And that is precisely what Tarantino has been able to do – make this slavery “malarkey” work to his benefit while his detractors box themselves into indefensible positions.
Because they refuse to see the film.
We were unprepared for this sleek, stylized rendering of the black holocaust chronicling one man’s transition from slave to “gangsta.” With Rick Ross and Tupac bumping ominously in the background, Django’s assimilation into the brutal culture of slavers is portrayed as the ultimate, heroic vengeance. When he goes on his murderous rampage, he not only kills slave owners, all whites and one Sambo in his path, he becomes eerily similar to them. The qualities of cruelty and violence imperceptibly shift from the oppressor to the oppressed as if they were Django’s all along. By the film’s conclusion, the story is not one of slave rebellion, but of one martyred abolitionist’s transfer of power, as Dr. Shultz’s death empowers Django to go Rambo.
But neither Lee nor Smiley are able to discuss this sleight of hand. Because they refuse to see the film.
Both men are among those who feel that Tarantino’s liberal use of the word n***er is a symptom of his latent desire for African-American acceptance. While that may be true to some extent, in Django, its use is casual and unremarkable for the Antebellum South – never gratuitous. If anything, Django is the perfect conduit through which Tarantino can indulge his love affair with the word without its contextual authenticity being called into question.
But neither Lee nor Smiley can debate that point with any credibility. Because they refuse to see the film.
Although so much focus has been on Tarantino’s treatment of the slave experience, little mention has been made of his razor-sharp depiction of their white overseers. Ignorant, illiterate and incestuous, his disdain for them is palpable. They are depicted as the worst sort of scum — as cowards with no discernible skills or merit. This stands in stark contrast to Tarantino’s obvious voyeuristic attraction to all things black.
But neither Lee nor Smiley have remarked on that contradiction. Because they refuse to see the film.
Backstage at the 2013 Golden Globes, where Tarantino snagged the coveted best screenplay award, he expressed his refusal to even acknowledge the anger of detractors who can’t tell him what exactly it is that they find so reprehensible about Django.
“If somebody is out there actually saying when it comes to the word ni**er,” said Tarantino unfiltered, “I was using it in the movie more than it was being used in the Antebellum South in Mississippi, then feel free to make that case. But no one’s actually making that case. They are saying I should lie, that I should whitewash, that I should massage, and I never do that when it comes to my characters.”
But the loudest critics can’t refute these assertions, or any others. Because they refuse to see the film.
It’s not just members of the Hollywood mainstream that question such stubbornly uninformed critics.
In recent days, everyone from the venerable Dick Gregory to porn-peddler Luther “Uncle Luke” Campbell have hurled egregious epithets at Spike Lee for his blanket denouncement of the film. And woven through combative rants, filled with such derogatory slurs as “punk,” “thug” and (curiously) “Uncle Tom,” is the dismissive question: “How can he criticize something that he has never even seen?”
It is the broad and inaccurate nature of Smiley and Lee’s critiques that have landed them in the awkward position of defending hollow — and perhaps baseless — objections.
Without having seen the film, Smiley and Lee must fall back on criticizing the Academy and Hollywood for ignoring black stories of value and perpetuating stereotypes. The Los Angeles Times reported in February of 2012 that the Academy that awards the coveted Oscar is nearly 94 percent Caucasian, mostly over the age of 60, and 77 percent male. Does this explain the trend in these awards being given when black men are depicted as corrupt (Denzel Washington, Training Day), when black women are portrayed as vulnerable playthings for white men (Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball), or when they are seen as sassy, asexual servants (Olivia Spencer, The Help). Perhaps.
But, rather than criticizing Hollywood for such apparent biases, the larger narrative should be: why are we still seeking validation from Hollywood? Why are we seeking trinkets and acknowledgment (or “fairness”) from a homogeneous power structure that should never be the compass for discerning black worth in any endeavor, least of which being the cinematic portrayal of the black experience?
I am not against Lee — who deserves respect for his unwavering fight to tell our stories with honor — for boycotting the film because he believes it exploits our ancestors. I also don’t fault Smiley – who, alongside Dr. Cornel West, has spoken truth to power despite an onslaught of animosity – who castigates the film’s perceived trivialization of our pain as we navigate through slavery’s wreckage.
But offering Django film free publicity with generic, overwrought criticism that is completely uninformed can easily be perceived as a media grab for relevancy. Thus, Lee and Smiley bring any potentially beneficial dialogue to a screeching halt.
It is way past the time that we should be able to have a cultural conversation about slavery that is more nuanced than anger over the “n-word” and hurt feelings because Hollywood is unkind. The bottom line is that mutual engagement is instrumental to any legitimate conversation about it. Anything less leaves our society a slave to a turbulent past – and at the mercy of a future much more perilous than any alternate reality conceived in the bowels of Tarantino’s dark imagination.
Follow Kirsten West Savali on Twitter at @KWestSavali.