Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Unchaining Tarantino

"I'm just a lil' more used to Americans than he is."
~Django (Django Unchained) in reference to Dr. Schultz (a German bounty hunter) who isn't used to humanity (or lack thereof) in the United States during pre-Civil War.

Ahh!  It feels so great to be back!  I was on hiatus for the past couple of months as I embarked on 1) transitioning jobs and 2) a hefty graduate school course load.

I hope that my readers can appreciate that my first blog post in some time would be on a topic that many people have already talked about.  What I have to say may be redundant and not adding anything new to the conversation.  I just hope that it offers a different perspective, a fresh pair of "eyes" to look at the situation at hand.  Of course, I'm going to speak on Quentin Tarantino's latest film Django Unchained.  I have to as I am a huge fan of his work!

Prior to seeing Django Unchained, I (re)watched Alex Haley's Roots.  All 20+ hours of it.  BET ran a marathon of Roots (1977), Roots: The Next Generation (1979), Roots: The Gift (1988), and Queen (1993) right around the time of Django Unchained's release in theatres.  Roots was a television miniseries based on Alex Haley's book Roots:  The Saga of an American Family.  Tagged a biography, Haley's book was the result of researching seven generations of his familial lineage, tracing his ancestry back to Africa.  Both the book and the films have been acknowledged as "historically accurate." This is some of the smartest programming I've seen on BET!  While airing the Roots marathon, BET squeezed in Django Unchained commercials mixed in with commercials for their original programming.  I don't recall seeing too many commercials for products or other films.  Though I appreciated this programming, BET still didn't lock me in as a fan.  But, that's beside the point.  I viewed the miniseries on BET from Sunday through Tuesday (Christmas Day and the release date of Django Unchained).  Though I think that both projects have different missions, it was interesting to watch Roots prior to seeing Django Unchained.

This isn't the first time I've seen Roots.  The first time I watched it was in a packed elementary school auditorium with other third and fourth graders during the month of February aka Black History Month.  For school-aged children who grew up in a "embrace your Pan-Africanist" educational system like myself and other Detroit Public School graduates, you were reciting "Lift Every Voice and Sing" prior to writing in cursive.  We watched all 12 hours or so of the television miniseries (available on VHS at that time) in the duration of a month in the forum of occasional weekly assemblies.  This was my introduction to this tragic yet influential time in U.S. History.  I remember asking a lot of unanswered questions.  I remember lacking sleep because of all of the nightmares that I was having replaying various scenes in my vivid memory.

Many years later, my brother (who is significantly younger than I am) watched Roots in school, getting the same introduction to this period in history.  I remember my parents calling me, sharing with me the news that my brother "hated white people" after watching Roots. There's a reason why both my brother and I had negative experiences watching Roots.  There was no context.  Our teachers just stuck us in front of the television without giving us any background information, without any notion that 1) this miniseries reflects a moment in history; 2) our country has changed and evolved since the time reflected in the film and that many of the actions committed in Roots are now against the law and deemed morally wrong; 3) it was a film and depictions sometimes go overboard for shock value.

Fast forward to 2012.  I'm quite a bit older and have a substantial amount of knowledge under my belt with regards to the Middle Passage, the industry born out of slavery, the numerous human rights movements that emerged to free enslaved Africans in the Americas, film narratives, and the commercial industry of filmmaking.  All with interests in capital gain, one must be versed in a good chunk of these topics to understand and appreciate the worlds in which both projects (Roots and Django Unchained) exist.

