"Django Unchained" is the perfect revenge fantasy for black people -- except that it was made by a white man
Topics: entertainment news, Editor's Picks, Movies, cinema, Film, Quentin Tarantino, Race, Racism, Race Relations, slavery, Jamie Foxx, samuel jackson, pulp fiction, django unchained, Oscars, Academy Awards, Movie Awards Season, Entertainment News
There are some folks who won’t like to read these words: White guy superstar director Quentin Tarantino may be the baddest black filmmaker working in big-time Hollywood movies today.
That is a possibility which angers some, frightens others and disgusts a few more, saying as much or more about the sorry state of movie audiences today and the still-closed world of big-time filmmaking than any tart provocation Tarantino has managed to splash on the screen.
The reason we’re having this conversation — again — is thanks to the latest addictive confection of revenge film, spaghetti Western, Blaxploitation movie and anti-slavery fantasy Q.T. dropped on us all to close out 2012: “Django Unchained.”
Beyond the fact that it is gleefully bloody, luxuriating in crimson-splattered shootouts at a time when America is deeply conflicted over how much it loves this stuff, “Django Unchained” uncorks the perfect revenge fantasy for black people descended from slaves and living in a still-white-dominated society.
Never mind the n-words – and the term “nigger” is thrown around a lot in this film, just to shake up those who might miss how revolutionary it really is otherwise — Tarantino has created a black superhero in Jamie Foxx’s Django. He’s a freed slave who is good at killing callous white people, exacting vengeance for their specific folly of brutalizing him and his wife, but also living out the fantasy of being the one black man who couldn’t be dehumanized by slavery.
An African-American screenwriter friend of mine marveled at Tarantino’s accomplishment while at a “Django” screening with so few black people watching they could be counted on the fingers of one hand. This almost entirely white audience was laughing and cheering as a black man mowed down one white asshole after another, taking out men too venal, stupid or entitled to admit how much of their world was built on the blood and pain of black slaves.
Making white people cheer the death of white supremacy? To paraphrase a recent controversial monologue by the film’s star: How black is that?
But Quentin Tarantino isn’t black. And that is a fact which has stuck in the craw of many who look askance at this jittery, superstar film geek who has no problem putting the word “nigger” in the mouth of a character if it serves his purposes.
They suspect he has tapped powerful black actors such as Sam Jackson, Pam Grier and Ving Rhames to indulge his n-word fantasies, validating his excursions even as they play sordid characters: weapons dealers, drug mules, hitmen and drug kingpins.
They worry his considerable skill as a filmmaker is somehow being used to profit by degrading black people in the guise of spotlighting them, like a white grocer who profits by peddling week-old produce in a black neighborhood with no other stores.
These aren’t unreasonable fears. But some Tarantino critics – particularly longtime foe Spike Lee, who pronounced “Django Unchained” “disrespectful to my ancestors” without ever seeing it – seem to hate Tarantino for reasons that reach beyond these simpler themes.
As with Paul Simon’s adventures into South African music with his classic “Graceland” album, Tarantino attracts outrage in part because he is a white man who gets to do what black artists should also get to do.
Studios know white audiences will show up for his movies – especially, the twenty- and thirtysomething white males the advertising industry salivates over. So he gets to make “Jackie Brown,” the homage to Blaxploitation movies John Singleton and Spike Lee never could — with the queen of the genre, Pam Grier, no less. (Of course, Singleton did get to make an update of “Shaft” with Samuel L. Jackson, proving the only thing he learned from Blaxploitation movies was to make sure the star was somebody audiences couldn’t stop watching, even if they wanted to.)
It’s like seeing the Rolling Stones make millions recutting Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters records. You know their art is coming from a place of love and tribute, but it sucks that white audiences will show up for the Xerox in bigger droves than they ever managed for the original.
I am a black man, a longtime arts critic and a stone Tarantino fan. But there are still times when his taste for politically incorrect dialogue pulls me up short. Like “Pulp Fiction’s” scene with Jimmy. Tarantino fans already know where this is headed: In “Pulp Fiction,” Jackson’s Jheri-curled hit man Jules has been the film’s alpha-dog badass, until his partner Vincent Vega (a charmingly long-haired John Travolta) accidentally shoots a man in the back seat of their car, forcing Jules to turn to his pal, Jimmy, for help.
