On Django UnChained

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Jamie Fox, Leonardo Dicaprio and

A Wagnarian Saga about Slavery and a  Good Movie!

As is to be expected of a film that chooses a controversial subject – in this case the enslavement of Africans in America – Django Unchained has sparked an emotional debate. The loudest voices in the debate naturally belongs to intellectuals, who are most likely to dissect the film with weighty critiques.  Hence for one who is given to penning weighty polemics on important issues about politics and culture, it is with the greatest reluctance that I have decided not to jump body and soul into the critical debate and spar with my fellow polemicists.   However I cannot resist pointing out that much of the critical commentary is not about the movie at all.

For instance, after reading the critique by Ishmael Reed, a great novelist and brilliant essayist, it seemed to me that he decided to use the movie to not only whip Quentin Tarrantino for all the sins of the movie industry ad infinitum, but also to use the film as a weapon to bludgeon a wide range of adversaries with whom he has been waging interminable culture wars.  I mean what the fuck are doing talking about Dr. DuBois’ “Talented Tenth” in a review of a movie about a gun slinging ex-slave on a quest to free his enslaved wife?

It is bad enough that he does not understand the concept in historical context – in spite of my futile efforts to educate him, and I remain ever ready to debate the subject with him in writing – but to burden this movie with that antiquated debate is prime faice absurd!  While I find Ish’s cleaver floggings of intellectual adversaries in his innovative novels – “Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, “Reckless Eyeballing,” “Mumbo Jumbo” “Japanese By Spring,” etc. –   entertaining and has written as much – see my essays on Ishmael on this blog – his critique of this movie published in the Wall Street Journal, of all places, is a colossal bore and more than a bit silly.

In spite of myriad facts, Ishmael’s essay obscures far more than it enlightens.  For instance, at the beginning of the review he says he was turned off before he ever read the script or saw the movie because the studio that was producing it was evidence that it was being produced for a mainstream audience…say what?  This comment reflects a widespread misunderstanding of the movie business, and making movies is a business.

Movies are a commercial product and if they don’t make money the director won’t be making movies and the studio won’t be in business for long, because making money is an imperative for survival in the market place.  The Jewish movie moguls who created Hollywood understood this well, that’s why they were so successful.  One of the main reasons why black movie makers have not succeeded on that scale is because they are operating from a different premise.

The Jews were businessmen whose principle objective was to make money, so they produced movies for the mass i.e. “mainstream” market.  Since that market was white and Christian they made movies about white Christians.  They even created the blond sex goddesses such as May West, Gloria Swanson, Marylyn Monroe, et al.  They hardly ever made movies about Jews, and even required Jewish actors like Bennie Swartz to take Anglicized names like “Tony Curtis.”  And they were roundly criticized for it by Jewish organizations, as the astute Jewish film historian Neal Gabler has adroitly pointed out.

Jack Warner, head of the enormously successful Warner Brothers studio, once remarked that he was in the business of producing popular entertainment, and declared: “It I want to send a message I’ll call Western Union.”  On the other hand black film makers are expected to be messengers for black causes, or to make films for a black audience populated with black characters and concerns.  It is a formula that will generally insure that you don’t make much money.  And if the movie is also burdened with a weighty message at the expense of entertainment values, you will be lucky to break even!

In Django Quinten Tarrantino has found a formula that allowed him to make money and send a weighty message.  What is that message you ask?  Slavery was an evil, decadent, inhumane system of labor.  The slave holding class was not the noble cavalier Knights Margret Mitchell painted in her best-selling novel that became a blockbuster movie “Gone with the Wind” that won multiple Academy Awards.  Rather they were the “front porch Puritans and backyard lechers” who routinely raped black women, that that other southern woman writer Lillian Smith called them in her extraordinary text “Killers of the Dream.”

