By Tanya Steele | Shadow and Act December 27, 2012 at 12:50PM
Yesterday, I took time out to see 'Lincoln' and 'Django Unchained', back to back. Yes, in that order. I needed to get a glimpse of what slavery was like in the imagination of white men.
As a black filmmaker, I find that I wrestle with thoughts of 'responsibility'; 'who will see it', 'what impact will it have on the discourse in America', 'what images will I be projecting to our youth/to the world'. I've often noted, even in film school, white filmmakers don't have that burden. They were free to write, to be, to create without thinking about this stuff. I'm certain they thought about other things but, the burden of race was not in their baggage. There is such a thing as privileged Art, privileged filmmaking. We see it in the current slate of insipid films coming out of Hollywood. Films that are not responsible or accountable to anyone or anything.
There is so much response to 'Django' that I needed to see it. Spike Lee's words were instructive. I respect Spike. He paid his dues. He is someone who pays attention to representation. Having had him as a Professor, I know that he is someone who gives an ear and a hand to black filmmakers, actors, even people behind the camera. Spike does not need to justify his commitment to black america AT ALL. So, I was disturbed by the awful things said about Spike. For many blacks in and out of the business, Spike Lee champions us, he is a hero. But, hey, we don't really worship our heroes while they are alive. I saw this quote on Facebook, it was posted by someone that I, usually, find interesting. After he saw 'Django', he wrote, "Spike lost." I will return to this later.
I experienced mixed emotions while watching 'Lincoln'. Why is he focusing on this part of slavery? (Understanding, he did make 'Amistad'.) Why does he feel the need to focus on 'Lincoln' or that moment in history? Why isn't he showing what these white men were fighting over - the experience of the slave? But, I went with it, struggling every step of the way. Ultimately, I relaxed and trusted the storyteller. Yes, people are upset that there was no Frederick Douglass. The slaves appeared well dressed and weren't showing the scars of slavery. I did find that problematic. He chose to focus on the passage of the Amendment and the end of the Civil War.
As an aside, Colman Domingo and Gloria Reuben were refreshing. They were layered, not one dimensional, not noble. I was excited by this as I do believe that black actors are bringing choices, a complexity when portraying historical figures, a fierceness that can't be directed out of them. I'd like to think that Denzel's performance in 'Glory' has a lot to do with this.
I appreciated the fact that I had to listen during 'Lincoln'. Something we are short of in these times. I had to listen, follow, patiently, allow the story to breathe. And, it did. James Spader was a hoot. What a great character. He was akin to Falstaff. And, Tommy Lee Jones brought it. Casting that film must have been a dream. That moment in history was flawed, not noble, complicated, ugly, not how we view history. All of the characters were not one thing, did not think one way. There was back dealing, self-importance and arrogance. Lincoln, who seemed to only utter words that were dripping with poetic brilliance (he must have been annoying), was even flawed. This film was not about the noble white man. It is about white men who were dragged, kicking and screaming, into the future.
So, ultimately, I dug it. There was something earnest about the frailty of humanity. How people become impotent, intellectually and emotionally crippled in the face of a pure evil like slavery. Similar to the gun debate after the Newtown shootings. We create evil, we don't want it, yet, we are wed to it- rendered powerless by it.
So, what is slavery in the white male imagination? If you were born and raised in America, slavery will have crossed your path. I imagine, if I were white, had black friends and was an Artist, I would have to ponder slavery. And, I believe that Spielberg and Tarantino did or do. Spielberg tried to create an earnest rendering of slavery with 'Amistad'. However, like Tarantino, his imagination stops at a certain point. I would imagine that the horrors of slavery become too complicated after a certain point. One can't go around feeling guilty and apologizing all of the time. So, what happens? What do white people do with slavery?
Quentin Tarantino… I am not one to run to a Tarantino film. Violence in film can be too much for me. After 'Pulp Fiction', where audience members were laughing at gratuitous violence, I couldn't deal. So, I avoid Tarantino films if I think violence is the main staple. I did see 'Inglorious Bastards' and I liked that. I felt he gave respect to the survivors of the Holocaust. Yes, there was humor and it was playful, but, he respected the pain of the experience.
The black experience does not belong to black people. We wish it did but it doesn't. And, the highest bidder gets to do with it as they see fit. Our stars are available to the highest bidder. The one who will deliver the audience, who will maximize their cred, who has a proven track record of getting people in seats. Tarantino is a high bidder. He gets butts in seats. He is the filmmaker for our time. He gives us that sweet, sugar, violent laced fantasy that masculinity seems to crave. And, we women get the drippings, a taste, we go along for the ride because the candy looks and sounds so sweet.
Samuel Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio were stunning. Their performances were phenomenal. And, there were moments in the film that may have felt 'new' to those who haven't studied slavery. Things that we have not seen before on the big screen. There were moments, in the film, that were captivating. And, they were presented in interesting and playful packaging. Situating in the brutality of slavery would not make for a good film. I understand the need to divert, to fantasize, to create a new mythology around it, to distract us from the insanity that resides in this nation's past.
