“The black guy dies first” is probably one of the oldest tropes in American cinema. It’s right up there next to the “sassy black woman gives her white girlfriend a pep talk” and the “black people do something awesome, but still fail in end” narrative.
I suppose these motifs makes sense when over and over black people, no matter where they’re from, are cast in fiction as society’s victims. Like all horrible stereotypes, there’s a hidden truth behind it — the reason blacks so often fall prey to victimization. It’s the the reason why there are people of African descent throughout the Americas and the Caribbean: the dirty business of the transatlantic slave trade. We were transgressed against in a particularly brutal and vulgar way, and we’re still dealing with the vestiges of this history today.
You’d think there’d be a lot more revenge fantasies involving African-Americans in our cinema, because who loves a revenge fantasy more than a) Americans, and b) people who’ve been royally screwed. Given that, it might seem strange that Django Unchained will be the first film of this kind, unless we unpack what “revenge” in America is really about.
Americans are obsessed with the revenge fantasy, and I’ll admit it’s a favorite genre of mine. The Dark Knight Rises, a film based on one of America’s most famous (and profitable) revenge-obsessed characters, Batman, opened at midnight on July 19 to pull in more than $30 million. The popularity of Batman, as well as Westerns such as The Searchers, True Grit, the entire career of Clint Eastwood, every Rambo film and Liam Neeson’s “kill everything that moves character” in Taken all reflect the tireless variety of the revenge film genre no one ever seems to tire of.
This drive for ruthless — yet “justifiable” — destruction is rooted in America’s Puritan, Calvinist roots, which leads viewers to subconsciously see bad movie characters as “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” We don’t draw from all those Deist, Age of Enlightenment-influenced Founding Fathers with their hippy dippy talk of justice, fairness and rule of law when we watch Clint Eastwood mow down two-dimensional characters. We prefer the “Kill them all!!!” mentality, to weighing checks and balances.
If you believe God both loves and punishes BIG, you probably enjoy seeing God’s judgment being delivered on the big screen by virtue of Batman batmanning the crap out of everything.
But putting African-Americans in a revenge fantasy has always been “problematic” by Hollywood standards. Mostly because revenge against criminals and stock “bad” characters is “fun.” Revenge against actual injustice perpetuated by a majority that might have been culpable through complacency in giving social permission for the powerful to massively enslave others forces those in the complacent class to question themselves and the source of their privilege.
And where’s the summer blockbuster profit in that?
Black people are supposed to be history’s victims, and victims – in the eyes of the oppressors and privileged – aren’t supposed to have agency. You’re supposed to politely sit and wait for President Abraham Lincoln to come save you. Not make like Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman and self-emancipate waaaaaay ahead of the Emancipation Proclamation.