The University of Southern California where I’m studying to get my MFA in film. I viewed the film as a minority in a theater where the overwhelming majority of the audience was white. “Django Unchained” is a well-made, well-acted and entertaining film and I didn’t care for it.
It should be noted that I wasn’t going to write this post. In fact, I decided not to and went about the business of my life contently. I felt that maybe my feelings on the film were misguided; maybe I just needed time to process it more, let it digest. Then the movie was released and many people expressed their belief that Quentin’s work was a brilliant achievement and an incredibly important work. This was said by people of all races, black people included. These people who praised the film also criticized or argued with anyone who had anything less than stellar to say about it. This made me angry. It made me angry to the point that I had to remove myself from social media with hopes that the hullabaloo about Django would blow over before my head exploded. This was all juxtaposed against the fact that I am a filmmaker, a lover of film, a fan of Quentin Tarantino’s films, and fully aware that Django was clearly a product of a talented film director being talented and talented actors being the same. My feelings were complicated.
Admittedly, I’m very sensitive when it comes to my race and the history of it in this country. Very sensitive. However, I’m not one to make a big deal about things that aren’t worth the trouble. People who know me know that it is very rare that I play the race card unless I absolutely have to because it’s a tactic of diminishing returns. This brings me to Spike. When I mentioned to someone that I wasn’t a fan of Django, their reply was, “Well, you’re a disciple of Spike.” I took offense to this for a couple of reasons. For one, I already had an opinion about Django before Spike’s comments went public, tweeting after I walked out of the theater that the film was hard to watch. Also, while Spike’s films have been highly influential to me, it doesn’t mean that I take everything he says as gospel, quite the opposite. While I am hesitant to play the race card unless needed, Spike has branded himself as someone who has no discretion with that card and has played it so frequently that now when Spike speaks he’s greeted with a collective rolling of eyes. I think this is unfortunate because Spike is an intelligent man who I still feel has an important voice, especially if he grew a filter.
I said that my feelings about Spike’s comments about Django were nuanced. This is because on this topic, I both agree and disagree with Spike’s sentiments. I had lots of reservations about seeing “Django Unchained”. It wasn’t because I felt a white man had no right to tell a black story, although it’s a legitimate question to ask whether Hollywood would have a let a black director run with this type of material if he had equal talent and box-office clout, but because, knowing Tarantino, I had reservations about how he would treat the material. But I saw the film anyway and I think that it’s irresponsible of Spike to criticize a film that he hasn’t seen, although it should be noted that he could have easily read the script long before the film came out and could have been basing his opinion on that. Case in point, I’ve had the script for almost a year now and I don’t have anywhere near the Hollywood access that Spike has. However, I agree with Spike that Quentin made a troubling film. My view is that the film, while entertaining, was irresponsible and misguided. This is an unpopular opinion and I’m aware of that but I have several reasons for this, which aren’t as broad and dismissive as, “A white man made a movie about slavery. How dare he!” Hear me out.
There’s been a term that’s been coined for that moment that one has when watching the film when the subject matter has really gotten a bit too real. I first read about this in this piece written by Grantland’s Rembert Browne. The term was coined by Gawker writer Cord Jefferson. I had a lot of Django moments while watching the film. This was the most prominent. As I watched this incredibly brutal, way too long, depiction of two black men beating each other to death for the sport of Leo Dicaprio’s Calvin Candie (Leo is excellent in this film by the way… I hate him now. I’m only half kidding.) I could feel my fist begin to shake and my blood begin to boil. Watching this particular scene was by far the most difficult point of the film to me. As it continued to go on and on, I wondered what purpose this scene served in the film and why it had to be so brutal. However, knowing Tarantino’s work, it was likely for no other reason than shock value. After the film, when I did a little more research on the subject, I found that historians had no knowledge or record of any such activity. I know that such an act was depicted in Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, though I doubt that’s where Tarantino drew his inspiration. In fact, he took the idea from the 1975 film “Mandingo” directed by Richard Fleischer. To me, it felt strange that Tarantino would include this as a major plot point and then use historical accuracy as a defense against other, very obvious, critiques of the film.
KKK as Comic Relief
As I stated before, I’m from Georgia. And while I’m very proud to be a home grown down south Georgia boy, I’m intimately familiar with the horrific details of it’s past. The KKK was born in Georgia, although that was long after 1858 where “Django Unchained” took place, and I spent much of my youth living under a state flag that prominently featured the symbol of the old Confederacy. Yesterday, Slate ran a figure that detailed where lynchings took place between the years of 1900 and 1931. The map shows that Georgia is the place where most lynchings took place, and second place isn’t close. If you’ve never seen images or read about the brutality of lynch mobs, or just the terrorist antics of the KKK in general, you might excuse the scene in the film in which the bumbling bagheads can’t get their stuff together long enough to kill Django. This scene is mined for comedy gold. For me, and I’ve seen the images of lynchings, it hit a nerve. The film depicts the bagheads as harmless, bumbling fools. The KKK, especially in the early days when your local KKK chapter could very well have included educated men like your banker or local physician or business owner, were decidedly not harmless. For Tarantino to make light of them for the purposes of comic relief and entertainment was troubling.
