Still Chained: Django, Tarantino and the Exploitation of Black History

Django-Unchained-Leoby Ewuare X Osayande

I am not a fan of Quentin Tarantino or his movies. I find his treatment of race, gender and class issues trivial and demeaning, lacking any depth whatsoever.

He is a member of a generation of white men who were weaned on a version of Blackness that was served from the shelves of corporate America in the mid-70s. Let him tell it, it was in the theaters watching films like “Shaft” and “Superfly” that he discovered his desire to become a filmmaker.

Blaxploitation films were Hollywood’s answer to the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the late Sixties. In these films we witness the real aspirations of working class Black people at that time as evidenced by organizations such as The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense turned inside out, gutted of all political relevance. These films became the canvas for white men to project their guilt-ridden fantasies of racial retribution. They turned our self-defined expression into a fashion statement, a corporate-sponsored slogan propped up on the billboards that scoured the skylines of ghettos across the country. Tarantino’s fascination with Black culture is not based on actual experience or concern with Black people’s organized struggle for justice, self-determination and liberation. It is based on his coming-of-age white boy experience with commercialized Blackness as filtered through the lens of Hollywood’s B-rated white directors, producers and executives.

So when I walked into the theaters to watch “Django Unchained,” I wasn’t expecting much. What I was expecting was what I have come to expect from a Tarantino film – gratitutous violence intermingled with homoerotic overtones, the overt exploitation of women and a sadistic use of the n-word. The thing is that in doing a film that proposes to treat the issue of slavery in the United States, such images and usages would be required given the obscene and brutal reality that slavery was. So, again, I was expecting Tarantino to have a field day. The problem with Tarantino’s film lies not in that he made use of such images; the problem is in how he used them.

Tarantino’s film was not as violent as I thought it would be or could have been. In fact, he was restrained. Slavery in the United States was violence unmitigated and without restraint.  To define it otherwise, is to tell the most blatant of lies. Tarantino’s treatment of violence of slavery was timid in comparison to the daily reality faced by enslaved Africans. That said, the film failed to faithfully depict the Black men and women that lived under slavery. In “Django Unchained,” Black women are cast as mindless vixens and willing sexual liaisons to white men. Having a white master named “Big Daddy” (with all of its 70’s pimp nostalgia in tact) being called upon affectionately by enslaved women is a disservice to the memories of women like Harriet Jacobs, who resisted the sexual advances of her slave master for seven years by hiding away in the crawl space above a porch. Although Tarantino does manage to portray Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda as having agency (she runs away twice in the film), she never manages to escape the typical patriarchal frame being cast as a mere object for the hero’s affection. Rather than escaping slavery on her own merit, she is made to be rescued by her prince on horseback … and Harriet Tubman rolls over in her grave.

In Tarantino’s homoerotic white patriarchal fantasy we witness what is rare in American cinema – a blockbuster film that portrays the Black man as “the hero that rescues the girl and kills everyone that dares to stand in his way.” The problem with this is that the depiction of Django is a parody of history. From the moment Django and Schultz step out of the saloon facing an entire town of angry white men with their guns aimed at their faces, I knew that what would come after this would render the rest of the film mere fantasy. And from that scene to the last, every interaction Django has with a white man is unrealistic and unfaithful to the history the story is set in.

No, this film is not history. Neither is it historical. Tarantino does what white men do. Rewrite history. The facts are irrelevant. For white filmmakers, truth is in the mind of the beholder. When it comes to the Black experience, they can do what they have done to Black people throughout American history – whatever they please.

For me, the greater crime in this regard goes to Spielberg and his film “Lincoln.” Spielberg promotes this film as being true to history, yet leaves out a critical player in that history. For him to make a film about Abraham Lincoln and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and not include Frederick Douglass is be akin to someone making a film about Lyndon Johnson and the signing of the Voting Rights Act and leave out Dr. King. Incredible, right? Yet, that is exactly what Spielberg did.

