Some manifestations of white privilege are so self-indulgent that black America finds itself struggling to understand their implications long after they sink into our collective psyche. This may prove to be the case with director Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained – even for those people who have not — or will not — view the film.
It’s already haunting Tavis Smiley and Spike Lee, two respected black thinkers and cultural contributors who famously refuse to partake in the current Django fascination. These two men, staunch and fearless advocates of justice and progress in black America, are not unjustified in their assessments of Hollywood and Quentin Tarantino; however, neither man can be taken seriously if their analyses of Django Unchained are defined only by bias and presumptions.
Let’s take Lee. “It’d be disrespectful to my ancestors to see that film. That’s the only thing I’m going to say. I can’t disrespect my ancestors,” the legendary director said in a Vibe interview approximately one week prior to the film’s Christmas Day release. But, of course this is just one blip in a long-standing beef between the auteurs.
Lee has been extremely vocal in critiquing Tarantino’s fascination with the word ni**er. “I’m not against the word, (though I am) and I use it, but not excessively,” said Lee in a 1997 interview with Variety. “And some people speak that way. But, Quentin is infatuated with that word. What does he want to be made — an honorary black man?” It can’t help that Django uses the word over 100 times.
Tavis Smiley, one of the films most recent and vocal detractors, also said in an interview with The Daily Beast that he didn’t have to see the film to form a valid opinion.
“I refuse to see it. I’m not going to pay to see it,” Smiley said. “But I’ve read the screenplay, and I have 25 family members and friends who have seen it, and have had thousands of conversations about this movie, so I can tell you frame by frame what happens,” he told the online news outlet.
“The greater problem with Hollywood is that there’s no balance,” the media pundit complained. “One might have a stronger stomach for a movie like Django if there was a library of films I could go to that tells the authentic story of slavery and segregation. But since that library doesn’t exist, since there’s no balance in Hollywood when it comes to the complexities of black life in America, then it makes it harder to stomach a spoof.”
There is an abundance of layered criticism that could be levied against the bit of cinematic hoodoo that is Django. The film is so mired in racial tropes, excessive violence and uncensored racist depravities that each scene has the potential to be an emotional landmine. Still, to speak on Django with any authority, the film must be seen for oneself.
If they had seen the film, they would understand that their criticisms must delve deeper than the idea of it being a “spoof” and a knee-jerk reaction to the – subjectively — gratuitous use of the word ni**er.
Django by no means makes a mockery of slavery – see Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, specifically the scene “Black Acting School,” if you’re looking for a plantation parody; in fact, Tarantino seems uncomfortable, unsure of his cultural footing as he pivots from vicious dog attacks and “Mandingo” fighting, to the malignant honor of being a house servant or master’s mistress. The scenes during which slaves are violent towards each other, or an unhinged Django is violent towards white people, are as revealing in their complete abandon as the slave punishment scenes are in their abruptness.
The filmmaker, despite his bravado and arrogance, merely hints at the brutal ugliness of slavery, because, as Tarantino stated during an interview in Germany, “the truth, or the reality, was a thousand times worse than what [he] showed.”
Tarantino’s mastery of his craft is evident in Django‘s fragile balance of several cinematic genres and gripping cultural portrayals based on his intuition. From the very beginning, Django confronts the viewer with his or her benign acceptance of this history; by its conclusion, many of them leave walking a tense tightrope of multi-faceted emotions.
That’s art. It is not something that one should necessarily like or enjoy; rather it is something that should make one feel. For that reason alone, Tarantino is deserving of every accolade that is sure to come his way this award season.
But that does not mean that his motivations should be trusted or respected. The eccentric filmmaker’s style can easily be described as “blackface in whiteface”: a man so in love with violence and hyper-masculinity that he fetishizes what he believes to be the pinnacle of both – Black Manhood. That he seeks entrée into the soul of blackness is irrefutable. What better way to do so than by co-opting the slave experience? It is much easier to tread on the hallowed ground of slavery once the boundary of acceptability has been shattered, and of course, in our culture that requires making it entertainment.
By positioning slavery as a plot mechanism in a spaghetti western, Tarantino reduces most of the blacks portrayed to peripheral chattel, while simultaneously under-girding the entire film with the strength of their story – his vision of our story. His views on the “peculiar institution” are cleverly embedded in dialogue spoken early in the film by Dr. Shultz, played by the talented Christopher Waltz, to Jamie Foxx’s brilliantly played Django.
“On one hand, I despise slavery,” he told the slave he had just stolen. “On the other hand, I need your help. And if you’re not in a position to refuse, all the better. So for the time being, I’m going to make this slavery malarkey work to my benefit.”