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The Good, the Bad, and Django

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The author considers Tarantino's new film and what kinds of movies about race relations tend to get made, and released, in Hollywood.

When I finally saw "Django Unchained" by writer/director Quentin Tarantino, I had been anxious to see it for some time. To me, as an immigrant, feminist and Pan-Africanist, the film seems uniquely American—a re-imagining of history as a singular moment on overdrive that ultimately makes America look great. Furthermore, in a nation that feeds on mediated information—see the 24-hour news cycle, 'reality' television, a film industry controlled by powerful corporations—"Django Unchained" offers itself as a risky opportunity to 'learn' something.

The audience will 'learn' that in the past Americans were mean (in the South), in the past people said n***er a lot, in the past Europeans and Australians lived here, in the past there was racism, and in the past slavery ended….at some point. But they'll be wrong. In the present Americans can be mean, in the present people say n***er a lot, in the present Europeans and Australians live here, in the present there is racism, and in the present there is slavery—see sex trafficking. So lesson one: neglecting a relationship between the past and present is willful ignorance.

As a film junkie and up-and-coming director, I give my props to Quentin Tarantino for making the film, which I'm sure wasn't easy. I'm enjoying the furor and potential for substantive conversation it's prompted. I also commend his skills in storytelling and the narrative decision to weave his tale within the American Western genre. (With Italian flare, of course—see Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Leone, etc.) As a creative endeavor, he pulled it off. But, continuing on to lesson two: film is not an education in and of itself, it's a spectacle. It's not history. It's like watching "The Help" and thinking that was true—spoiler alert: it wasn't. Without the gravitas of Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and a cameo by Cicely Tyson, the film is a fantastical re-imagining of race relations. One should also ask oneself why was this film made and "Red Tails" ( a 2012 film about the Tuskegee training program) almost impossible to finance? Why is Danny Glover's labor of love, a film about Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture, still not released? Where is the 2013 version of the Cicely Tyson's "A Woman called Moses" (a 1978 TV miniseries about Harriett Tubman) for the big screen?

Of course every creative translation veers from the truth. The minute we speak, write, paint, or film something we are risking the truth. The true skill of an artist lies in her ability to project her intuition onto the proverbial canvas. Lesson three: I mean to suggest that ‘true’ stories (fact or fiction) from the African Diaspora of collective and individual resistance or insistence—told with integrity, candor, and creative flare—should be elevated alongside more abstract renditions. With this in mind let’s hope "Nina," about Nina Simone, doesn’t suck.

In past weeks, Quentin Tarantino, the Weinstein Company and the National Entertainment Collectables Association collaborated to release an Amazon.com exclusive “Django Unchained” line of collectable toys. However, public outrage recently forced the withdrawal of the expensive collection. Personally, I think America went off the Orwellian deep-end with the proliferation of ‘reality’ as reality and ‘sexting,’ but this is rich. Which brings us to lesson four: the only way it will ever be okay to address race and racism in America is by truly addressing it.

In a spirited conversation late last year with The Root editor-in-chief Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Tarantino presented astute observations on the intersection between racism and cinema with respect to D.W. Griffith’s Oscar winning "Birth of a Nation," which inspired actual lynchings after its release in 1915. However, when it comes to the question of what graphic material Tarantino will not reveal on screen for a project, he has, by his own admission, very little inhibition. After winning for Best Screenplay at the Golden Globes, Tarantino responded to a rehashed question about the liberal use of the term n***er, with essentially the same answer given to Gates. At the Globes Tarantino said, “if somebody is out there actually saying [when] it comes to the word n***er [that] I was using it in the movie more [than it was used] in the Antebellum South, in Mississippi, in 1858 then feel free to make that case. But no one is actually making that case. [So] what they’re actually saying is I should soften it, I should lie . . .  and I never do that when it comes to my characters.”  Moments after Tarantino casually said n***er in the backstage pressroom, African American actor Don Cheadle won a Golden Globe for Best Comedy Actor, the only person of color to win an award that evening and in a very competitive category. After his acceptance speech, Cheadle told the press, “Please no n***er questions [pause]…black people questions are all right.” Although Cheadle’s quip was met with laughter there was something more complex and bitter-sweet happening in that moment.

And this is my final lesson: Although Tarantino as writer and director of "Django" should not be dismissed intellectually or artistically, he lacks emotional sensitivity and tact no matter the logic behind his actions. I understand the need to shock an audience especially in making a larger point: America did a terrible thing as slavers and we don’t talk about it. However, in making this point one shouldn't be surprised at the emotions—positive and negative—this will stir up.

Films about race, particularly involving dynamics between African Americans and European Americans, quickly enter the national consciousness and expose the American obsession with race for all to see—the obelisk on which this country teeters its American Dream. America is a nation born from violence, exploitation and subjugation of Africans, the Indigenous, women, children, nature itself and anyone other than European males of a certain pedigree. Everyone knows this context or otherwise lives in a state of denial. And as America inaugurates a second term African American president and becomes increasingly diverse, it’s natural to experience these moments of friction. Although if history is any kind of teacher, these tensions are real issues to address not ignore. The future presents a threat to four hundred years of white supremacy and dualistic social order—white vs. black, citizen vs. foreigner, rich vs. poor, man vs. woman, adult vs. child, man vs. nature—as Americans forge a new way forward.

Some may question my unrestrained enjoyment of the ethos surrounding "Django Unchained"—a controversial film hurtling towards being Tarantino’s best commercial success. But having been outraged for years, I take comfort in moments when I can have so much company. We as a generation need to have these conversations. We need to speak openly with truth, wit and empathy—as often as possible. I suggest we keep the conversation going about issues of racism, classism, sexism, liberation, sexuality, spirituality, you name it. So go see "Django Unchained" with a friend and have a chat.

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