Q.T. plays Jimmy, presenting the guy as an exasperated nudnik, unimpressed by Jules’s badassery, hectoring him like he’s scolding a kid. “Did you notice a sign out in front of my house that said ‘Dead Nigger Storage?’” he asks Jules at one point. When Jackson’s Jules offers a sheepish no, Jimmy drops the punchline: “Because storing dead niggers ain’t my fucking business.”
I think I know why Tarantino went there. He seems to delight in scenes where the power dynamic shifts, and seeing Jules kowtow to this geeky white guy throws off the audience just enough that they really appreciate when the scene’s true alpha dog, a fixer called Mr. Wolf, shows up in a sportscar and businesslike attitude, courtesy of the legendary Harvey Keitel.
Tough to admit, but I laugh at Jimmy’s line every time I watch the film. Still, it felt a bit gratuitous; we already know this guy somehow has the power to make Jules fall in line – we didn’t really need to see him get smacked with the n-word to confirm it all.
That’s really all I ask: that a filmmaker prove, when deploying the n-word, that there’s a reason for going there that makes artistic sense. As much as Lee and others want to complain about how Tarantino’s characters sling around that epithet, most of the time, in most of his movies, it makes creative sense.
And look at the results. Playing Jules helped turn Jackson into Hollywood’s premiere shit-talker, from trading jibes with Bruce Willis in a “Die Hard” movie to keeping “The Avengers” in line as Nick Fury. “Jackie Brown” was the best role Grier had in years, and “Django” had more black actors in powerful parts than any recent film I’ve seen that didn’t have Tyler Perry’s name in the credits.
Tarantino’s black characters may be flawed, but they are also powerful, smart, human and effective without the approval or enabling of white characters, a rarity for big Hollywood films. That’s really why “The Help” went over with some black folks like a lead soufflé; the black victims in that story were saved by a white girl instead of saving themselves.
If anything, I would say Tarantino’s success means it is time for him to help more black filmmakers get to the hallowed place where he now resides.
Spike Lee has a tough enough time getting his own films made; time for Q.T. to bring more vibrant black storytellers to Hollywood the way he did with Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, lending his name to the rapper’s kung-fu film homage, “The Man With the Iron Fists.”
‘Cause it sure would be nice, someday, to see a black person become the baddest black filmmaker in big-time Hollywood.
Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic at the Tampa Bay Times, in Florida. He is the author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation. His website is www.ericdeggans.com. More Eric Deggans.
More Related Stories
- Hillary Clinton memoir shows up on Amazon
- First look: Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard shine in "The Immigrant”
- A brief history of Jennifer Weiner's literary fights
- No women allowed: Summer music festivals are dudefests, again
- Vivica A. Fox tapes anti-gun PSA in front of poster for her movie
- This is what Guy Fieri looks like as a balloon
- Mariah Carey's rambling, cursing, dress-popping "Good Morning America" concert
- Fox's new reality TV show threatens regular people with unemployment
- Amanda Bynes arrested after hurling bong from window
- Steamy lesbian-sex movie has Cannes abuzz
- Stop what you're doing and go watch "Borgen"
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- New York chef serves up eight-course meal around "Arrested Development" jokes
- HLN: Jodi Arias "pleading for her life" got us a ratings win!
- Michael Ian Black on Maron feud: He "considered me a poseur"
- Chekhov's story mirrors Russia's own
- Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina denied parole
- Joe Francis apologizes for calling jury "retarded"
- Mary Karr: David Foster Wallace and I kept each other alive
- Morgan Freeman sleeps during televised interview
Featured Slide Shows
Mobile Entertainment: 9 Amazing Drive-In Movie Theaters Still Standingclose X
- 1 of 11
Two-for-one for Everyone — West Wind Solano Twin Drive-In, Concord, Calif. This family-friendly attraction with several spots across the U.S. (including California, Nevada and Arizona) prides itself on offering first-run double features (save for premiere events) on the cheap — which is quite the deal, considering their 65-foot screens are among the biggest in the biz. And if you have great car speakers, even better: squawk boxes of old have been replaced with Dolby quality audio piped through your car’s FM stereo.