I would like to commend the artists that worked on both projects for taking depictions of slavery is such a daunting task.  I'm going to be honest, as an artist, I don't want to touch anything as controversial as slavery or even the use of the N-word (even though most of my work deems on the side of offense to some).  Yet, as these topics continue to incite rage and heated debates, with both extreme conservatives and extreme liberals fighting for the title of "I'm right," 

I have so many points to begin conversation on this film.  Below is not a list of reasons why I liked the film but topics to begin a discussion about the film and why it's receiving so much attention:
  1. It is a very long movie.  However, to me, it didn't feel like a long movie.  Thinking about other recent films I've seen, they are overridden with overdone spectacle.  In Django Unchained, Tarantino doesn't underscore the dialogue with music.  The dialogue stands on it's own.  I've read multiple posts that say that Tarantino could have easily shaved off 45 minutes from this film.  I could easily say that about his earlier work.  With this film, I think that Tarantino is beginning to really master the art of dialogue and holding his audience's attention for long periods of time without us questioning his rationale.
  2. Though this film was extremely violent, the blood was over the top.  I hope that my readership would agree with me that though the overuse of blood was unsettling, it was more appetizing to the eyes to see cartoonish blood.  I've read in previous interviews with Tarantino that he dislikes guns and a lot of violence, yet he makes violent movies.  I actually use a lot of guns in my work.  In my award-winning play get (t)his, you would see about 6 guns....all within 10 minutes!  I use guns in my work as an extension of the self, as many people do in reality.  I absolutely hate guns and would like more done with gun control in this country.  However, I know that guns provide many families a sustainable living (i.e., hunters).  But, I think that what guns and gun usage has become in the U.S. is ridiculous.  As an artist/writer, I use a lot of violence as a critique of the reality.  Maybe Tarantino is attempting the same thing.  I don't think this question has ever come his way.
  3. A black female actor got to play a damsel in distress.  Yes, Kerry Washington had maybe 10 words in the film.  However, she got to play a role that's normally assigned to white actresses.  This made me smile a lot.  Black women don't have to be the "mule" or "work horse" or breaking through the glass ceiling all the time.
  4. Kerry Washington's character is multilingual, which is a privilege in itself.  If you've seen the miniseries Roots or Queen, there were many conversations about limiting access for blacks by not teaching them how to read.  Though reading and speaking are two different forms of communication, to know that Tarantino allowed for one of his characters to have multiple modes to communicate is definitely revisionist.  But, however Tarantino is trying to change history, this is an important point of conversation to talk about how history unfolded and how it may have led us to our own feelings about literary and education in communities of color. 
  5. Yes, Kerry Washington's character only has about 10 words in the entire film and ensures severely violent punishment (i.e., the hot box, whipping, etc).  However, these forms of punishment were dramatized (or lack thereof...a lot, we didn't see onscreen or completely played out) because Washington's character attempted to escape the plantation multiple times.  She is rebellious.  That's having agency within itself.
  6. Christoph Waltz's character's consciousness.  Does this stem from the fact that he's not American?
  7. An enslaved black man with some agency!  Django is really smart (see the quote above that opens up this post).  Though I wasn't that impressed with Jamie Foxx's performance, I really enjoyed watching his character unfold on screen.
  8. This is one of the best performances I've ever seen of Leonardo DiCaprio!  He played a spoiled, privileged brat.  This had to be a very difficult role to play.
  9. There was a black producer behind this film!  Reginald Hudlin, known for his work on the films House Party and Boomerang, on music videos, on BET, and Black Panther (the series based on the Marvel Comics character), was interviewed about working on the film.
  10. There was so much humor!  I can't remember when and if I laughed during Roots.  I'm not saying that I needed to laugh during Roots.  Laughter helps an audience to connect with the work, as my experience as a playwright and poet of difficult material has taught me.  However, it becomes easier to enjoy a film with difficult content if I had a moment to breathe.  I'm not saying that all times were not hard for enslaved people but damn.  This leads me to the conversation on Roots as a victimization film.  BTW, I think that people forgot how many times they used the N-word in Roots.  I'm about done with all of the commentary on Tarantino's use of the N-word in Django Unchained.  If he were to take out the word, he would be rewriting history.  Sometimes, being politically correct makes us ignorant.  Though I believe that Roots is a must-see, I do believe that there needs to be some dialogue around viewings of this miniseries series.
  11. This film is being coined as a love story.  When was the last time we saw a black couple at the head of a love story?  It is rare when I can see "my people" in a mainstream film falling in love and fighting for each other.  I see a lot of us fighting each other.
I really like what Tarantino is doing with the revenge narrative that he takes on in his latest films:  Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2, Inglorious Basterds, and Django Unchained.  The oppressed assuming positions of the oppressor.  I'm not saying that it's right but who wouldn't want to get revenge on someone who has done them wrong?!  I know that I'd love to do that.

