Only recently did I learn of the longstanding feud between Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. This was a result of internet research I did after seeing a preview for Tarantino’s new movie Django Unchained, and after a dear friend sent me a link to Lee’s refusal to see the movie because it was “disrespectful” to his ancestors. As much as I agree with him intellectually, I can’t agree on the basis of having ancestors in common. In the social legacy of whiteness, there exists a privileged position of detachment from the pain of chattel slavery that renders this a historical event, rather than a historical experience with generational meaning. In the US, there is no understanding in white consciousness of being dehumanized as chattel. Slavery is not my history, heroic Blackness is not my identity, and any form of fictionalized vengeance that combines the two is not my story to tell. Quentin Tarantino has a different opinion:
“As a writer, I demand the right to write any character in the world that I want to write. And to say that I can’t do that because I’m white … that is racist.”
He made these remarks in 1997 in response to criticisms from Spike Lee at the time, but they read as if they were said yesterday. I finally went to see the movie (which was as exciting as going to the doctor), but I’ll address one piece of whiteness at a time.
This is what I wondered at 3 AM with Tarantino’s defense still as fresh as a pile of shit in my mind: so anyone can speak on… anything they want? How many conferences on obstetrics and gynecology would doctors attend if they were conducted by plumbers? Who asks their barber or hairdresser to explain organic chemistry? Who gets their legal advice from a veterinarian? These qualifications seem to warrant higher levels of respect in their differentiation, and in the demand that only the experienced and knowledgeable represent themselves. Credibility and poetic license are reserved, however, and given without question to the white tradition of producing anthropological studies or creative fantasies about the non-white “other.” This would be the lesser-known genre Tarantino has been exploiting for most of his career.
Samuel L. Jackson in a Blues Brothers suit carrying a wallet branded with “Badass Motherfucker” is a character. That is recycled and revised Blaxploitation fiction. However, a Black couple separated by slavery and beaten by members of the KKK are not the creative property of Quentin Tarantino. These “characters” are based on historical facts and lived experiences of racist violence. When I think of famous Black filmmakers in Hollywood, I struggle to think beyond Spike Lee and Tyler Perry; when I think of famous white filmmakers in Hollywood, I struggle to keep track. This structural inequity and white supremacy in US show business makes Tarantino’s accusation of (reverse) racism highly untenable. The fact that one of these precious few Black filmmakers dared to challenge the racism of a white director’s movies, one of the few in Hollywood who could tell a story like Django Unchained without racism and be entitled to tell it, makes Tarantino’s accusation deplorable and ridiculous.
Even a movie supposedly centered around a slave turned bounty hunter in pursuit of revenge is a movie that stars white people with Black people in supporting roles. And to be accurate, slavery is reduced to nothing more than a geographical backdrop, social scenery, and circumstantial setting for a signature Tarantino parody—this time using a Spaghetti Western formula. But there was something about selling this as a Western that confused me. I had no trouble comprehending the references in the throwback “Wild West” font of the opening credits, the desert-like landscape, and John Wayne outlaw music. However for the rest of the movie, audiences were apparently meant to believe a Western was taking place in the… Antebellum South?
I got a sickening feeling after the movie spent its ten minutes in Texas and shifted to southern plantations, that the era of chattel slavery was chosen because it provided new opportunities for Tarantino to explore/exploit gratuitous violence. And I’m not talking about the many white people whose heads were blown through and whose dicks were shot off, or the projectile blood from any number of body parts exploding like a can of red paint on the receiving end of a shotgun. This is all typical for a Tarantino flick. I’m talking about the two mandingo slaves who fight to the death in Calvin Candie’s parlor, ending with both men covered in blood and the victor not only clawing his victim’s eyes out by hand, but also smashing his face with a hammer. I’m talking about the slave who is attacked and torn to death by a pack of vicious dogs, a punishment ordered by Calvin Candie. I’m talking about Jamie Foxx as Django hanging naked from his ankles almost visibly castrated by a white slaver with an orange-hot blade, and Kerry Washington as his wife Broomhilda whipped and nearly bashed in the head with a hammer by Calvin Candie. As it turns out, the institution of slavery was not violent and/or awful enough, but must be saturated with a series of humiliations and atrocities in its storytelling.