But, if it was as easy to escape slavery, as Django did, we would be somewhere else at this point in history. We would not have the extreme black on black violence in Chicago. We would not have extreme unemployment amongst black men. We would not have the extreme school drop-out rates, high illiteracy rates, high domestic violence numbers, etc. You get it. If it was easy to get out of it, we would have. We are a creative people. We used our imaginations to escape the physical horror that was slavery. That's why we could create something as complex and deep as Jazz, the blues, Jimi Hendrix. How advanced we were with music gives us some insight into how we disappeared into the imagination because we couldn't escape the physical.
At some point in a film, especially films that are socially relevant, you get a strong sense of the filmmaker's voice. There was a moment in 'Django' (that I will not reveal), where I got the sense that Tarantino believed if we weren't so submissive that we wouldn't be here. Django and his woman were the exception. The rest of the slaves accepted their lot, some happily. The slaves, other than Foxx, Jackson and Washington, were not believable. Tarantino's slaves were the exact opposite of Spielberg's slaves. They were not noble, they were caricatures/cartoonish.
The first female slave that Django encounters was so laughable, I wasn't sure if Tarantino was joking or trying to sincerely portray a slave. Even Jamie Foxx phoned it in, at points. Django was the 'super Nigger', the one who was unique, smart, rebellious, different from the rest. None of the slaves conspired to help Django. He was a man on an island. He was the unique Negro.
The other slaves were in step with their master. Django was on the opposite side of that. Although, he was sidekick to a white man throughout the majority of the film. In Tarantino's imagination, he could accept slavery if he thought of it as black people fighting back under the gaze of a white male. This works for a culture that does not want to confront the evils and system of slavery. We want to believe that it wasn't all that bad. That it was endurable, escapable, provided opportunities for heroics. Black people were slaves because we didn't fight back. Django was a character created by a privileged white male.
Perhaps Tarantino did consider our history. I'm certain that he is aware that President Barack Obama is a modern day hero to many of us. Perhaps he did see that our heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., who preached non-violence, was murdered. Perhaps he is aware that Malcolm X, who loved us with all of his might, was murdered. Perhaps he did see that Medgar Evars was murdered. And, Fannie Lou Hamer suffered beyond comprehension. That Harriet Tubman survived and liberated others while carrying a weapon. And, that Nat Turner fought and died as our hero.
Perhaps he has born witness to our carnage, our suffering and determined that black people need a hero in a black man. That we, black women, need a hero black man who would risk everything and kill everything in his path in order to be with us. Maybe Tarantino speaks in the language of hyper masculinity, where the body count determines who wins because he feels that it will embolden black males beyond self-hatred to a self love and strength that reshapes their internal dialogue. Understanding that we do have black men, in our history, who stood up with guns and fought back but their story isn't told. Perhaps Django represents them.
Tarantino is the perfect filmmaker for these times. We want our information fast, fun, presented in an interesting way and not too complicated. We want an 'idea' of something and not the whole truth. We want to know that there are soldiers fighting overseas but we don't want to see the coffins. Nor do we want to see what's in them. We want the 'idea' of the thing, not the thing. We want slavery but we want to escape from it. And, no, I don't want to see two hours of humorless, long suffering, brutal slavery, either. It's a difficult balancing act. There is a deeper, more interesting slave narrative to be told. One from the perspective of a talented Black filmmaker. Stories of slavery rival Shakespeare, they are worthy of a thoughtful approach. Stories that can teach us a lot about what it means to be a human being. I am anxiously awaiting Steve McQueen's '12 Years a Slave'.
People will give the argument, "it's the best that could be done with the subject matter". That argument doesn't hold. Think of 'Schindler's List'. Have you seen 'A Soldier's Story'? That wasn't slavery but it was about the repercussions of slavery. It was written by a black man and directed by a white male. Something about these films deliver the experience, ground you in the truth of it but don't leave you feeling defeated. And, yes, Reginald Hudlin and others were a part of the landscape but it was a Tarantino film. Tarantino's voice spoke the loudest in 'Django'.
Is the culture any worse because of 'Django Unchained'? I don't think we are better because of it. Will it deepen discussions around slavery? Probably not. Will it decrease violence in the 'hood? Probably not, if anything, the gun received more glorification and worship. Not sure black males or anyone else needs that. But, he had a right to make it. It's entertaining. It's has a funky and thoughtless soundtrack. It has beautiful people in it. It is escapism. It is a work of Art. We have spent eons escaping into the white male hero, why not a black one? 'Lincoln' is pensive. 'Django Unchained' is active. And, we are still on the outside, looking in, as others write our history.
Spike Lee did not lose. There was nothing to win. He was sounding the alarm. That's all. Keeping the flow of the river. Our heroes, while alive, hold up the flame as others bash them. They pass it on to the next generation, in spite of itself. Was this disrespectful to Spike's (our) ancestors? He believed so. May we all be thoughtful and caring enough to ask ourselves this very question, of one another, more often.
**And, before people jump on the 'how can Spike talk about the film if he hasn't seen it' bandwagon. There are several who read the screenplay and were offended by it. For some, that was enough**