The Very Large N-Shaped Elephant in the Room
I’m going to preface what I’m about to say by admitting that I hate the N-word more than most. I’ll also admit that in my misguided and uneducated youth, my friends and I used the word on occasion. We felt that it was a term of endearment, sometimes even a joke. Then, like what happens to most people after they go to college in search of a deeper understanding of themselves, I took a few classes that forced me to think more critically about the history of black people in America from slavery until now. This examination also forced me to think more critically about the history of the N-word. These two things are, sadly, forever connected. I gained a deeper understanding of the word as to how it came to be and then the trajectory of its use throughout the years. I began to hate the use of the N-word by black people as much as white people and began to excommunicate the word from my vocabulary. I rejected the argument that black people were defusing the power of it by “taking the word back” because it was a word that we had already successfully made taboo for white people but continued to keep alive on our own as a misguided trope. My position was that it was unreasonable to argue that we had turned the word into a term of endearment when it has been anything but that throughout history. I also rejected the notion that somehow “nigger” and “nigga” were two different words with two different meanings. They were derivatives of each other, like “didn’t” and “did not” are derivatives of each other, but continue to mean the same thing. PBS’ website explains in it’s Huck Finn Teacher’s Guide:
“Nigger (also spelled niggar): a word that is an alteration of the earlier neger, nigger derives from the French negre, from the Spanish and Portuguese negro, from the Latin niger (black). First recorded in 1587 (as negar), the word probably originated with the dialectal pronunciation of negro in northern England and Ireland.”
–Anti-Bias Study Guide, Anti-Defamation League, 1998
“In the United States, “nigger” was first regarded as pejorative in the early nineteenth century. In the era of enslavement, the words “nigger” or “black” were inserted in front of a common American first name (e.g., John), given to a slave to distinguish the slave from any local white person with the same name. While usage of the word in African American culture is complex in that it can be used affectionately, politically, or pejoratively, the epithet is considered an abusive slur when used by white people.”
Langston Hughes in The Big Sea (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1940) offered an eloquent commentary:
“Used rightly or wrongly, ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake of realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy, it doesn’t matter. Negroes do not like it in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play ever so sympathetic in its treatment of the basic problems of the race. Even though the book or play is written by a Negro, they still do not like it. The word nigger, you see, sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America.”
When assessing the use of the word by black people, I always point to the origins of the use of the word by black people. Slaves, having already been deprived of all dignity, self-worth, and education, began to view themselves as their masters viewed them, as less than human and thus began to refer to themselves as their slave masters referred to them. It’s with that knowledge that I view anyone who uses the word on a regular basis in a sympathetic manner.
Getting back to Tarantino and his use of the word, I am very familiar with Tarantino’s history with the word and his unnecessary, and non-contextual, application of it throughout his previous films. It was clear that he’s always had an unhealthy fascination with the word and has always wanted to test the boundaries of how far his art would let him go. This informs my opinion as to his use of the word in Django. The biggest defense of his use of the word is “historical accuracy” to the time. Since the word is uttered at such a clip that even Tarantino admits that it’s used much more freely than it probably was actually used, and considering the origins of the word that I shared above, I believe that defense to be a weak one. Even if the use of the word in the film was historically accurate, why be so rigid on that historical detail and so lax on others? It begs the question as to why he decided to use the word in that way at all. It seems that his use of the word was less about faithfulness to the realities of the era and more about seeing how many times he could get away with using the word and shock you in the process. We live in a country where freedom of speech is the law of the land and I’m a strong believer that art shouldn’t be censored. However, there are many things that you could do that you probably shouldn’t.
In response, I submit the film “Glory” directed by Edward Zwick. It’s about the first all black Civil War regiment, the 54th Massachusetts. It was a film that was set during the same time period and a film that won Denzel Washington his first Oscar. In that film, the word was uttered more than 100 times less than Django and in those few times that the word was uttered, it had a much greater impact because of the restraint that the film used. When that word was uttered, it stood out. When watching Django, there comes a point when, as a viewer, you simply become numb to the word. This was something that I couldn’t help but notice as I watched the film in my predominantly white theater as people laughed away at all that they found hilarious. It should also be noted that it was odd that so many people found so much hilarious in a film that depicted so much real brutality. While I don’t believe reasonable white people would use Django as an excuse to say the word more freely, I did happen to notice a few white people use the word, in the very coherent comments section of the article by Rembert Browne that I posted above, while openly questioning why the word would be off limits to them in certain situations. This is the same reason why I cringe when the word is used heavily by black people in mixed company or why I hated that Jay-Z and Kanye so carelessly titled their hit record “Niggas in Paris” and then, in concert, implored their very racially diverse audiences to say the word. This is my personal opinion, but I don’t think we should be campaigning to make the word more accessible for all people to use. The history of that word is so charged that we should be, and I’m aware that this is an impossibility at this point, annihilating that word from existence in the way other racial slurs against other groups have fallen completely out of use.