I did find Tarantino’s treatment of white people interesting in this movie. He does a decent job of treating the dynamics of whiteness as played out in the plantation system – and in the process makes a statement on whiteness as it is played out today. He showcases white men who are enforcers of the plantation system. These white men do not own plantations, themselves. They merely work to enforce the plantation system. But that is not meant to diminish the power they wield over the lives of the enslaved. Even mired in ignorance and illiteracy, they still command a clear authority above the very Africans who are more intelligent than they are – as evidenced by the character of Django. This dynamic is played out very well in the scene where one of Candie’s “Mandigoes” is captured after attempting escape. In it, we see a dialogue between Candie and one of his white overseers whose garbled words are not intelligible, whatsoever. That scene was a telling indictment on the wage of whiteness that was paid out to buy the systemic complicity of impoverished whites who had more in common with enslaved Africans than the men and women who exploited them both. But that one scene and scenes like it were undermined by the comedic atmosphere that surrounded them throughout the film, enabling most viewers to just laugh it off and miss the message.

“Django Unchained” is a knock-off of Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 spaghetti western. According to Austin Fisher’sRadical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema, Sergio Corbucci’s films were revolutionary efforts to dramatize the brutality of the Italian state at a time when the working class were literally in the streets protesting policies they considered neo-fascist. Many of the directors of these films found inspiration from the writings of Che Guevera, Mao Tse-Tung, Leon Trotsky and Frantz Fanon! Imagine what kind of film Tarantino could have made had he injected “Django Unchained” with the philosophy of a Fanon. But that would have been too much work for Tarantino. He can’t seem to get past his juvenile obsession with gun-fire, bloodshed and gore to investigate the political messages that lie behind the bullets.

One of the most disturbing moments in the film was when Candie snorts “Why don’t they [the enslaved Africans] just rise up?” The rhetorical remark plays into the American white supremacist myth that Black people passively accepted slavery. No white slave owner conscious of the history of just his lifetime would make such an unchallenged statement in the late 1850′s. He would surely know the story of Nat Turner. He would certainly have been told of the conspiracies of Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser. And that is just the short-list. In placing such ahistoric commentary in the film, Tarantino does more than lie on the history of slavery, he trashes the legacies of true Black heroes.

In keeping with his desire to mash up Blaxploitation and Spaghetti Westerns, he messed over the memory of a people still chained by the legacy of slavery. In an interview on NPR he was asked what he thought about his film premiering soon after the Sandy Hook mass shooting. A more appropriate question in light of the film’s subject matter would be to consider how his film glorifies the gun violence that has too many young Black men  believing they can shoot their way out of the conflicts they encounter on the street. His film aggrandizes a violence that is not history but present day reality. A reality that has the Black community left grappling with the crippling effects of a startling statistic: there are as many Black people in the criminal justice system today as there were Black people enslaved in the late 1850′s. Fact is, shooting one’s self out of slavery was a much riskier venture than the film proposes. The system knew and knows how to handle that. Black men and women had to be and were smarter than that. They came together and organized collectively. They had to outfox the fox. I am referring to men like Robert Smalls who stole a ship right under the noses of the Confederate army and liberated himself and a band of his fellows and their families. He would go on to become one of the first Black elected officials from the South to serve in the U.S. Congress.

Tarantino could have tried to make a film about any number of great Black men and women who beat slavery on their own terms. Thing is, making such a film would require having a real relationship with Black struggle. Tarantino is confused. He believes that dabbling in stereotypes is the equivalent to treating the Black experience. He doesn’t have a real relationship with Black people, our history, our culture, our reality. And he doesn’t want one. To paraphrase Frederick Douglass he wants Blackness without the struggle.

With “Django Unchained,” Tarantino is saying to Black people, “I know Hollywood won’t let y’all make a movie like this, so let me do it for you.” He is one of those whites who believe they can use their privilege for the benefit of the oppressed. But in the process, what real benefits are gained?

