Now that would make a great movie. But black people don’t get to be Batman. They get to be the equivalent of Batman’s girlfriend Rachel Dawes: constantly falling down, being captured by the bad guy, needing Batman to come save her, then finally dying so the plot can keep moving along. When a victim is saved, the hero looks good. Victims are to be pitied so the audience can feel good about itself for displaying “humanity.”
Given the history of slavery, blacks can easily fulfill that role. Black people fighting back on film would mean something happened that was… “really wrong.” Something that people watching might have to connect to their status and lives today. A black historical revenge fantasy means you would have to confront the ugliness of our origins and – believe me – the last thing Americans want to talk about is slavery.
Thus, it’s rare to see a film about this time period in which both current and former slaves are given any kind of direct power. Even in the so-called “uplifting” films, like Roots, the slaves’ stories are more about survival and less about how complex slave narratives are, which might explain some of the cautious excitement many African-Americans have for Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus, Django Unchanged.
Cautious, because it’s Tarantino and he has a complicated relationship with race that I best describe as, “he’s a white man who seems to be unaware he is a white man, and doesn’t seem to get how awkward all of this is for everyone watching race play out in Pulp Fiction, or when he goes to the NAACP Image Awards and suddenly speaks with an accent from the black diaspora.”
You know it’s supposed to be a “tribute” to honor you, but you still feel insulted. And I say this as a fan of his work. It’s somehow both subversive and reinforces the status quo through what seems to be Tarantino’s “Dances With Wolves meets Avatar in the ghetto” desire to become us, but also be the best of us, while still being a white man. I mean, he reveres Pam Grier. You have love him for that, but at the same time you wonder — “why?” Is it a fetish, or is it out of respect? He treads that line.
Given that, Django Unchained could be brilliant. It could be just like one of the best/worst films ever about American slavery – the 1975 flick Mandingo. It was unnecessarily sexual and exploitative, but something in how it set up its everyday horrors felt very real. After all, slavery is the business of taking human beings and stripping them of their humanity and turning them into objects to be used in any way the owner sees fit. Whether it’s a little boy being used as a footstool for an old white man, or a woman being used as a breeding heifer for more slaves, or a man being forced to box for the pleasure of others – it’s gross, but it’s a true kind of gross. You know far worse things probably happened than were depicted in the film. Yet images like this reminded the viewing public that slavery was a time when people were no longer “people,” set adrift in the cruel world of commerce.
Django Unchanged might add a new layer to Mandingo, forcing the privileged today to rethink their agency in creating oppression through complacency, because watching a slave get revenge might make more people acutely aware of just how wrong slavery was. Not a distant memory for which they have no responsibility, but a brutal system that destroyed real people’s humanity still reverberating its effects.
In the AMC program Hell On Wheels, rapper-cum-actor Common also plays a former slave who gets some of that self-made, self-determined stuff slaves never seemed to get to have on screen — until now.
There’s also a crazy, fictitious version of Harriet Tubman in the alternate history action film, borderline farce, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which features blacks fighting against pro-slavery vampires.
Is there a trend here?
Surely seems so. The fact that the “revised” history of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter erases from cultural memory the quiet consent the majority of white Americans had towards the Peculiar Institution — negating the knock down drag out national war over it — to blame slavery instead on vampires is… troubling.
Yet, story lines such as these could eventually lead to more vengeance-related, slavery yarns. Stories in which black slaves are depicted as powerful, strategic game changers in leading roles. I know at least one person who has his heart set on Harriet Tubman: Werewolf as a follow-up film. The way things are going, it could happen.
Sure, these types of movies are complicated to navigate in terms of their social implications. (Will they make people think more about slavery’s brutalities — or come to see this horrible period as more fodder for sheer entertainment?) Sometimes they are dangerously historically inaccurate. But at least our society’s ability to discuss slavery is changing. It might be odd that it took Quentin Tarantino — ambiguous figure that he is regarding race — to help Americans see slaves as heroic.
But for them to have survived such atrocities — what else could they be?