It also confirmed Dr. Franz Fanon’s thesis that it is therapeutic for the oppressed to kill their oppressors.  It is   a powerful counter-statement to the American Exceptionalists crowd who insist that America is so morally superior to the rest of the world that it justifies an evangelical foreign policy in which Americans can invade other countries in order to impose our values on them! In my view these multiple messages more than compensates for any shortcomings of the movie.

Hence impassioned denunciations of the movie written by black critics like Jessie Williams, a television actor, which was highly praised by Ryan Adams on Awards Chatter.com, strikes me as little more than persnickety nitpicking diatribes that produce more heat than light.  No movie can be all things to all people.  But I am especially annoyed by those white writers who are perturbed that black people like the movie.  It smacks of the worse kind of paternalism, and it reminds me of the old Ibo proverb: “Beware of the stranger who comes to the funeral and cries louder than the bereaved family.”

I have met very few black people who don’t like this movie.  More typical is the reaction of my highly educated 31 year old daughter Makeda and her boyfriend Odogu, a former boxer:  They loved it!  When I was dragging my feet about seeing it she continued to bug me.  She says that Django reminds her of me.  She told me about the scene in the movie where someone said they had never seen a black man on a horse and she thought: “I have seen my daddy riding horses with big hats on all my life…and she knows that I feel just like Django about racist crackers!  And then there is my friend Samaad, who paid to see the movie five times, or a female Filipino who loved seeing Django kill those crackers while rescuing his woman.

The point that intellectuals who hate the movie miss is that for most black Americans, who have always seen black slaves cowering in fear as they are humiliated and victimized by whites, this movie is a personal catharsis.  They are just ecstatic about witnessing a black man kill some whites on the big screen, and the more the merrier- Which. I confess, was also a great part of the movies appeal to me.  But beyond all that, it’s a damn good action/adventure movie, with sharply drawn characters played by actors of star quality, and the difference between good and evil, virtue and vice is as clear as day and night.  It has none of the tortured complexity and ambiguity that intellectuals glory in.

 A Stone Cold Killer on a Mission!

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And black viewers loved ever drop of blood he spilled!

Ironically, Ishmael has a black avenging cowboy in his novel “Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, which I found fascinating but a friend of mine who is a novelist and professor of literature dismisses as “a parody of a parody that has nothing to do with the history of blacks in the old west.”  Hence much of art criticism, including the commentary on this film, is a matter of personal perspective and values – a question of personal taste.  And they are certainly entitled to their opinion.

However if this movie is evaluated from the perspective of historical accuracy and the art of making movies for a mass audience, which is how it ought to be evaluated, as commercial melodrama that reflects on a serious subject, it gets a passing grade from me. Critics of the movie have said that the story is not credible, that there is no historical evidence that suggests such a story could have happened.  I say they should hurry up and read Dr. Gerald Horne’s recent book “Negro Comrades of the Crown.”

Not only does he document the many Europeans who visited the US, observed the practice of slavery and responded with a passionate hatred for the slavers in scores of books, but the text is also rife with incidents of ex-slaves slaughtering whites, some rendered in gruesome detail.  He even has a story of an armed ex-slave on a mission to rescue his wife who was still enslaved!  So it is certainly a tale that could have been true.  And that is quite enough to justify the telling.  But lest we forget: This is a feature film, an act of the imagination that can claim artistic license, not a documentary to be viewed as a statement of historical fact.

However this rule can apply even when a feature film treats a specific historical event; as the heated debate around the Chilean film” No,” which depicts the 1988 plebiscite in that country that brought down the murderous military dictator Augusto Pinochet demonstrates.  Directed by Pablo Larrian, the film is based on a play “The Plebiscite,” by Chilean writer Antonio Skarmeta, who also wrote the novel “II Postino,” which was made into an Oscar winning movie.