For the Four-legged Friendly — Warwick Drive-In, Warwick, N.Y. Northeast city slickers looking for a place to watch their favorite movie stars under the stars need only veer six miles east of Vernon, N.J. What began as a family affair in 1950 has since become a seasonal institution offering rural and urban (and pet!) audiences two movies for the price of one on any of its three giant screens.
Image credit: Gettywarwickdrivein.com
See Stars Collide — Ford-Wyoming Drive-In, Dearborn, Mich. Open year-round (unlike many of its surviving contemporaries), this five-screen staple of the Midwest known as the “largest drive-in in the world” plays host for up to 3,000 cars on any given night. And if the double-feature doesn’t hold your attention, relax; you’ve got the best (car)seat in the house for the occasional overhead meteor shower.
Image credit: waymarking.comwaymarking.com
A Hole (Lot of Fun) in One — Wellfleet Drive-In, Wellfleet, Mass.Built in 1957 and still offering original mono sound boxes for those looking for an authentic experience (or not, as FM stereo is available as well), the summer-exclusive theater hosts double features of first-runs on its giant 100’ x 44’ screen. Come for the movies, stay for the mini-golf and flea market (on select days).
Image credit: Gettywellfleetcinemas.com
Go Big or Drive Home — Bengies Drive-In, Baltimore, Md. The only thing bigger than Bengies’ prolific history (57 years and going) is its main attraction — boasting the biggest theater screen in the U.S. at 6,240 square feet. That’s 52’ x 120’ of pure anamorphic presentation. Complementing its time capsule of a snack bar (unchanged since ’56), previews old and new occupy the venue’s old-timey intermissions between features.
Image credit: Gettybengies.com
Proof That Film is Forever — Shankweilers, Orefield, Pa. While we’re on superlative street, consider stopping at this roadside treasure: America’s oldest drive-in. Operating since 1934, it may not have the frills and pony rides of nearby Becky’s Drive-In, but it’s defied hurricanes and the wear and tear of time. Worth the one-hour drive from Philly.
Image credit: Gettyshankweilers.com
The Gritty Hollywood Reboot — Corral Drive-In, Guymon, Okla. Like a slasher movie menace that died (several times) in the ’80s only to be rebooted years after, the long-vacant Corral Drive-In was resurrected and restored in 2009, providing big entertainment at a nominal fee. And if the $6 adult admission doesn’t make you feel like a kid again, the venue’s inflatable bouncers most definitely will.
Image credit: Gettycorraldrivein.com
Hop the Healthy Highway — Delsea Drive-In, Vineland, N.J. Less than an hour’s trip from Atlantic City, New Jersey’s only drive-in offers the best of both worlds — old school aesthetic outfitted with modern tech and healthier food choices to boot. Open seasonally, with first features beginning around dusk.
Image credit: Gettydelseadrive-in.com
Bring Your Backyard to the Big Screen — Starlight Six Drive-In, Atlanta, Ga. As much a backdoor barbecue as it is a night out at the movies, this six-screen Atlanta drive-in encourages what most in the theater biz forbid: bringing your own food and grilling it. Those looking to add a hip twist of the theatrical to their Labor Day getaway need only stock the cooler and pack some brats or burgers for the Starlight’s annual “Drive-Invasion,” which features a hot-rod show, live music, and B-movies galore.
Image credit: yelp/ivan.s.starlightdrivein.com
And really, what better way is there to cruise the nostalgia highway of old Hollywood than in a MINI Roadster? Allowing all the headroom one needs to see the stars on the screen and those directly above, the 2013 convertible goes the distance where it counts — on the road (obviously), not to mention the discerning driver’s wallet. Never mind that its fun-size frame also makes motoring in and out of tight traffic all the more enjoyable (or parking in even tighter spots for cozy romantics all the more convenient).
Image credit: miniusa.com
Recent Slide Shows
Mobile Entertainment: 9 Amazing Drive-In Movie Theaters Still Standing
The week in 10 pics
The week in 10 pics
The week in 10 pics
- 1 of 11