In 2003, during the run-up to the war in Iraq, I was living in Hollywood, where at the time I was working as Ben Affleck’s stand-in on the movie Surviving Christmas. The experience is recounted in my book, Dreams That Die, just published by Zero Books. Given that Affleck has just won the BAFTA for the movie Argo, and with this week marking the tenth anniversary of the historic international day of protest on February 15 2003, here is an extract from the book on my experience on the set of the movie in the immediate aftermath of the February 15 demo in Los Angeles.
The Monday after the demonstration saw me arrive for the start of another week on the movie in high spirits. The enormous size and number of demonstrations that had taken place around the world had hit the headlines, managing to knock the pro-war consensus within the mainstream off the front pages of all the major newspapers, as well as relegating them in order of importance on the TV news bulletins.
On the set it was interesting to hear the differing opinions of the antiwar movement. More than a few, consisting of those who supported Bush without equivocation or condition and wholeheartedly believed in the ‘mission’ to get Saddam, dismissed the protesters as traitors. Others, more liberal in outlook, though still of the belief that the US was the greatest nation on earth, abhorred the Bush administration. Conscious of what they referred to as ‘America’s place in the world’, which they viewed as a shining example of other nations to follow rather than a hammed to be feared and loathed, they watched aghast as Bush and his cronies set about turning their beloved country into a rogue state. The liberal antiwar stance they espoused was reflective of the view that the US should only go to war against Iraq under a UN mandate and not unilaterally. They weren’t concerned about the damage already that had already been done to the Iraqi people by the sanctions, nor were they overly concerned at the prospect of innocent Iraqis being blown to smithereens if the US went ahead and attacked. Their primary concern was the welfare of the troops (our boys) and America’s image and standing in the eyes of the world. In other words, they supported the same aims as the neocons – namely US domination – but advocated different, subtler means of achieving those aims. This difference in form not content is what separated Democrats and Republicans and had done more or less throughout the nation’s history.
By now word had gotten round that I was involved in the antiwar movement, and I began to detect hostility from various quarters as a consequence. Affleck’s bodyguard Scott for example had taken to throwing me dirty looks when he wasn’t ignoring me completely. The same with his personal assistant. Too bad.
There remained one of two sympathetic voices on the crew as well, though. Sadly they weren’t very vocal, preferring to keep their antiwar and anti-Bush sentiments quiet. Their reluctance to speak out was illustrative of the fear, now commonplace, of being labelled unpatriotic or anti-American. It was a fear prevalent not just on the set of this movie but within the country as a whole.
Later that day another UN debate was due to be held on Iraq, on whether or not the Iraqi government was complying with the inspections that were now scouring the country looking for stockpiles of WMD. Despite being at work, I was determined to listen to some of the proceedings on the radio one way or another, especially now that events were approaching the point of no return.
Finally, Manny the DP announced that the shot was ready and the call went up for first team. Along with my fellow stand-ins, I began making my way off the set to make way for the principals, who began to arrive in their usual ones and twos. James Gandolfini as ever was the first to appear, hitting everyone with his customary jovial smile and friendly greeting as he took up his position. I was just heading over to the corner of the soundstage where the stand-ins were congregated when the soundstage door opened and in came Affleck’s entourage, followed by the man himself. Standing directly in their path it was a moment that called for acknowledgement in the form of a nod or a polite greeting. But this was Hollywood, where a different kind of normality prevailed, and all five of them walked right past me as if I didn’t exist, had never existed, and would never exist in any shape or form worthy of recognition. I continued on over to my chair and picked up the book I was reading – the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels – and resumed reading where I’d left off.
‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freemen and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.’
Five or ten minutes later, I got up again and began walking across the soundstage in the direction of the exit, heading for the bathroom. As I passed the set I could hear the voices of Ben Affleck and his many sycophants, interspersed with loud laughter. Suddenly, Affleck led off on a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Almost immediately he was joined by others, until the entire set was united in song.
I continued on my way to the bathroom. What else could I do? I was desperate for a shit.
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?
With that annual ritual of fanfare, glitz and glamour otherwise known as the Oscars just passed, yet again the world has been treated to a view of Hollywood and the movie industry which suggests streets paved with gold and a passport to fame and fortune for all who arrive with heads filled with dreams and hearts bursting with desire.
But what we are fed on our TV screens and in the pages of showbiz columns and on the multitude of celebrity websites which feed this mammoth industry belies a truth that is as brutal as it is sad.
From 2000 to 2004 I lived and worked in Hollywood, having arrived intent on establishing a career as a screenwriter (silly me). To make ends meet while working towards this objective I embarked on work as an extra on the myriad TV shows, sitcoms and movies produced and shot in Hollywood year after year.
Starting out as a non union extra on minimum wage, I progressed to attaining that all elusive SAG card which marks your entry into the comparatively privileged ranks of the actors union, Screen Actors Guild, and entitles you to double the pay of your non-union counterparts plus various add-ons for walking back and forward in the background of TV sitcoms and dramas like Friends, ER, Frasier, and on movies such as Ocean’s 11, Minority Report, and others for anywhere from eight to fourteen hours a day. It also means you are eligible to be cast in those much sought after roles on commercials, which come with residual fees for which many would quite literally offer him or herself up in shameless supplication to attain.
