Why can’t African American moviegoers enjoy a “popcorn” movie without having to feel angst or guilt whenever the protagonist is black? I just want to enjoy a movie. I don’t want to carry the burden of race with me into a darkened theater. Let me indulge in the time-honored tradition of calling out to the characters as though I’m at a live event and the performers can hear me. The last thing I want to do is take notes so I can refute the crazy rants of Adolph Reed, Spike Lee and others.
So you understand why I’d like to kick back and enjoy a black themed movie without feeling the “Black man’s burden” to represent and uplift the race. But in going to see Django Unchained I wasn’t permitted that luxury courtesy of Messers Reed, Lee, and the Talented Tenth.
Quentin Tarantino’s sin is being born a white man who fell in love with 1970s Blaxploitation, Spaghetti Western, Chinese Kung Fu and B-movie flicks. Black intellectuals assumed that because these films played in our rundown neighborhood movie theaters they belong to us. They don’t! White boys like Quentin spent lazy Saturday afternoons and nights at the movies, too. Like us, he thought Saturday Night Fever was lame.
If black intellectuals can daydream about strolling along the River Seine, why can’t white artists like Tarantino fantasize about being a badass like Dolomite or a cool kick-ass kung Fu master like Bruce Lee? If imagining yourself an expatriate living in Paris doesn’t mean you want to be white, neither should Quentin’s fascination with Blaxploitation mean he secretly desires to be a ‘negro’ running the streets carefree.
Tarantino’s blacks are far from one-dimensional as many of his harshest critics claim. He is so deliberately mischievous in destroying white stereotypes of submissive black slaves that Jackson is made up to resemble Uncle Ben— that benign icon and purveyor of farina and rice. But Stevie is a malignant toad in Uncle Ben camouflage. Quentin Tarantino is so steeped in Hollywood and American stereotypes of blacks that he brilliantly presents those myths before skillfully exercising his cinematic scalpel to excise the malignant racist tumors festering beneath the skin.
Samuel L. Jackson’s Stevie isn’t a tragic Uncle Tom. He’s more “master” than slave. It couldn’t be drawn any plainer than in the library scene where he’s sipping cognac and explaining (in unaccented English) to DeCaprio’s dilettantish plantation fop how he’s being played for a fool by Dr. King Schultz and Django. Tarantino destroys the myth of black slaves as infantile and guileless by substituting the Biblical presentation of slaves as the ones who competently ran the daily affairs of the slaveholder. Jackson’s Stevie is more the biblical Joseph than Uncle Tom.
Even his portrayal of black jealousy surpasses Spike Lee’s weak and incomplete attempts in his cinematic tour de force Malcolm X.
In Django, Tarantino depicts the jealousy in the eyes, face and attitudes of slaves towards the “uppity” black man on horseback. In those circumstances, who wouldn’t feel jealous –if only because it makes one’s own powerlessness starker.
Unlike Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino doesn’t permit that jealousy to linger and fester. After Django tricks and dispatches the three mining company men, one of his now freed cohorts who earlier sneered at our hero, lets a smile of admiration curl his lips. As the credits roll, Tarantino inserts a scene where the freed men inquire after their benefactor’s name.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves about the continuation of that mindset into 21st century intramural black relations. Sit in any barbershop (or faculty lounge) long enough and you’ll soon hear reference to “blacks being like crabs in a barrel” not wanting (more precisely, unable) to help each other. The schoolhouse bullying of academically strong black males is a daily manifestation of that jealousy. (If QT were black, I’d say the same jealousy spurred the beatdown he’s been administered since his film opened.)
A University of Pennsylvania scholar wrote that “most of the slave characters Django meets are not his equals.” Duh! Django Freeman is a free man and they are not. Even Biblical heroes such as Joseph and Moses didn’t treat the Jews of their day as equals. I doubt the good professor treats the low-wage workers she meets daily as exact equals.
I proffer that the talented tenth see themselves in Stevie and are unnerved. I mean, how many times have they, like Stevie, kicked back in buttery leather chairs in mahogany-walled faculty lounges with cognac in hand sharing the lowdown on some rival?
UPenn scholar makes a telling observation,
“As we cheer Django on in his revenge, we ought to ask ourselves: What happened to all the other slaves in America? Those who had neither Django’s guile nor guns? If we are serious about avenging the past, we must deal with the legacy of their lives in our present.”
That passage may be read as a confessional for the black elite –who like Django are “exceptional”– but unlike Django are not “heroic.” For all their liberation, good manners and accomplishments, they haven’t rescued their people. They feel guilty that they have not used their gifts to gain vengeance for past wrongs. They are haunted by the thought, “what happened to all the other blacks in America [why aren't they more like me]“?
And they have no answer.
They can only criticize Quentin Tarantino for starkly raising the question that haunts their days and nights.
- Spike Lee ‘Not Gonna See’ Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’ (movieline.com)
- Quentin Tarantino: ‘Roots’ Was Inauthentic (newsone.com)
- ‘Django Unchained’: A Postracial Epic? (theroot.com)
- Quentin Taratino Responds To Spike Lee: “Django Wasn’t Real But Neither Was Roots!” (v103.cbslocal.com)