Django Unchained: Black Like Who?

Let me get this out of the way right up front: nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger.

That’s about 1/100th as many times as you will encounter the word in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained; for whatever it’s worth, well more than half of those instances come from the mouths of black actors.

I don’t start with this Tourette’s-like outburst because I believe the impact of the word has been neutralized, because I argue that twenty-first century Americans live in a “post-racial” era, and least of all because I claim some “right” to use the word.

I start with “nigger” because it remains, to borrow Randall Kennedy’s genteelly understated formulation, a “troublesome” word  and because, if I’m convinced of anything, it’s that no one owns the word and that no one today is in a position to know precisely what to make of it.DjangoUnchainedOfficialPoster

One person who thinks he is, though, is talk-show host and political commentator, Tavis Smiley. In a 4 January 2013 interview with Newsweek, Smiley makes Tarantino’s use of the world “nigger” in the Django Unchained script the fulcrum of his criticismthe demonstration, Smiley says, of “a level of arrogance with what Tarantino does, and what he thinks he can get away with…. I can’t imagine any other culture that would allow someone to so recklessly use the word “n….r” in film after film after film…. There’s a level of comfort that Tarantino has with appropriating and reimagining black culture and black history, and that’s what I find offensive.”

Now, Tavis Smiley has always struck me as a bit of a twerp, and his interviews for NPR are frequently good examples of how not to conduct journalism. For one thing, Smiley almost always talks more than the people he’s interviewing, which turns out to be a revealing trait. In recent years, now that he’s got some gray in his hair and has put on a few pounds, Smiley has been on a mission to reinvent himself as an elder cultural statesman. I’m all for career change, but Smiley remains an intellectual lightweight, and his commentary on Django Unchained is simply loony.

What Smiley essentially argues—and he starts his interview by saying he “refuses” to see Django Unchained, as if not having first-hand experience of his subject were some sort of badge of intellectual rigor—is that Tarantino does not have the right to “re-imagine” black history, that he has appropriated something that belongs only to African-Americans, starting with the word “nigger” itself.

A debate might be possible on this point except for one inconvenient reality: Django Unchained is not about black history. It’s not about American history. It’s not about the history of slavery. In fact, it’s not about history at all.

django_1Django Unchained is historical fiction and, in particular, HiFi of the subgenre to which Tarantino is paying homage, the Spaghetti Western. That much is obvious from the opening credits: the cheesy title font; the twangy, almost parodic music; the long shots of a western landscape (Wyoming, though it’s supposed to be Texas) in which humans are dwarfed by a foreboding natural backdrop; and the announcement of the presence of Italian actor, Franco Nero, once the quintessential Spaghetti Protagonist, who starred in Sergio Corbucci’s original 1966 version of Django, that film’s sequel (Django 2 – Nello Rosatti, 1987), and a host of other classics of Italo-Western cinema; and of Ennio Morricone, who scored dozens of Sergio Leone’s Ur-spaghetti contributions to the genre.

From that point on, Django Unchained remains absolutely faithful to the traditions of the Western genre. The Hero—flawed, troubled, frequently given over to paroxysms of exaggerated violence[1] but deeply, archetypically masculine—conquers Evil.

In this case—and this is the novelty of Django Unchained—Evil is represented by slavery and slave-holders, but the classic formula of the shoot-em-up Western remains identical: the representatives of a corrupt institutional power (law enforcement, cattle ranchers, railroads) are cut down by a vigilante motivated by pure, talionic justice. (That there is frequently a class component to the hero’s revenge, as there is also in Django Unchained, often goes unremarked.)

Tavis makes the convoluted argument in Newsweek that, because Tarantino “went on record as saying Roots [Alex Haley’s Pulitzer-prize-winning 1976 novel] was inauthentic,” that Django Unchained is dangerous: “When people see his film who don’t have any understanding of history, they take it as history, because Tarantino passes himself off as a historian by declaring Roots inauthentic, and then goes on to make the ‘authentic’ story about slavery.”

