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Despite the fact that “Django Unchained” has been denigrated by director Spike Lee as a “Spaghetti Western,” it is really much more than that. It is the first big Hollywood feature to deal with the horrors of American slavery since “Beloved.” As such, it challenges the notion that slavery is taboo as the subject of a fictional film. It lays bare slavery—and American society in general—as bestial, violent and immoral.
What director Quentin Tarantino does in his “Pulp Fiction” over-the-top style is wrap the vicious reality of America’s peculiar institution within the familiar confines of the action hero, the Western gunslinger and the quest to rescue the damsel in distress. In a generous two hours and 45 minutes, it takes people usually marginalized as “slaves” and makes them into human beings. So Django, played by Jamie Foxx, is a man who has escaped slavery who loves a woman and is steadfast in his commitment to save her. And Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington, is the pretty, precious one—a rare depiction for a Black woman in films about slavery (or even in films set during contemporary times). “Django Unchained” delves into the little explored reality that African Americans valued marriage and family ties during slavery and often searched far and wide to find their relatives who had been sold away, shipped off to parts unknown, or who had run away from bondage.
The main problem with “Django Unchained” is that it is the most recent example of someone other than Black people telling the story of Black People. Other than “Roots,” based on Alex Haley’s controversial bestseller, most films about American slavery, including nauseating classic “Gone With The Wind,” are made by Whites.
I am coming to the “Django” critique party late. The film has drawn controversy in part because of Spike Lee was quoted saying that the film is disrespectful because the institution of American slavery was a holocaust and should not be depicted through the trivial format of a spaghetti Western. He made this assessment without seeing the movie and has said that he refuses to see it.
What I hear in Spike’s comments is instead his frustration about the fact that
Hollywood continues to disrespect him and other Black filmmakers. Hollywood denies Black filmmakers the opportunity to make movies on such a big scale about the Black experience and, instead, green-lights such a project from Tarantino, who has a dubious track record on race and on depictions of people of color.
Tarantino is the director who peppered his debut smash hit, “Pulp Fiction” with the word “nigger,” including one segment about the accidental murder of young man and the dilemma of so-called “dead nigger storage.” Of course, another pivotal scene involved the rape of a Black gangster, played by the then-matinee idol of Black manliness, Ving Rhames.
In “Kill Bill,” the first assassin killed in the Black Mamba’s string of bloody
revenge killings is Vernita Green, aka Copperhead, played by Vivica A. Fox. A young Black girl, whose mother has just been murdered, is addressed in a very matter-of-fact way. Of course, in this popular movie, the blonde heroine is able to outfight and subdue the entire yakuza of Tokyo, a multitude of fighters called the crazy eighty eights and the head gangster played by Lucy Liu.
So, quite frankly, I was not looking forward to any treatment that Tarantino
would gave to the subject of American slavery and, in particular, the physical and sexual violence directed toward Black women. If I had not seen the movie, I would feel the same way that Spike Lee feels, just on GP. But I did see it—and saw it with a skeptical eye. Tarantino is definitely able to fit Django the enslaved man and the sadistic slave master, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, into his paradigm of good and evil, along with a cast of sidekicks that are not spared, including poor white overseers, Miss Anne and Uncle Toms. You know that in a Tarantino film the battle will not be easy or bloodless.
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