February 13 – Volume 14, #2
“American History: Unchained”
“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.” –Quentin Tarantino-
In spite of his affection for the New York Knicks, a team I’ve been trained to have deep hatred for since I first learned what a basketball was, Spike Lee is my dude. I absolutely love his films, and I find that picking a favorite one is as difficult as someone picking their favorite child. Difficult for everyone except my parents at least.
But seriously, who doesn’t love “Do the Right Thing?” I probably can quote damn near every line in the film. “School Daze” has a particularly special connection with people who came of age at the time that I grew up. After seeing that flick in junior high school, I had no idea what an elective was, what major I would choose or how to calculate a GPA. But one viewing of “School Daze” (especially the beach party scene where everyone was kicking it in swimsuits and trunks) and I knew for sure that I was going to college. “Bamboozled,” is a must see; not only for black folks, but for anyone who thinks deeply about some of the images that we receive in media. This is one of the most powerful films ever made by Spike or anyone else, and it deserved far, far, far more critical and commercial acclaim than it has received. Plus it had this scene, so frankly that alone makes it a classic. And “Mo Better Blues” is one of the few movies that I can watch in its entirety every single time that it comes on, and it never gets old to me. That is a dope movie on so many levels and it connects with me on a personal level in a way that few movies have.
No one in the history of Hollywood is touching Spike when it comes to documenting the black experience in its totality. Before Spike, black folks were almost exclusively cast as criminals, prostitutes and shiftless, unintelligent cowards. And to be sure Spike has had his share of those, which is only right because these individuals are just as much a part of the black experience as the preachers, the architects, the police detectives, the basketball coaches and college professors he has depicted in film. Rather than have us portrayed as helpless victims, Spike presents the black experience as being one that works from a position of strength and that is multi-layered. It is a criminal offense that none of his films have been honored as picture of the year at the Academy Awards.
Those like Spike who have worked on behalf of their people are to be commended because so many of us choose to do otherwise. But in spite of my great respect for Spike, I couldn’t disagree more with his rationale for refusing to see Django by his fellow director, Quentin Tarantino.
Spike has been critical before about the loose use of nigger (sometimes known as the N word) in Tarantino films such as “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs.” Spike failed to specify whether this was the root of his opposition to “Django,” saying only that he couldn’t see it because he “respected his ancestors.”
Well I did see the film and it made me want to go home and get on my keyboard to continue the fight that my ancestors began. It has been a long, long, long time since a movie made me feel that way. That made me feel empowered, that made feel that I had a larger responsibility.
Tarantino and Spike may choose different canvasses in which to paint, but they are allies in the movement to make serious films for serious adults. And Quentin’s politics suggest that they are aligned in the movement to make this a more fair and equal nation as well. But even if this is not the case, Spike’s critique is off base for several reasons. And I’d challenge other blacks who share Spike’s perspective to check their motives as well. I full-heartedly support Tarantino’s efforts on several levels and hope that it will challenge other whites with equal levels of power and economic influence to bring these kinds of stories to the fray. Or instead, they can make another dumb ass Adam Sandler movie.
First off, the artist in me is hesitant to mute Tarantino as I feel that works of art such as literature, music, film and poetry should be given a rather broad license in representing reality. It is not the responsibility of the artist to give you a pretty picture of reality, her or his duty is to document reality as they find it. There is a thin line between reflecting society’s dirty underbelly and glorifying it, but I think that Tarantino successfully steers clear of this line in this film. The harsh reality that was slave life is not exploited or trivialized in “Django.” And even David Duke would walk from the theatre with a little bit of empathy for the oppressed in the film. It is regrettable that some white folks would use nigger so loosely in the 19th century, but many historical records suggest that this use was the reality of their times. Quiet is kept, it’s a lot more of the reality of these times than we’d like to admit. In any case, to obscure this history –to sanitize it- in the name of protecting our contemporary sensibilities would be more disrespectful to our ancestors in my opinion. And much like work by NWA or Chris Rock, the redeeming social value of the production far outweighs any hurt feelings that result from gratuitous language and images.