One hardly knows where to begin. First, Tarantino has never claimed, to my knowledge, that Django Unchained was “authentic” (to the contrary, he heatedly insisted to a London Telegraph interviewer that the movie was a fantasy).

Second, there’s no requirement that historians alone may hold opinions about the authenticity of Roots. Smiley isn’t an historian either, which means, when he contradicts Tarantino regarding Roots, that he commits the same error.

In any case, two actual genealogists and historians, Gary Mills and Elizabeth Shown Mills (the latter was the editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly), demonstrated conclusively in the late 1970s not only that Haley made mistakes in Roots but that he had actually perpetrated what Philip Nobile, writing later in The Village Voice, called “one of the great literary hoaxes of modern times.” Clearly, none of that should or does detract from the fact that Roots is an unprecedented book in American culture or that, as Clarence Page argued in the Chicago Tribune in 1993, what is essential about Haley’s Roots “aren’t the facts but the truths.”

Finally, if it is true that people “who don’t have any understanding of history” assume that Django Unchained is an accurate historical account of slavery, then their ignorance is their problem and not Tarantino’s. The fact is that Django Unchained has about as much to do with the “true” history of slavery in America as Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds or Roberto Benigni’s 1997 Life Is Beautiful (or The Sound of Music, for that matter) had to do with the “true” history of the Holocaust, or Zero Dark Thirty has to do with the “true” hunt for and assassination of Osama bin Laden.

django-unchained-3Indeed, my argument would be that the only thing required to understand that Django Unchained was never intended to be documentary is to see it. The scene in which some thirty neophyte Klanners halt in the middle of a raid, torches ablaze, to debate blame for the shoddy workmanship of their hoods is a perfect example of Tarantino’s surreal, Mel Brooksian humor, not an attempt at historical depiction.

* * * * *

Just to illustrate the point a bit further, however, let’s consider the A Doll’s House ending that Tarantino chose for Django Unchained. In Ibsen’s play, readers will recall, Nora slams the door on Torvald and walks out alone into the world of late 19th-century Europe. She’s penniless, she has no connection to a man and no means of support, and she is a mother who has just abandoned her children. What is likely to become of her?[2]

Similarly, in Django Unchained, Django and Broomhilda leave the epic destruction of Candieland and ride off into Mississippi in 1858, smack in the middle of what is shortly going to be the Confederacy. They’re two black people on horses in an era in which, the film instructs us, the sight of a black man on a horse was enough to cause people to run out into the streets to gape, if not worse. Somewhere between six and eight hundred miles lie between them and the nearest non-slave-holding state, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 is in full effect, and all they’ve got are some flimsy pieces of paper (one of which is a bill of sale for Broomhilda’s purchase not by Django but by a white man, King Schultz, who is dead). What is likely to become of them?

But let’s say a little more about history. In his comments on Django Unchained, Smiley doesn’t miss an opportunity to take a swipe at Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner for alleged historical failings of his own. Specifically, Smiley says, Kushner opined during a 21 December 2012 Bill Moyers interview (the transcript is available online) that “Lincoln didn’t know any black people, he really didn’t.”

Outrageous, Smiley says, because Lincoln knew the great abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass. That is certainly true, but Smiley then makes an enormous and unwarranted historical leap, arguing that “Anyone who knows history knows it was Douglass talking to Lincoln repeatedly that helped get Lincoln on the right side of the slavery question and stiffen Lincoln’s spine.”

In other words, we jump from the reality that Lincoln knew Douglass (which makes Kushner technically wrong) to another historical fiction—that Douglass was responsible for changing Lincoln’s mind and “repeatedly” consulted with the president to “stiffen” his opposition to slavery.

There’s simply no basis for such a conclusion. Lincoln and Douglass met for the first time in the summer of 1863, two years after the start of the American Civil War. What Douglass’s own account tells us is that Douglass had come solely to advocate for black soldiers who had enlisted to fight for the Union and who faced all manner of discriminatory treatment.