As the Black intelligentsia and artistic elite bemoan and debate the merits of this film, there is a greater concern here that is being missed – our  lack of control and influence in Hollywood. Yes, it is true – a Black person could not have gotten this film made in Hollywood. Even truer, a Black person cannot get any film green-lighted in Hollywood that attempts to tell the story of slavery in the Americas as it actually happened. Just ask famed actor Danny Glover who has been working for years to get a film made on the Haitian Revolution. In 2008 Glover, appearing at a press conference in Paris, stated that Hollywood financiers dismissed the film stating that it lacked white heroes. The racism of the industry remains as virulent as when the first Hollywood film “A Birth of a Nation” appeared in theaters across the country. The NAACP picketed that film in 1915. This year, “Django Unchained” is up for four NAACP awards. Is this a sign of progress or of something else? Such valorization of Hollywood and films that Hollywood produces casts a long shadow over the incredible films that are being produced by independent Black filmmakers. We lack a viable organization that would check Hollywood’s racism as well as highlight the considerable and valuable work being done by Black filmmakers not chained to the deep pockets of the likes of 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. or Columbia. Sad fact is that Black actors in Hollywood, those that could bankroll such an organization or such an effort, are still chained to the executive offices of these corporations. Thus, we are left with great Black actors confined to roles that leave us engaged in a debate that does little to empower us, either economically or culturally.

Tarantino has stated that there are many great films that have yet to be made on the subject of slavery. I agree. “Django Unchained” is not one of them. Until we are able to pay our ten or twelve dollars to see Glover’s story of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution brought to the silver screen or any other film on slavery that has the gall to tell it like it was without apology and that captures the victorious spirit of our people’s struggle, I encourage you to search out Haile Gerima’s “Sankofa.” You will not be disappointed.

Ewuare X. Osayande (www.osayande.org) is a poet, essayist and political activist. He is founder and director of POWER: People Organized Working to Eradicate Racism. Follow his work on Facebook: Ewuare Xola Osayandeand Twitter: @EwuareXOsayande. His latest book is entitled Whose America?

Black Power

images2.jpg

When analysing and comparing the ferment of the US political landscape during the sixties and seventies, the years of the anti-Vietnam war and Black civil rights movements, to the more or less quiescent political landscape of the US today, perhaps the most striking thing is the absence of powerful Black militant voices demanding social change.

At certain periods of the sixties and seventies it seemed as if the US was on the verge of a social explosion which threatened to overturn and bring down at long last a white establishment dripping in the blood of innocents both at home and abroad.

The Black Power, Black Liberation, movement arose in tandem with the civil rights and antiwar movements, comprising those who believed that the non-violent and reformist civil rights movement, led by Dr Martin Luther King, would effect no meaningful social change in the plight of America’s Black population, which at that time numbered around 22 millions (11 percent of the population). Blacks occupied the bottom rung of the economic ladder, as they had done since slavery was formally abolished in 1865; they comprised the majority of the nation’s prison population, occupied the worst housing, comprised the lowest number of college graduates, had the lowest life expectancy, the highest rate of infant mortality – in general scored worst in every social indicator.Today the Black population of the United States is around 35 millions (13 percent of the population).

Blacks occupy the bottom rung of the economic ladder, as they have done since slavery was formally abolished in 1865; they comprise the majority of the nation’s prison population, occupy the worst housing, comprise the lowest number of college graduates, have the lowest life expectancy, the highest rate of infant mortality, highest rate of unemployment – in general Blacks in America today score worst in every social indicator (US Census Bureau).

Yet, whilst the social conditions of Blacks in America remain virtually the same today as they were a generation ago, no militant Black movement has grown in response. In fact, to all intents and purposes the Black Liberation movement, indeed the very idea of Black liberation, would appear to be extinct.

