Asked & Answered: Django Unchained

Below in bold are a series of questions I received late last night via email regarding the post I wrote on Django Unchained. Answers will follow.

Where does a writer’s license to imagine things other than their life begin? Must all works be non-fiction in first person? In that case can we ever talk about slavery at all?

This discussion is not so broad as to include all works of writing in their various forms, it is intentionally limited to the direct subject matter: a specific piece of fiction concerning a specific narrative. I question the assumption of total freedom and license in storytelling when its forms are very specialized, regulated, and inscribed with the power dynamics of race. I’m not exactly sure who “we” are in this scenario, but it would stand to reason that you are referring to white people. Saying it is disrespectful and unjustified for a white director to make a movie from the perspective of a slave and his path of imagined vengeance is not the same as saying “white people can never talk about slavery at all.” There is a big difference, and these statements should not be used interchangeably. However, the institution of slavery was not fiction, and a “first person narrative” of the slave experience does not exist if it is written by a white person. A writer’s “license to imagine things other than their life” began hundreds of years ago, and it should end any time this license grants those who have not experienced racial oppression to use it as a point of entertainment and campy gore. To suggest racial oppression is neutral content easily accessible and comprehensible to white writers, is to suggest the historical wounds and material consequences of racial oppression can be severed from this content under the pretext of “art.” I would call this violence, not art.

There’s not a single PoC that has the experience of being a slave. It surely is a huge leap to even pretend to remember what that was like, no matter what ancestral memory has been passed down or culturally exists. It’s been well over a hundred years. Surely, someone should be able to represent or remember it. Where do you draw the line?

I would ask you to take notice of these assumptions: “it surely is a huge leap to even pretend to know what that was like,” and “surely someone should be able to represent it.” So the assumption is that Black folks have no oral traditions and histories that keep this legacy alive, and the implied argument is that Black people in the contemporary moment have no legitimate connection to their own history because it happened hundreds of years ago. Please see Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon for a much more involved perspective on the endurance of slavery that I will not be addressing here. Black folks (from the era of slavery to the present moment) have already been writing their own stories and producing their own knowledge. If you dare to suggest POC have no contemporary experiences of slavery “no matter what ancestral memory” exists, then I question why Tarantino isn’t subjected to the same level of scrutiny—someone who has absolutely zero frame of reference or memory regarding that side of history. I draw the line at the argument that POC can’t logically associate with their histories, but white artists can. If you think it is a “huge leap” for Black people to relate to their own ancestors, then what kind of biblical leap is a white male taking when he thinks he can represent, remember, and/or relate to their ancestors? This is when a vague and mysterious “someone” who “should be able to represent and remember” inevitably translates to “a white person who should be able to write stories about POC.”

It’s because of racism and white supremacy that narratives told by white folks are privileged over narratives POC have been telling for centuries. And I wonder…  who can draw the line between an appropriate and inappropriate amount of time to pass before communities’ tragedies become subject to an imaginary public domain?

Is it solely based on race? Does research or knowledge play a part? Who gets enfranchised into the cultural memory conversation? Are perspectives from non-slaves totally useless and worthless? Should we ignore abolitionists (however problematic they were) or what went on personally and historically for conflicted people like Jefferson? Does that have no use?

So what if I draw the line at race? Why is this so controversial and questionable? Is it only “legitimate” if I draw the line at “research and knowledge”? Drawing the line at race equally involves research and knowledge. I am skeptical whenever anyone suggests that living legacies of gruesome atrocities can easily be understood (then written about) just by going to the library and opening a book. Learning is one thing, appropriating an experience to invent a prolonged and hideously violent fantasy in the service of a director’s career is another. This collection of inquiries also relies on the assumption that the consequences of slavery (segregation, disproportionate imprisonment, white supremacy) no longer exist in this country and everyone has fully recovered. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, has documented and explained how there are more Black men imprisoned today than there were enslaved in the Antebellum South. No one is entitled to make the decision for all Black people that their mourning period is over, their history is beyond them, and white people get to tell their stories because of points A and B. Discussions about abolitionists have no use in this particular context because Quentin Tarantino is not an abolitionist and we are not talking about a narrative written by or about one.

Should television shows not feature bankers, or mobsters, or civil rights leaders because the experience of being one is ineffable and non-transmittable? The logical conclusion of your argument potentially blows up and destroys the value of every artistic representation based on the ideas that 1) writers can’t know anything they haven’t directly lived 2) the chief value of art (or a chief value of art) is how it is mimetic. Especially when it comes to a historical film.

First of all, it is intellectually dishonest to carelessly compare chattel slaves to the characters of “bankers” and “mobsters” (then throw in “civil rights leaders” for the sake of political correctness—which television shows have ever featured civil rights leaders?). That their experiences might be “ineffable and non-transmittable” was never my point or my argument: bankers and mobsters, even though their theatrical depictions may have been based on actual figures, are not oppressed identities. It is not the same to imagine a wealthy mobster who desires guns and prostitutes, as it is to imagine an oppressed slave who desires liberation and vengeance; in that context, one has power and the other does not, one is a character and the other is not. With the over-representation of white literature and the demonstrated ability of white authors to write endless narratives about white experiences, I don’t see how it is unthinkable to resolve that white authors have enough content to explore. Ultimately, the “chief value” of art is a highly subjective and debatable topic, and if rightfully observing how whiteness and racism have dominated storytelling (in all popular forms in the US) destroys the “chief value of art,” then so be it and so much the better. If this “chief value” dictates that white writers have the right (as Tarantino said) to writer whatever they want, then this means the “chief value” of art is disenfranchising the voices of POC.

Who owns history? Is it just the persecuted groups or the groups viewed as persecuted? Or is it based on blood? Do Chinese nationals have no right to talk about or set a drama in 18th century London? There has to be some level on which all history is owned by everyone, if people understand the bounds. It gets really silly when that’s brought to an extreme as well.

The victors own history. That’s kind of the point. If I look at this situation critically, I see a white writer who is re-enforcing the legacy of ownership by treating slaves, slavery, and this history as his creative property. Do his “rights” and “demands” as a writer take precedence over the rights POC have to storytelling and self-determination? I would say no, and I would also say the “creative freedom” of white writers has been taking precedence over the creative/cultural productions of POC for many hundreds of years. When I consider the fact that the whole of mainstream textbook and knowledge production in the US (including, but not limited to, our entire system of education) has been a franchise of white authors and white history, I am amazed when someone takes offense at the suggestion that even a sliver of the space whiteness occupies should be relinquished so POC can tell their own histories. History is based on a number of things, and I can’t claim to know all of them, but I do know that the histories of oppressed groups and the histories of groups in power are not interchangeable, nor are they identical.

Here are some resources that informed/educated the responses above (in addition to those already mentioned):

The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James
Beloved
by Toni Morrison
Roots
by Alex Haley
The Souls of Black Folk
by W.E.B. DuBois
Our Nig
by Harriet E. Wilson
Finding Sojourner’s Truth: Race, Gender, and the Institution of Property
by Cheryl Harris
Whiteness as Property
also by Cheryl Harris

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