Their second meeting came a year later, at Lincoln’s request. Lincoln, according to Douglass’s autobiography, wanted advice about how to spread word of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation among slaves in the South, who had not escaped and come north as “so rapidly and so numerously” as Lincoln had hoped.

The two men then stood face to face for a final time, for no more than a few seconds, on the reception line at the Inaugural Ball in March 1865, following Lincoln’s reelection. Significantly, Douglass had not been invited to the Ball and was nearly turned away at the door.

So while it is wrong to say that Lincoln knew no black people, it would also be wrong to paint Douglass as a constant and faithful advisor to Lincoln, to inflate Douglass’s historical influence on the course of the Civil War, and to assert that Douglass talked “repeatedly” (as Smiley claims) to Lincoln and changed his mind about slavery.

In fact, Lincoln’s positions on slavery continued to frustrate and anger Douglass until the end of Lincoln’s life, and Douglass’s April 14, 1876 speech at the dedication of the Freedmen’s Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln Park (Washington, DC) is revealing:

“Our faith in him was often taxed and strained to the uttermost, but it never failed. When he tarried long in the mountain; when he strangely told us that we were the cause of the war; when he still more strangely told us that we were to leave the land in which we were born; when he refused to employ our arms in defense of the Union; when, after accepting our services as colored soldiers, he refused to retaliate our murder and torture as colored prisoners; when he told us he would save the Union if he could with slavery…; when we saw all this, and more, we were at times grieved, stunned, and greatly bewildered; but our hearts believed while they ached and bled.”

* * * * *

Back to Django Unchained, then. The central question that Smiley harps on in his Newsweek interview is this: To whom do the stories, images, and “truths” (in the Haleyian sense of the word) of American slavery belong?

Smiley’s answer is unsatisfying and disturbing, for he appears to argue that they belong only to black people (whoever they are) and can only be told by black people. Of course, Smiley means the right black people, because he goes so far as to accuse black movie audiences of being naïve for “supporting” Django Unchained with their box-office dollars (some of them probably just thought they were going to the movies) and black actors of being “complicit” in the cynical commercialization of African-American history.[3]

Who can and should tell history (and how) are vexed questions with no good answers, though the value of the conversation lies almost entirely in the asking. But what does it mean to imply that the history of slavery in the United States is black history but not American history?

One result, it seems to me—which has remained essentially unaltered for something on the order of 240 years—is that an awful lot of Americans never have to think very hard about the fact that our nation and its foundational documents were conceived and created by slave-holders.

Declaration of Independence

There are few if any formal opportunities in American schooling, culture, mass media, or daily life to meditate upon such a central paradox as this: What does it mean that Thomas Jefferson who, in 1776, wrote that seminal slogan of American claims to moral and cultural superiority—“all men are created equal”—owned slaves all his life, was made rich by unpaid slave labor on his Virginia plantations, began a sexual relationship with one of his slaves (Sally Hemings) when she was somewhere between 14 and 16, and ultimately fathered six children by her? If that is black history but not American history, it isn’t clear how such a reflection can ever make a difference in what I hope I can be permitted to call the national discourse on American identity.

What becomes impossible to accept in Smiley’s diatribe against Django Unchained are its radically conservative undertones. On the one hand, Smiley accuses Tarantino of not being historically accurate and of “raping” black culture and black history. On the other, Smiley’s version of acceptable black history simply replaces Tarantino’s allegedly Eurocentrist gaze with a no less distorted Afrocentrist one.

What is gained by this substitution is unclear, especially given that Smiley is not simply railing against the lack of black control of black artistic and cultural products in Hollywood, which is about two-thirds of a fair point, he is arguing in favor of black control of the black artistic and cultural products of Hollywood that he approves of and that fit his own biases. (Roots was historically and genealogically accurate; Douglass was Lincoln’s conscience on the matter of slavery.) All of that is flawless as personal opinion, but it may not entitle Smiley to be interviewed by Newsweek.

Moreover, when Smiley indicts Tarantino for “reimagining black culture and black history,” he is essentially proposing the amputation of art’s dominant hand: imagination. The point is not that Tarantino cannot be criticized, even fiercely, for how he chooses to depict black lives, but that it is chilling to suggest that he lacks jurisdiction to depict them at all.

