Voices: The Django Debate

Image via AVClub.com

Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network called for a national boycott Tuesday of action figures based on the controversial and blood-soaked slavery revenge flick Django Unchained. A 10-doll assortment of characters from the film was going for $299 on Amazon Tuesday.

“Selling this doll is highly offensive to our ancestors and the African American community,” Rev. K.W. Tulloss, NAC’s president in Los Angeles, told the Daily News. “The movie is for adults, but these are action figures that appeal to children. We don’t want other individuals to utilize them for their entertainment, to make a mockery of slavery.”

New York Daily News

First of all, Django Unchained could’ve gone horribly wrong. However brilliant a director, Quentin Tarantino is famous amongst people of color for fetishizing African-American culture, and his liberal use of the N-word in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown still rankles folks 15 years after the fact. Tarantino injecting a Blaxploitation-style baadassss freed slave into his vision of the antebellum South could’ve been disastrous. The director’s recent comments about Roots, which he has described as “inauthentic” also raised the eyebrows of many filmgoers who were already nervous about what his slavery narrative would bring. Any crass, gratuitous depiction of Whites raping actress Kerry Washington in a popcorn movie, and “Django Unchained” would’ve been a wrap.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the Oscar-winning Jamie Foxx plays Django as a gunslinging superhero, the fastest gun in the West.

–Miles Marshall Lewis, Ebony

“When you look at Roots, nothing about it rings true in the storytelling, and none of the performances ring true for me either,” says Tarantino. “I didn’t see it when it first came on, but when I did I couldn’t get over how oversimplified they made everything about that time. It didn’t move me because it claimed to be something it wasn’t.”

While many white directors might shy away from criticizing such an iconic symbol of African-American culture, ­Tarantino doesn’t hold back. He’s confident in his knowledge of a time and subject most people know little about and would rather forget. He was also savvy enough to bring Hudlin on board. “There were times when I’d be filming a scene and really getting into it and Reg would just say, ‘Hey is this the story you wanted to tell?’ He’d bring the focus back if I got too carried away.”

–Alison Samuels, The Daily Beast

Academy Award-winning actor Louis Gossett, Jr., who starred in “Roots,” dismissed Tarantino’s critique, saying the “Reservoir Dogs” director was just “stirring stuff up” and making a “mockery” out of racism.

Gossett revealed that after seeing Django Unchained at a Malibu movie theater last weekend, he walked out within the first 20 minutes.

–Karu F. Daniels, The Daily Beast

Don’t expect legendary film maker Spike Lee to catch Quentin Tarantino’s latest creation.

While his own visions of race and culture have sparked dialogue beyond the New York most of his work pays homage to, the director of “Red Hook Summer” had little to say about the slavery love story Django Unchained.

“I cant speak on it ’cause I’m not gonna see it,” he tells VIBETV. “All I’m going to say is that it’s disrespectful to my ancestors. That’s just me…I’m not speaking on behalf of anybody else.”

Vibe Magazine

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Spike Lee’s on your ass all the time about using the word “n—-r.” What would you say to black filmmakers who are offended by the use of the word “n—-r” and/or offended by the depictions of the horrors of slavery in the film?

Quentin Tarantino: Well, you know if you’re going to make a movie about slavery and are taking a 21st-century viewer and putting them in that time period, you’re going to hear some things that are going to be ugly, and you’re going see some things that are going be ugly. That’s just part and parcel of dealing truthfully with this story, with this environment, with this land.

Personally, I find [the criticism] ridiculous. Because it would be one thing if people are out there saying, “You use it much more excessively in this movie than it was used in 1858 in Mississippi.” Well, nobody’s saying that. And if you’re not saying that, you’re simply saying I should be lying. I should be watering it down. I should be making it more easy to digest.

No, I don’t want it to be easy to digest. I want it to be a big, gigantic boulder, a jagged pill and you have no water.

–Interview from The Root

Here, as in Lincoln, black people—with the exception of the protagonist and his love interest—are ciphers passively awaiting freedom. Django’s behavior is so unrepentantly badass as to make him an enigma to both whites and blacks who encounter him. For his part, Django never deigns to offer a civil word to any other slave, save his love interest. In a climactic scene, Django informs his happily enslaved nemesis that he is the one n-word in ten thousand audacious enough to kill anyone standing in the way of freedom.

Is this how Americans actually perceive slavery? More often than not, the answer to that question is answered in the affirmative. It is precisely because of the extant mythology of black subservience that these scenes pack such a cathartic payload. The film’s defenders are quick to point out that “Django” is not about history. But that’s almost like arguing that fiction is not reality — it isn’t, but the entire appeal of the former is its capacity to shed light on how we understand the latter. In my sixteen years of teaching African-American history, one sadly common theme has been the number of black students who shy away from courses dealing with slavery out of shame that slaves never fought back.

–Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker

There haven’t been that many slave narratives in the last 40 years of cinema, and usually when there are, they’re usually done on television, and for the most part…they’re historical movies, like history with a capital H. Basically, “This happened, then this happened, then that happened, then this happened.” And that can be fine, well enough, but for the most part they keep you at arm’s length dramatically. Because also there is this kind of level of good taste that they’re trying to deal with … and frankly oftentimes they just feel like dusty textbooks just barely dramatized.

–Quentin Tarantino, NPR interview

I looked at the evolution of black Americans, from the more community-focused ancestors in Africa, to the combative conditioning reflected in the words of the Willie Lynch letter: Making of a Slave. I considered the subsequent black on black conflict caused by the creation of the “Uncle Tom” archetype–or someone like the character Samuel Jackson plays–a black person benefitting over other black people because of their relationship with “the white man.” My own grandmother Rachel, and the fictional character of Coco, are not far from that archetype. I reflected on my own life, and the somewhat uncomfortable knowledge that I have been treated more graciously, because of an easier assimilation into so called ‘whiteness,’ than black folk who have not had it as easy.

The words of Calvin Candie and his assessment of “the exceptional n—-r” began to ring hauntingly in my head. It feels a bit disgusting to even admit this, but it is cathartic to know there is now an international piece of cinema that examines these ideas without getting trapped in the tired ‘poor me,’ victim version of the story. This knowledge helps me to have faith in the possibility that black folk and white folk can come together to release these limiting beliefs, and even laugh at ourselves a little in the process. When I listen to the resounding theme evident throughout Django Unchained, I am inspired by human beings who continued to pursue love even as they walked the dirty road of survival.

–Actress Danielle Watts, who plays Coco in the film, on Facebook

Clearly, most Americans, much less African-Americans, will ever be able to become Obama or Oprah. But in our modern era, their achievements become a stand-in for all African-Americans. They prove how easy it is for all people to attain the American dream or how deficient African-Americans are when they don’t.

We should be aware that Django Unchained is a film that could not have been made at any other racial moment. But by privileging the few, we do not have to deal with the severe racial inequalities that most African-Americans confront in education, employment, health care and the criminal justice system.

As we cheer Django on in his revenge, we ought to ask ourselves: What happened to all the other slaves in America? Those who had neither Django’s guile nor guns? If we are serious about avenging the past, we must deal with the legacy of their lives in our present.

–Salamishah Tillet, CNN

Right before Django‘s release, film critic Jake Hamilton interviewed Samuel L. Jackson, and actually asked him about the controversy surrounding the “n-word.” Firing back, Samuel takes a potentially awkward question and flips it on Hamilton, producing a moment that sheds light on what’s going on in our culture better than I could ever explain:

Hamilton: There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the usage of, uh, the N-word, in this movie.
Jackson: No? Nobody? None … the word would be?
Hamilton: [Whispered.] I don’t want to say it.
Jackson: Why not?
Hamilton: I don’t like to say it.
Jackson: Have you ever said it?
Hamilton: No, sir.
Jackson: Try it.
Hamilton: I don’t like to say it.
Jackson: [SAMUEL JACKSON SCREAM] TRY IT.
Hamilton: Really? Seriously?
Jackson: We’re not going to have this conversation unless you say it.
[Pause.]
Jackson: Wanna move on to another question?
Hamilton: OK. Awesome.
Jackson: [Laughs.]
Hamilton: I don’t like — I don’t want to say it.
Jackson: Oh, come on.
Hamilton: Will you say it?
Jackson: No, fuck no. It’s not the same thing.
Hamilton: Why do you want me to —
Jackson: They’re gonna bleep it when you say it on the show. SAY IT.
Hamilton: I, I can’t say it. If I say it, this question won’t make air.
Jackson: OK, forget it.
Hamilton: I’ll skip it. Sorry, guys. It was a good question.
Jackson: No it wasn’t.
Hamilton: It was a great question.
Jackson: It wasn’t a great question if you can’t say the word.

Such is the case with these things: these discussions, these dares, these laughs, these hesitations, these tiffs, these struggles–they aren’t new. They’re just being carried out differently, and more publicly, and with fear of fewer repercussions. And in the world we live in today, where access to various modes of public expression is becoming increasingly accessible, the walls around “talking about race” are rapidly crumbling. Finally.

–Rembert Browne, Grantland