The film has been roundly criticized by some Chileans who participated in the struggle to defeat Pinochet, Jose Miguel Vivanco, a Chilean who witnessed it all and now serves as the director of Human Rights Watch Americas,  gave the New York Times 2/10/ 13  a different assessment.  He said the film was “a good effort to show a pretty accurate picture of Chile in the 80’s.”  He conceded that there were important events in that struggle that was “not a part of the film at all…but I went to see a movie not a PBS piece.”

This is exactly how Django should be viewed; it gives us a great felling for the cruel inhumanity of slavery and leaves no doubt that it was a crime against humanity.  And thus more than justifies the bloody carnage visited on white slavers by Django.  I do have some criticisms however.  For instance I would have chosen different music for many of the scenes.  In the opening scene I would have used the deeply moving and hauntingly beautiful Afro-American spiritual “Oh Freedom” and engaged the Fisk Jubilee singers to perform it.

And in the scene where the masked nightriders were chasing Django and his German partner, I would have used Wagner’s Ride of the Valkeries, which is great for an action scene featuring galloping horses, and the movie is working with the same German myths about Brunhilde and Siegfried that Richard Wagner built his “music/festival/drama” The Ring around.   Hence when the beautiful talented Kerry Washington says she saw the movie as a quest of a man to rescue his woman while slaying a few dragons in the process, she is right on the money.

Kerry Washington: The face that launched a bloodbath

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She gave a moving performance

Indeed Django’s wife, played by Kerry Washington – who was easily the most beautiful woman at the Academy Awards ceremony – spoke German and was named “Broomhilde” – which some black commentators thought was ridiculous – duh?   It was supposed to be, since everything about slavery was ridiculous!  However when the German Doctor /Bounty Hunter explained the story of Siegfried and Brunhilde to Django he was also explaining the main plot of the movie.  It was a clever way of telling the story.

The proof is the reception it has recieved.  The way Austrian actor  Christophe Watz played the character with great wit and charm conjured up the Nazi officer he played in Tarrantino’s last blockbuster movie Inglorious Bastards, which I loved, and reminds us that in Django he created the same cathartic experience for Afro-Americans that he provided for Jews in Inglorious Bastards. And Christophe played the role so well he just won an Oscar for his performance!

The Charming but Deadly Doctor

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Christophe Watz and Jamie Fox

However the main criticism I have of the movie is the portrayal of Sam Jackson’s character.  It is a stereotype that is based on a misunderstanding of history and the nature of “Uncle Tom.”  Harriet Beecher Stowe’s character, introduced in the first bestselling American novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an accommodationist who loved his people but in his powerless state was force to play the role of obsequious slave while manipulating the all-powerful white folks.  This was a survival strategy that the great Afro-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar describes in his poem “While We Wear the Mask.”  It was represented in slave culture as “putting on ol massa,” which is to say play the white folks for fools.

This practice was expressed in a slave ditty that has been found all over the slave south :”Got one mind for white folks to see/got another mind I know was really me.  And they don’t know my mind” The character played by Samuel L. Jackson had a bit of this guile bh he more closely resembles Malcolm X’s “House Negro,” in his famous House Negro vs. Field Negro dichotomy.  The problem is that this is an ahistorical analysis because it was the “House Negros” who led the revolts.  That was true then and now.

I am continuously amused when I hear middle class black intellectuals repeat Malcolm’s ahistorical foolishness, because most of the sixties revolutionary leaders ended up as professors or some other middle class professions – and to the lumpen ghetto dwellers  gangsta rappers are the real rebels and they are the “house niggaz.”  It is an irony that somehow escapes them.   Django Unchained perpetuates the myth, because Sam Jackson’s house nigger really does love his master and believes that he is a God-like figure.  This interpretation flies in the face of the conventional wisdom…… but then it’s only a movie.   And when the gorgeous cinemetography is added to its other virtues its a damned good movie at that!

Sam Jackson as House Nigger

Samuel L Jackson

 Sam gave a great performance of a stereotyped character

 

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Fenruary 24th, 2013

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