Decades on, the generation of young Black militant leaders who blazed a trail across America’s political and social landscape in the sixties and seventies were giants. Men and women like Malcolm X; Kwame Toure (Stokley Carmichael); Huey Newton; Fred Hampton; Bobby Seale; George Jackson; and Angela Davis gave voice to the indignity, injustice, and despair suffered by generation after generation of Black men and women, who despite enjoying equal rights under the law continued to be treated as unwelcome guests at the lavish banquet that was US economic prosperity. Not for them words of conciliation and reform; not for them appeals to white liberal

America for succour. No, these men and women asserted that to be Black was to be equal, and in fact more than equal given the history of slavery, oppression and indignity suffered at the hands of a system racist to the very last stone of every grand building and monument in every American town and city.Think of Malcolm X and his courageous stand against the government of the day, exposing its hypocrisy and venality. In speech after speech he verbally uprooted the moral foundations upon which the nation’s institutions were built. In his Ballot or the Bullet speech in 1964, he said:

No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million Black people who are the victims of Americanisation. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-waver – no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.

Any victim of Hurricane Katrina, any young Black man currently incarcerated in a US penitentiary, any Black family struggling to keep body and soul together in the housing projects today would read this or any of Malcolm’s speeches and be hard pressed to disagree with his words given their own experiences of America in the 21st century.Kwame Toure (Stokley Carmichael) rose to prominence in the mid-sixties as a militant activist with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC or snick). It was a movement that spread through college and university campuses across the United States demanding civil rights.

Carmichael left SNCC in 1967 and joined the Black Panther Party, an avowedly Black Nationalist organisation. He was made honorary prime minister of the Panthers in 1968. He became a fierce critic of the Vietnam War and soon began to draw links between the oppression suffered by Blacks in America and the anti-colonial struggles being waged throughout the developing world. An admirer and supporter of the Cuban Revolution, he sought to internationalise the struggle for Black liberation in the US with the various struggles against US and Western colonialism that were taking place around the globe. In this role he travelled extensively, visiting revolutionary leaders in Africa, North Vietnam, Cuba, and China, offering solidarity and receiving the same against a common enemy – US imperialism.

He moved to Africa in 1969, where he became an aide to the then Guinean prime minister, Sekou Toure, and a staunch supporter of exiled Ghanian President, Kwame Nkrumah. It was in honour of both men that he changed his name to Kwame Toure. During his African years, Toure was an ardent supporter of the Pan-Africanist movement, which was Marxist in orientation, and it was a cause he espoused right up until the time of his death in 1998.It was Carmichael, as he was known then, who first coined the phrase ‘Black Power’. In a later speech, he explained what he meant.

It is a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognise their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for Black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organisations.

The Black Panther Party that Stokely Carmichael joined in 1967 was formed by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California in 1966. Their aim was to build an organisation to promote civil rights and self defense against a racist police department in Oakland that was brutalising and terrorising black communities.

The Panthers devised a Ten-Point Program of demands. A progressive manifesto designed to deepen the consciousness of the poor and the dispossessed in poor Black ghettos across the United States, its demands included land, bread, housing, clothing, justice, and equality for America’s Blacks. However, it was the seventh point in their program, demanding an end to police brutality and calling for Black people to arm themselves in self defense against the police in their own communities, that brought them to national and international attention. In his article, In Defense of Self Defense, written in 1970,

Newton revealed the theoretical depththat made him a threat to the status quo.

Men were not created to obey laws. Laws are created to obey men. They are established by men and should serve men. The laws and rules which officials inflict upon poor people prevent them from functioning harmoniously.

In the same article, he writes:

Penned up in the ghettos of America, surrounded by his factories and all the physical components of his economic system, we have been made into the ‘wretched of the earth,’ relegated to the position of spectators while the white racists run their international con game on the suffering peoples. We have been brainwashed to believe that we are powerless and that there is nothing we can do for ourselves to bring about a speedy liberation for our people.

Though the Panthers originally began as a Black Nationalist movement, their doctrine and their politics evolved in line with the wave of revolutionary and anti-colonial struggles taking place throughout the developing world, and by the early seventies Newton and the Black Panther Party were calling themselves Marxists.