On any given day in any of the major studio lots in and around Hollywood, not to mention the innumerable productions being shot on location, thousands of extras, a vast army of men and women of every age, ethnicity, and description are to be found being herded, derided and in many cases abused by hard pressed assistant directors, second assistant directors and production assistants, in the process being left in no doubt that where the unwritten but rigid caste system of Hollywood is concerned, they are the untouchables; the bottom feeders in an industry and in a town where status is the only currency worth having, and where social being not only determines consciousness it also determines who can afford to pay their rent and who cannot.
In my time I witnessed extras being escorted from the soundstage of the sitcom Friends by set security for the crime of arriving for work five minutes late, pleading to be allowed to remain as they hadn’t worked in weeks. I watched old age pensioners being bullied and yelled at by production assistants barely in their twenties for moving too slowly. Prior to working on the movie Minority Report I was instructed by the casting director not to look directly at the star Tom Cruise or else be immediately escorted off the set. I found myself almost being arrested after swapping punches with the producer of a low budget independent movie after he began yelling abuse at me and the other extras. And while working as Ben Affleck’s double on a Christmas comedy that sank without trace, I was privy to the utter venality of an industry in which human beings are reduced to such a state of servility that any notion of self esteem or dignity is the product of a perverse fantasy.
The reality is that rather than fame and fortune it is desperation and despair which abounds in Hollywood. Of the vast army of hopefuls who arrive each and every day from every part of the globe, heads filled with dreams and hearts with desire, those who manage to succeed constitute the tip of the tip of a mammoth iceberg. And of the majority who don’t succeed many of those are genuinely talented – indeed, many are the product of the best acting schools and creative writing courses in the business.
But talent alone is not enough in Hollywood. In fact more important than talent, much more, are connections. Yes, it is true; in order even to get a script read or secure an audition you have to know the right people. And it is here where the art of supplication reaches its apogee. Young and not so young Hollywood hopefuls clog the bars, restaurants and nightclubs all along the Sunset Strip and beyond, working as waiters, cocktail waitresses, busboys, valets, doormen, bar tenders, and hostesses, each and every one hoping to come across a major producer, director or movie star who will take a shine to them and provide them with that golden opportunity they’ve spent years waiting for. It is a recipe for the rampant exploitation and abuse which pervades in this town, and which is measured in the mountain of damaged humanity it leaves in its wake.
But of course this reality, one which lies behind the mask of glamour and excitement, can never dare be revealed. To do so would be to prick the illusion upon which Hollywood, a major contributor to the US economy, has been built and is fed. It is also here where the cultural imperialism of Rome, so vital in securing that cultural hegemony which goes hand in hand with its economic and military equivalents, emanates from.
In the words of Marilyn Monroe: “Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.”
With the 2011 Oscars ceremony almost upon us it’s interesting to look back to 1978, when Vanessa Redgrave was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor in the film, Julia, based on Lillian Hellman’s memoir Pentimento. The film also starred Jane Fonda and Jason Robards and included the then unknown Meryl Streep. Fonda played Lillian Hellman while Redgrave played the part of Julia, Hellman’s strong-willed friend who teachers her the importance of sticking to her beliefs even while Europe descends into Nazi terror.
In the run up to the Oscars ceremony that year Redgrave came under attack from the Jewish Defense League. In addition to starring in Julia, she had also recently funded a documentary entitled ThePalestinian in which she voiced her support for a Palestinian homeland.
Redgrave was accused of being an anti-Semite. Confrontation was inevitable and when the Academy Award nominations were announced with Vanessa Redgrave among the nominees a smear campaign was set in motion. Outside the ceremony members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) staged a demonstration against Redgrave, whilst Palestinian sympathizers demonstrated their support for the British actress.
Here is clip of Redgrave’s Oscar acceptance speech.
This month, our socialist film club showed “The Lion of the Desert”, a 1981 Hollywood film produced and directed by Moustapha Akkad – better known for the “Halloween” horror movies. In the Arab world, “Lion of the DeserT” and Akkad’s film of the life of the prophet, “The Message” are extremely well loved.
“Lion of the Desert” tells the true story of Mukhtar Omar, who led the resistance to the Italian occupation of Libya. Indeed the historical parallels with the current American occupation of Iraq are quite striking.
In terms of form and style the film is conventional, but the content is not.
The fact that the occupiers are Italian (with the fascist General Rodolfo Graziani played by Oliver Read at the very top of his game) provides sufficient similarity with British and American imperialism to be obvious, while at the same time giving enough alienation to allow the audience to more easily see them as foriegn and unwelcome.
Akkad’s portrayal of Italian fascism, with its combination of Ruritanian absurdity, and bestial and unrestrained brutality is very convincing. Historians estimate that between 30,000 and 70,000 Sunusi Libyans were killed by the occupiers, from a population numbering about 185,000 in 1923.
Mukhtar Omar is himself played by Anthony Quinn. Quinn was of course Mexican, and his mother was indigenous, so this is not quite the same as casting a white Anglo-Saxon actor. (Quinn’s father fought in Pancho Villa’s revolutionary army). But having a recognizable Hollywood actor in the main part does help to create immediate empathy with Mukhtar Omar, who is first introduced to us as a mild, elderly teacher instructing boys in the Quran.
Casting John Geilgud as a rich Arab collaborator with the Italians is a stroke of genius, as his patrician Englishness gives all the right messages about class and privilege. Generally, as you would expect with an Arab producer/director, the film is very sympathetic about Arab culture, and as authentic as any film hoping for a mainstream American audience will ever be.