Samuel L. Jackson
Let me start by saying that Samuel L. Jackson is an excellent actor and I’m a fan of his work. Let me also say that he’s very good in this film, as are all the actors. My problem is with the character he plays, Stephen, a monstrous an extreme example of the Uncle Tom/House Slave figure. My issue isn’t that this character was in the film. My issue is the fact that Stephen is depicted to such an extreme. In fact, he’s played to caricature, which I think had an unfortunate affect. The Uncle Tom figure is a particularly charged archetype in the history of slavery and black America. Some people are aware of this but most people are unfamiliar. To place such an extreme character in the middle of the film without the proper context as to why he was the way he was, or what his motivations were, made a really complex character simply become the butt of the joke. This is one of the most irresponsible parts of the film to me because it glosses over one of the more tragic aspects of slavery, the slave mentality, something that has permeated throughout history and still exists in various forms today. To Tarantino’s credit, this was briefly touched on in Leo’s famous table scene but unfortunately it doesn’t address it in the proper way. It was explained from the perspective of Leo’s Calvin Candie, and thus explained callously. I would have rather Django himself had alluded to it. It would have been interesting to see a slave who had risen above that mentality make a more nuanced observation about it. It could have happened when Jamie finally confronted Stephen but instead Tarantino deferred to cheap laughs.
I acknowledge that my criticism of the film comes from very specific views that apply to my own connection with the history of my ancestors in this country. I tend to have visceral reactions to certain things in that respect. For example, when watching the scene in “Amistad” where Cinque recalls the slave traders intentionally drowning dozens of slaves to avoid capture across the Middle Passage, I can’t help but break down in tears. It happens every time. The same thing happened when I viewed images of real-life lynchings in high school and college. It’s from that same place that made it so difficult for me to view the Mandingo fight scene when watching the film. My relation to it is so strong that when I view things like that my mind tends to place me there. I place myself in the shoes of the victim and I become them, or someone who is kin to them, and the emotions become overwhelming. It’s a hell of a thing to hear of or watch someone that looks like you get brutalized because they look like you. It’s from this same place that caused me to shed tears on the night that Obama won his first election in 2008 to become the first bi-racial president. It’s important to point out the fact that he’s bi-racial because we continue to associate him as being only black and forget that his mother was white, a grim holdover from when one drop of black blood made you less than, a victim of Jim Crow or open to racial abuse.
I acknowledge the positive bits of Django; i.e. the black hero protagonist that triumphs over his oppressors in the end and the depiction of a black love story. I’m reluctant to include the examples of the brutality of slavery because at some point that brutality passed the point of informative into the realm of gratuitous. My problem is that the film didn’t take care to respect the reality of what actually happened and exploited the atrocities of that time for entertainment. That was the part that I found offensive. My history is important to me, the tragedy of it as well as the triumph, and enough time hasn’t passed for Quentin Tarantino to mine Uncle Toms or the KKK for comedy, to exploit the brutalization of my ancestors for entertainment, or to be so liberal with the use of the worst word in history.
I should make it clear that I have no problem with a real and honest discussion about the very complex nature of race in America. I’m not one of those people who believe it can’t be discussed intelligently among different groups of people. However, I have a certain perspective about race in America and that perspective largely shapes how I view the world and how I move within that world.
Slavery ended 150 years ago, not a long time, and because of slavery, and its after shocks, I have no knowledge of my lineage past my grandparents. Slavery ended 150 years ago but the atrocities that faced African Americans continued long after. My father is 64 years old. He was six when “The Little Rock Nine” walked to school on the heels of Brown vs. The Board of Education. He was seven when they killed Emmitt Till and Rosa Parks decided not to give up her seat. He was fifteen when Governor George Wallace stood on the steps of the University of Alabama refusing to allow the school to integrate. That same year Dr. King shared his dream for America. He was seventeen when The Voting Rights Act was signed into law and Malcolm X lay dying on the floor of the Audubon Ballroom. He was nineteen when Dr. King shared that same fate on a Memphis balcony. When Amadou Diallo’s forty-one shots rang out, he was fifty. And he had been sixty for a single day when Oscar Grant took a bullet in the back in Oakland. My father was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. I’ve always wondered what those eyes have seen. The Audacity…
Update: After I wrote this piece, someone pointed out this excellent article written by Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker. It touches on many of the same things that I touch on and a lot more. He’s a professor of African-American history and writes for The New Yorker and all so it’s really worth reading for his perspective.