* * * * *

At its most basic level, Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy. It shares elements with the films of the Dirty Harry franchise or, in more recent memory, the remake of the mawkish, hawkish Red Dawn: an over-the-top, physics-be-damned chance to root for the “good guys” who overcome the dragon, pass through the circle of fire (elements of Norse mythology that Tarantino rather ingeniously lays over the story of Django’s quest), and conquer Evil, however temporarily. It’s one of Hollywood’s most reliable plot lines (indeed, Joseph Campbell would have argued that this “Hero’s Journey” is one of humankind’s most ancient and enduring myths).

Smiley acknowledges that Django Unchained is “about revenge,” but objects to that fact for reasons that never become entirely coherent. (He says that “every” black person he knows has experienced “some level of discomfort” with Django Unchained but has “justified” that discomfort by taking pleasure in the revenge. And it is “wrong,” Smiley says, “when black people justify a film by that standard.” At this point, though, we’re just going in circles: He never offers any satisfactory explanation for why it is wrong other than to say that “revenge and retribution … are absolutely not the story of the black contribution to the nation.” OK, but then what is the one, single “story of the black contribution” to America, Tavis? I mean, in three sentences or less.)

In the end, I genuinely don’t know why Smiley is so exercised about Django Unchained. Most of his arguments seem to be a rehash of nearly half-a-century-old Black Studies rhetoric or a grumpy demand for “representation” that is only barely legible in today’s cultural and media environments, especially if one abandons allegiances to vague concepts of black (mono)culture and black (mono)history and deals with the specifics of black American presence(s) in the second decade of the twenty-first century. And all I mean to suggest by that statement is that the terms of the analysis, as Smiley presents it, are hopelessly flawed.

quentin_tarantino-django_unchained-2What I do know is that Tarantino has constructed his film in such a way as to make it impossible for the audience not to root for Django. The choice is whether to see Django as emblematic of racial struggle (the black man finally avenges himself against the white man) or of the triumph of Justice over Iniquity. Or both. (Those who abhor film violence or object to revenge as a political philosophy aren’t going to like the movie anyway.)

How moviegoers project themselves into that equation reveals a great deal about them but perhaps not all that much about Tarantino.

Meanwhile, even if I were interested in knowing how Smiley experienced this interesting racial Rorschach, I wouldn’t be able to. He hasn’t seen the movie.


[1] Tarantino is being a bit of an ass when he maintains, as he has so often and so shrilly maintained, that there is “zero connection” between television and cinema violence and “real” violence—an ass because he has no evidence for saying so and because he tends to argue his position by shrieking rather than by applying his intelligence to the question. On the other hand, the fanatics who insist upon a direct causal connection between the viewing of on-screen violence and the propensity to act out violence have even fewer facts at their disposal, and Tarantino isn’t wrong to find them tiresome and pointlessly polemical. That said, Tarantino does one very interesting thing with the violence in Django Unchained. In virtually all the scenes in which the victim of violence is a white man or woman, the violence is stylized and exaggerated; it is slow-motion, special-effects, video-game splatter, and no one could take it seriously. When black characters are subjected to violence, however, Tarantino takes pains to make that violence realistic, relentlessly graphic, and deeply disturbing. I haven’t seen or read anything in which he discussed this, but I would argue that Tarantino is too aware of what he’s doing for the choice to be accidental.

[2] Zora Neale Hurston’s Delia Jones has a better chance of making it after she lets her abusive husband die of snakebite in the 1926 short story, “Sweat.”

[3] Samuel L. Jackson, who is terrific in Django Unchained, is also one of the industry’s smartest and most politically committed actors, and I wouldn’t at all mind being a fly on the wall when he finally tells Tavis Smiley to go fuck himself for calling Jackson, in essence, an Uncle Tom.du_samuel-l-jackson


Posted on 14 January 2013, in AmeriKKKa the Bootiful, Cinephilia...and Cinephobia, Write ... che ti passa and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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