Stir It Up
Larry on Django and what it means
Published: January 9, 2013
I don't go to a lot of first-run movies, but since I was hearing so much chatter about Quentin Tarantino's, I thought I'd check it out myself. Seemingly in recognition of the film's controversial subject matter, director Tarantino and lead actor Jamie Foxx got out in front of the criticism and released an hour-long promotional video that takes on many of the concerns that folks have about the subject matter, the liberal use of the N-word and, somewhat less, about the film's depiction of slavery's brutality.
Tavis Smiley tweeted a disparaging comment about the movie, referring to is as "a spoof on slavery: Hollywood's Christmas gift for Negroes. Thanks, you shouldn't have."
Perhaps most intriguing is that filmmaker Spike Lee told Vibe magazine the movie is "disrespectful to my ancestors." Lee didn't expand on the theme because he hadn't seen and claimed that he will not see it. Lee is probably the most influential black film director in the country (unless you think Tyler Perry has passed him by), so it's news when he speaks about such a high-profile film with slavery as its subject matter. Of course, dissing the movie and announcing that you haven't seen it in practically the same sentence doesn't give Lee much credibility. It would be different if he'd been able to say, "I saw it and here is where it goes wrong."
With Lee having not seen the movie, we're left to guess at his motivation. Is it just a general thing that white guys aren't allowed to make movies about slavery? Maybe it's that white guys aren't allowed to make movies where the N-word is used so frequently — although in Tarantino's case that train left the station long ago in works such as Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. Maybe Lee has become the grumpy old man of black filmmaking. He's always come off as a bristly kind of guy when dealing with the media and the public, but more and more it seems like he should be sitting in a Minnesota ice-fishing shanty grousing with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. Then again maybe Lee just likes to say controversial things to raise his media profile.
I saw and thought it was a pretty good cowboy movie. It was certainly entertaining, and I only found its two-hour-and-45-minute running time to drag once. I tend to like Tarantino films, and this is pretty much what he does. His movies are ultraviolent with a humorous twist — it contains the funniest Klansmen scene I've ever seen — and he must buy fake blood by the shipping container and spray it around with a fire hose. And the N-word is all over this movie, although, historically speaking, that's the way folks talked back then. Heck, plenty of black folks talk that way now.
Uplifting films like Roots, Glory and Amistad notwithstanding, it's fun to see a brother in a movie about slavery jump up and just whup some ass, even if he splatters blood all over you in the process. And pretty much everybody who gets killed in this movie has it coming, except for a couple of brothers who are the victims of slave-master brutality.
It isn't a perfect movie, and as a shoot-'em-up Western set mostly in the pre-Civil War South, we're not talking about generating a lot of introspection. Still, Tarantino does manage to present images of dynamics that don't get much discussion outside of academic circles. For instance, we get a peek at the relationship, and gulf, between free blacks and the enslaved during that period. What we see in the movie isn't the end-all be-all of that dynamic, but that it was even broached is a rare experience. Also, the spectacle of Mandingo fighting — wherein white men force black men to brutalize each other for sport — brings up another aspect of slavery's ugliness. We also witness the docile manner in which many of the enslaved accepted this way of life and found the Django character so astounding and foreign to their own experiences. And finally there is the Samuel L. Jackson character "Stephen," who brutalizes his own people yet also masterfully manipulates Massa from the moment he steps in front of the camera. His performance may be the most multifaceted of any in the entire film.
Most of the characters in this movie are stock cartoon caricatures. Certainly Jamie Foxx's Django is as one-dimensional as Chuck Connors' Rifleman. But that is the country inhabited by cowboy movies. Mario Van Peebles' Jesse Lee in Posse is a more intriguing character in his motivations and actions, but not as emotionally cathartic because Django serves up retribution against slavers. And that's where the power of the film comes from.
Anyone who wants to quibble with the portrayal of blacks in the media should pay more attention to stuff like the Oxygen network's upcoming All My Babies' Mamas featuring rapper Shawty Lo, his 11 children, and their 10 mothers. I can't imagine that it is any more uplifting than the old Being Bobby Brown reality show, in which Brown and Whitney Houston display themselves in a manner more crass and unimaginable than most characters in Django.
Let's move on to another divisive subject: Wayne County Sheriff and could-be mayoral candidate Benny Napoleon began poisoning the waters last week with an attack on the candidacy of Mike Duggan. Napoleon claimed that Palmer Woods, where Duggan has lived less than a year, was "not Detroit." Napoleon backpedaled over the next few days — probably thinking about his fundraising possibilities in Palmer Woods — in a Facebook post and elsewhere, sucking up to deep-pocketed developers in town and denying any racial motivation in his comments. He bent over backward, although he'd already achieved his goal in painting Duggan as a white carpetbagger trying to take over the city. Napoleon didn't say anything about Mayor Dave Bing, who hasn't made any announcements about his own re-election aspirations, and who happens to be a black carpetbagger. Napoleon didn't come out and call Duggan white, but his claim that, "It's our Detroit, and we're going to keep it for Detroiters," is as surely code as the word "urban" means "black." If Napoleon doesn't know what those words imply, then he's not smart enough to be our mayor.
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