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The error of asking “Django” to save black people

I wasn’t too keen on engaging in all the intellectual back-and-forths swirling around Quentin Tarantino’s movie “Django Unchained,” but I broke down and went with my friend Kristin over the weekend to a discussion about it.

If nothing else, the group of black people – who’d come out on a beautiful Sunday afternoon to sit in a tightly packed room – got a chance to air their feelings. Some loved it. Some were disturbed by it. All wanted to analyze it.

"Django Unchained"

A poster from "Django Unchained" featuring Jamie Foxx the hero front-and-center.

I went to see the movie last week after reading a lot about it on the web. I like Tarantino for his storytelling and strong distinct characters. I especially like his movies in which the evil-doers get their comeuppance – as in “Inglorious Basterds,” when Brad Pitts’ character says “We’re going to be doing one thing and we’re going to be doing one thing only: killin’ Nazis.”

It was the highlight of the movie for me. Some of it was pure fantasy (mixed with snatches of history) but that’s why we go to the movies – to suspend reality for a few short hours.

So, I was expecting the same relentless character in Jamie Foxx’s Django: a black hero of slavery who blasted away obstacles to recover his wife from a slave master. Tarantino didn’t create a Django without flaws; he could be cruel and kind – which made him both human and complicated. He reminded me of Shaft and the protagonists (some of them black women, of course, namely Pam Grier) of the 1970s blaxploitation movies whose heroes were black, bad and didn’t take no stuff. My generation cheered for them, and we loved Richard Roundtree not only because he was the man but he was so fine in those black leather pants.

"Django Unchained"

The iconic shot of Richard Roundtree in "Shaft," hero of the 1971 blaxploitation film.

So I liked the movie, although it was way too long. It was trademark Tarantino – with all the violence, blood and gore for which he makes no excuses. Some folks might get off on exploding chests, and men beaten and hammered to a pulp or torn to pieces by dogs. While hard to watch, those scenes in “Django” showed the physical brutality of slavery, along with plenty of others of the mental degradation.

What bothered me about the weekend discussion was our reading too much into one man’s story about westerns with slavery as a backdrop (most westerns never touched on the issue). The first third or so of the movie was truly a western; the story for me didn’t start until the search was on for Django’s wife.

I sat through a “film” at the theater, not a history of slavery in America. I had gotten a very dramatic history lesson in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” a few days before. History isn’t one big mass; it’s made up of a series of stories and incidents all happening at the same time. Tarantino and Spielberg told theirs in totally different ways, each offering his own interpretation to fit the telling of his story.

"Django Unchained"

Daniel Day Lewis during a private moment in "Lincoln."

I didn’t go to see “Django” looking for a primer of slavery, but it showed me enough of the horrors and brutality of that inhumane system to tear at my heart and make me mourn for my great-grandparents and great-aunts, uncles and cousins. My sister told me that she doesn’t like going to these type of movies because she leaves them angry. I understand.

“Django” was a movie, nothing more. It’s not the first and it will not be the last one ever made about slavery. We as African Americans expect singular things or events about us to be the end-all – whether it’s a movie, a book, a documentary, a special report or even an elected official.

We’ve weighted down the first black city council member and first black mayor and first black senator and the first black president with all our pain and suffering, and demanded that they make it right. When they couldn’t move that mountain, some of us denigrated them and called them names.

"Django Unchained"

Jamie Foxx as Django and Kerry Washington as his wife Broomhilda.

Now, some are trashing Tarantino. Several people at the discussion questioned whether a white man could properly do a movie about black people and slavery. Others were certain that Hollywood would not have fronted money for such a movie by a black director. And they’re probably right.

Just before I left the discussion, someone asked what can we collectively do now. I found the question rather old-fashioned, the notion that all black people would somehow come together to do “something.” I thought we had dismantled the idea that we are monolithic and all 42 million of us would act at the wave of our leader’s hand. The diversity of voices in the discussion sponsored by GriotWorks at Vivant art gallery defied that notion.

One person told of his own contribution: a jazz opera based on an African American historical figure (I don’t recall the name). His answer was indicative of what we can do individually to make a small difference.

"Django Unchained"

Clockwise from top left, Samuel L. Jackson as the house slave Stephen, director Quentin Tarantino, a bloody scene inside the big house, actors Jamie Foxx (left) as Django and Leonardo DiCaprio as the plantation owner Calvin Candy.

You can’t get Hollywood to fork over $86 million to do a movie with a positive black theme? Do a series of shorts for YouTube. It won’t cost as much money and the distribution is free. Some videos – the right videos – garner millions of hits on the web.

You can’t persuade the news media to write your story or put your voice out there? Start your own blog. WordPress.com is free, and hosting of a WordPress.org blog is nominal. At the turn of the 20th century my grandfather was a poor black Southern boy who could not read or write. I’m sure he could not fathom that 100 years later, one of his own – me – would be writing a blog about black history and him and things that interest me.

We don’t have to wait for the Tarantinos to do it for us (I don’t agree that black people are the only ones who can tell stories about black people, as some folks mentioned). We have to stop being riled at other folks who don’t do it the way we want and start doing it ourselves.

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Sherry, great post! I haven’t seen it (yet) but maybe I will now.

    • Thanks, Monica. I highly recommend the movie. Just remember it is extremely violent and there’s liberal use of the N-word, mostly during the latter part of the movie.

      Sherry

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