I also really appreciate that Tarantino has taken on the genre of alternative history, which has been a staple of science fiction and fantasy for sometime.  But, why alternative history?  Why the revenge narrative?  Why a spaghetti western?  Think about Complicating my love and admiration for Tarantino, is he abusing his privilege as a white male filmmaker with a lot of autonomy to insert his voice as a storyteller for narratives of marginalized people?  I think that all of his critics (whether for the love of his work or for all of the haters), it is time for us to tackle these questions rather than automatically bashing or swooning over his work.

Here's another point for conversation:  Even in watching the trailers for each of the projects, I noticed significant differences in the narrative.  Please view the trailers below and let's chat.  I realize that it might be unfair to compare a "biopic" to a spaghetti western, films that reflect the culture and worlds in which they were produced.  But, others have been doing it.  So, let's join that party!

The trailer for Roots (1977)

The trailer for Django Unchained (2012)

I have multiple issues with Roots. To my knowledge, the only black person working on the film behind the scenes was Alex Haley and being the author of the source material, there is no telling how much or how closely he worked on the project.  There's some debate as to whether Haley was able to trace that far back into his family history (remember, and DNA projects of today didn't exist in the 1960s/1970s).  There was also claim to his book being plagiarized.  I don't want to discredit Mr. Haley's work at all.  I just want to state the facts.

Also, my biggest issue with Roots was the narrative.  It was violence and sad black people all the time.  Everyone was a victim in this film!  And, though violent acts weren't depicted on screen, they were suggested and talked about immensely (i.e., Toby/Kunte Kinte having half of his foot cut off after an attempted escape).  I don't remember hearing anyone complain about the bare breasts or the use of the N-word or how black people were treated in this film or how white people were rendered as bad without a conscience in Roots because "it's the truth."  I'm sorry but I am an informed spectator who will question every supposed "biopic."  And, I hope that members of my readership would as well.

The other "beef" that I have with Roots is the spectator's interaction with the film.  Unlike Django Unchained, there was a time that Roots was readily available for home viewing.  It first aired on CBS in January of 1977 (Happy New Year to families of that time period!).  For many families (I know mine was one of them at a time), there was only one television in the household.  Whatever was on that TV, if you were interested in watching something, it had to be what the head of the household was watching at that given time.  Considering the viewership of Roots during its first airing (quoting the Wikipedia entry for Roots:  "the finale still stands as the third-highest rated U.S. television program ever"), I'm guessing that many heads of households watched some portion of Roots during its eight-day airing schedule.

I do think that Roots is an important film and that everyone should see some points of it at some time, but with some context and also ways to discuss the film after viewing it.  Roots serves as a great point of entry for viewing other films about representations of chattel slavery and the Middle Passage.

Yes, I really enjoyed Django Unchained, aesthetically and for the dialogue starter.  When was the last time we talked about a film this much?!

What makes both of these films, especially Django Unchained, is how it gets us to talking about cultural production, the production of culture, and how race has shaped this country.  As a cultural critic, it is important for me to both write on culture and to facilitate/encourage conversations on culture.  We define culture.  How will culture change unless we're the change agents?

As spectators/film consumers, we can enjoy or dislike these films or anything that we watch.  I'm ready to listen and digest opinions about Tarantino's work, Django Unchained in particular, from people who hate this work.  However, I'm not willing to have a conversation with anyone regarding this film and any other films about slavery if the following issues are not considered:  just because someone is white doesn't mean that they can't contribute artistic responses about and on the black experience in the Americas, rendering art about negative experiences in our history isn't necessary because we shouldn't talk about them, and deeming one film/novel/slave narrative as an authentic account on slavery while dismissing others just because of its author.  So, before we lynch or chain Tarantino to higher artistic expectations, please become aware of other representations of slavery.  Don't just depend on our usual suspects to tell this story nor hold one artist to a set of standards that you wouldn't hold against another.