All I can say about Leonardo Dicaprio’s performance as Calvin Candie is that it made him less of a convincing actor and more of a convincing racist. He was a little bit too believable for me, and by that I mean the slave master stole the show from the slave.
The comic camp created around this national shame is expressed and made sympathetic through many exchanges of witty banter and Tarantino’s tendency to make heinous villains handsome, charming, and/or funny. A hooded white militia spends at least five minutes having a *hilarious* argument about one of their wives insufficiently cutting the eye-holes in the white “bags” on their heads. Although no one in the movie explicitly called them the KKK, they wore symbolic hoods and made a brief allusion to attacks in their “full regalia.” An opportunity to make the most excessive, outrageous, and overdone scene involving the KKK in their “full regalia,” and Tarantino didn’t take it. He made a subtle hint at these things that younger or less informed people in the audience might not notice. He made these characters look like simple vigilantes on horseback with cheap pillowcases on their heads. Yet when Django is given the “freedom” to purchase his own “valet” uniform, he emerges from the store with a white bow at his chin, a blue satin coat to match his blue satin trousers, silk stockings, and buckled shoes—an entirely unexplained transformation. Multiple comic spectacles are made of Black characters and the brutality of the violence they suffer, but the KKK only give a quick mention of their “regalia.”
That is not Tarantino’s style; he doesn’t deal with any subject matter delicately, discreetly, sensitively, conscientiously, or with subtlety. Yet the KKK were somewhat disguised and miraculously escaped his confrontational and sensationalist plagiarism.
I could never imagine the diverse experiences Black folks might have when/if they see this movie, nor can I, as a white person, legitimately or personally take offense to the use of the N word. I can only comment on the extent to which I became more convinced the instances of the N word outnumbered the lines of dialogue Black characters had in the movie. After hearing the word fifty times, I stopped counting. Kerry Washington spoke less than ten times in two hours and forty five minutes. She is seen being ruthlessly whipped and branded as an object of abuse, or as a figment of Django’s imagination, until her physical form is finally produced when she is dragged naked and screaming from Calvin Candie’s “hot box”—a box in direct sunlight, mostly buried underground, and locked from the outside. Any other Black women who appear on screen are speechless, disoriented, or helpless. Django, whose name is the title of the movie and his vengeance the focus, spends 90% of the story saying next to nothing. Ultimately, this was an exploration of the white villain versus the white hero. And, oh yeah, a slave gets his wife and his freedom in the end.
There are two white heroes in Django Unchained. Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is the compassionate white bounty hunter who heroically dictates the terms of Django’s service and his freedom—an emphasis on white kindness and generosity, which I would say is the least important narrative to privilege in a movie about slavery. Schultz is, after all, the star and the one who avenges the slaves by killing Calvin Candie in the end. He was so overcome by his disgust for Candie’s racism that he just couldn’t help himself. After this climactic assassination, the last few moments where Django kills the rest of the white people in the movie and Calvin Candie’s “House Negro” (Samuel L. Jackson) seem like an afterthought. Django is given his moment only after Schultz has had his. The second white hero, Tarantino himself, delivers his version of victory, justice, and power to slaves by giving a happy ending to Django and Broomhilda.
This is the question I always have whenever filmmakers practice racism by appropriating stories from/inventing stories about POC: if this is a fantasy, if this is creative fiction, then why is racial oppression an inevitable and nonnegotiable reality? It seems the facts of white supremacy must remain true to life when any number of ridiculous things—a German bounty hunter disguising himself as a dentist, or a white woman writing the memoirs of Black maids—are unlimited in their fabrication. These fantasies are about good white people who grant some form of freedom to unusually talented characters of color, lending more attention to the Great Emancipator Complex than to well-developed and substantive roles for POC. As long as audiences are somewhat comforted by this, and equally entertained, one of the most gruesome tragedies in human history can be easily converted into a disgraceful and campy bloodbath. It is a filmmaker’s “right” to do so.