Moreover, the scholar in me feels that it is positively vital that those who have a forum use it to stimulate a deeper, more rich dialogue than we generally have in this country. There are so many stories that have remained untold, and perspectives within those stories that have gone unshared. In no area of American life is this more true than it is in regards to matters of race. Our society cannot advance as it should without having an honest reckoning with race the way that we need to. And don’t let Obama’s election fool you, or all the white folks who love Oprah’s bourgie ass. We still have a lot of work to do in this country. To properly heal means that we’re going to have to peel back some of these scars from time to time. “Django” provides a rare opportunity for Hollywood to do that. The emotions that were stirred in “Django” were cathartic and are necessary, less we do forget how our history makes us who we are. Confronting our history, in an honest manner, challenges us to be better than we are.
Motion pictures are amazing but too often they are reduced to huge explosions and exciting car chases through crowded urban streets. We need more, not less Quentin Tarantinos, Spike Lees and Steven Soderberghs to illuminate parts of America’s history which have long been kept in darkness. The parts that I very rarely heard anything about as I matriculated through some of our nation’s most distinguished centers of higher learning. People need to know about the internment camps that American citizens of Japanese descent were put in during World War II while Italian and German-Americans walked around freely. We read a little bit about it in junior high, but even a more detailed scholarly treatment of the topic couldn’t rival visually capturing the inhumanity of the Trail of Tears. And it is not only the responsibility of the aggrieved to tell these stories, it’s all of ours.
It is important that we call white folks out who use their position of power and privilege to insult disempowered communities. And the many black folks who do too. (I’m looking at your sweet ass, Tyler Perry) But we cannot become so hostile to where we discourage the kind of dialogue and reckoning that needs to be done for us to truly move forward.
What I personally find much more frustrating than the experiences of non-Anglo cultures being shut out of the public realm is the reluctance in which many of my white peers deal with issues of race. I have sat in numerous discussions as a student, professor and journalist where a few people of color have engaged race in passionate and thoughtful ways, while a room full of white people sit around silently. Scared to death that a misplaced word is going to cause a race war.
I understand this trepidation on some levels. White folks often feel themselves in a no-win situation. Black folks are rightfully very sensitive about race, and since many white people don’t have a lot of practice of having to deal with the reality of race, (much less talking about it) well-intentioned words can come out a little awkward at times. Word to Joe Biden. A great example of this awkwardness cinematically, was Warren Beatty’s 1998 film “Bulworth,” which brought forth the pre-Obama thesis that this nation could be transformed if we ever got over the racial divisions that benefit people in power to the detriment of the working class. Beatty’s film is full of caricatures, and over-the-top stereotypes of both hip-hop culture and the black community at-large. Intelligent minds can disagree, but personally I don’t think these images are so distracting to where they take away from the film’s larger point. And I feel that the possibility of expanding our national understanding is well worth the artistic risk, especially considering that the average nigga is totally willing to be exploited by Hollywood for far less noble causes.
There is nothing more dangerous to oppressed and marginalized populations than mass silence in the face of systemic injustice. It is in the immediate interests of the oppressed to work to make our society live up to its ideals. But the reality is that horrific moments in our history like slavery are a stain to us all no matter what color you are. “Django” brilliantly shows how an ideology like white supremacy is dehumanizing to both black and white folks alike.
You can be your own judge on how far Tarantino should go in pushing the envelope. But I commend him for having the balls to engage the discussion, and for refusing to treat slavery merely as a black issue as is done all too frequently.
Maybe this will encourage other white folks to overcome their fears of speaking out against the racial inequality that still lingers in spite of slavery’s eradication 150 years ago. The truth is that most black people understand how white supremacy works in this country before they’re ten years old. They don’t need a fuckin’ Ph.D. to know what time it is, nor do they need to see a movie. We live with white supremacy every single day of our lives. The people who need alarm clocks are white folks. I, for one, applaud Tarantino for shaking white America up a little bit in reminding them of a dark part of the nation’s history that many have neatly compartmentalized for far too long.
Peace and God bless,