Newton wrote extensively and was an important thinker, but the Panthers are best known for daring to challenge the police in Black communities. This along with their breakfast clubs and other community programs earned them the respect and affection of the people living in those communities.In 1968 the then director of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, described the Panthers as, ‘the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,’ and using COINTELPRO, the program devised by the FBI in the sixties to investigate and destroy dissident organisations within the United States, the Bureau set about effecting their destruction with gusto. This campaign reached its peak with the murder of leading Panther, Fred Hampton, in his bed in Chicago in 1969. However, the Panthers were able to continue, and in 1973 Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland and came second of nine candidates with 43,170 votes.As for Huey Newton, thinker, scholar and revolutionary leader, he met a sad end on the streets of
Oakland in 1989, when he was shot and killed. An attempt to smear Huey Newton’s name and legacy was undertaken by the FBI in the aftermath of his death. It is perhaps in this attempt that we get a full measure of
Newton’s impact and the threat which both he and the organisation he co-founded posed. By confronting police brutality, by organising social programs to help the poor, the Panthers helped to radicalise a generation of Black youth.

George Jackson joined the Black Panther Party whilst in prison. He’d been sentenced to one year to life for the theft of $70 from a gas station at the age of 18. It was while in prison that Jackson was radicalised. A book of his prison letters, Soledad Brother, was published in 1970 to international acclaim. The anger, passion, humanity, and intellectual depth contained in them reveal a young man who had the potential to become a militant Black leader of the first rank. A letter to his mother in 1968 reveals the despair of incarceration. He writes:

Try to remember how you felt at the most depressing moment of your life, the moment of your deepest dejection. You no doubt have had many. That is how I feel all the time, no matter what my level of consciousness may be – asleep, awake, in-between.

In a letter written in 1970, Jackson analysed the economic and social condition of Blacks in America.

The new slavery, the modern variety of chattel slavery updated to disguise itself, places the victim in a factory or in the case of most Blacks in support roles inside and around the factory system (service trades), working for a wage. However, if work cannot be found in or around the factory complex, today’s neoslavery does not allow even for a modicum of food and shelter. You are free – to starve.

Further on in the same letter, he writes:

I am an extremist. I call for extreme measures to solve extreme problems….The entire colonial world is watching the Blacks inside the US, wondering and waiting for us to come to our senses….We are on the inside. We are the only ones (besides the very small white minority left) who can get at the monster’s heart without subjecting the world to nuclear fire. We have a momentous historical role to act out if we will.

Soledad Brother is not so much a compilation of letters as a scream from the bowels of the US justice system, a call to action and the assertion by a young man of his humanity in the face of the inhumanity and barbarity suffered by his people. George Jackson died in prison in 1971 of gunshot wounds after prison guards fired on prisoners during an uprising in the yard. Allegations that Jackson was purposely assassinated have never been satisfactorily refuted.

The concept of Black Power once inspired a significant section of the Black youth of America, producing great thinkers and courageous leaders such as those described. But there were others too – in particular from the world of sports. A young Muhammad Ali, for example, dared stand up and defy the establishment in refusing to be drafted for

Vietnam with the immortal words, ‘No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.’ In so doing he refused to go the same way as other Black sportsmen and celebrities, forever grateful to the establishment for allowing them to escape poverty and the degradation of Jim Crow and unwittingly becoming patsies of the system, held up as false proof that no racial barriers existed in
America.

During the Mexico Olympics of 1968, two Black American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gave the clenched fist, Black Power salute during the medals ceremony. It was a gesture of defiance and militancy that shocked and shook the world. And while it may have destroyed any future they might have had in their home country as athletes, it assured them of something far more valuable and long lasting – a proud place in the history of struggle waged by their people against inequality, racism, and oppression.

Looking back, when a generation of young Black men and women rose up in struggle against an establishment not only responsible for the oppression of their communities at home but who were also engaged in the oppression of countries and cultures abroad, the concept of Black Power possessed a moral and political force that inspired and instilled a sense of dignity and respect within those who were excluded from the American Dream.

Four decades on it remains an inspirational moment in US social history.