This December the Civil War Era got the Hollywood treatment as two tinseltown heavyweights (Stephen Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino) presented their drastically different takes on a period of American history very few like to visit.
Well, at least not in a critical way.
As U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2009, Americans are “cowards” when it comes to race. This includes in films about slavery and the Civil War it spawned.
From fantasies meant to justify fears and glorify terrorists like Birth of A Nation, to sob-inducing, torturous “We lost the battle, but won… in spirit or something… in the end” flicks like Glory andAmistad, Americans — and by Americans, I mean a lot of white people — tend to like their racial dramas in two ways. One is the classic mold of “White hero saves damned, downtrodden dark people from other white people who are racist jerks,” a la Cry Freedom or Mississippi Burning. The other is the almost always Oscar-worthy “Black people turn other cheek while foot is placed in ass over and over, but never raise a fist in retaliation because they’re good, magical Negroes meant to cure us of our erectile dysfunction and high golf handicap.”
The latter is still incredibly popular.
Surprisingly though, and possibly a sign of progress, Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained are neither of those things, while still being somewhat related to those types of films.
Although, not always in the way you’d expect.
Spielberg’s work regarding one of our most mythologized and celebrated presidents is technically fantastic, passionately acted and executed. It’s so perfect it is almost a parody of a Hollywood Oscar-bait — the method-obsessed Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, a screenplay by award-winningAngels in America scribe Tony Kushner, brought to you by the man who made both Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.
It’s the definition of a prestige picture.
There’s just one problem…
Due to a glaring oversight, at moments, it falls into the “white savior” category of films.
Not because it’s inaccurate, to say. It’s more of a sin of omission. Former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, debated, befriended and challenged Abraham Lincoln to make the choices he made. At times Lincoln was reticent to “free” the slaves, wasn’t sure about “equality” in the traditional sense of the word and Douglass was there in varying capacities to and for Lincoln, as such to ignore his existence in my opinion is reprehensible.
But Douglass was a no-show in Lincoln, despite his looming importance in Lincoln’s presidency. This leaves the impression to those less informed about the Civil War period that it was Lincoln and Lincoln alone who “freed the slaves.” This ignores that blacks and whites worked together to right a wrong, an example to us all of what can be accomplished when two cultures work together.
And this wouldn’t be a “big deal” if it weren’t for that fact this is the reductionist vision most Americans have of Lincoln already thanks to the most basic of compulsory public school educations.
At least the film got the aspect of “white people dragged kicking and screaming to the right side of history” right.
Getting history “right” was less of a concern for the purposely cartoonish Django Unchained — Quentin Tarantino’s controversial, slavery-era Spaghetti Western.
In a recent interview with VIBE Magazine, director Spike Lee said he wouldn’t watch Djangobecause it “would be disrespectful to his (our) ancestors.” And even I, before seeing the film, wanted to agree with Lee. As I prepared to cut through Django with all the militant muster I could generate, a strange thing happened in the theater…
I loved the movie…
I really, really loved the movie.
Django is a ripe display of the pulpiest of fictions and uses 1858’s slavery-riddled American South as the backdrop for a violent and oft unsettlingly hilarious revenge flick.
There is no movie about slavery quite like it.
It’s a film that perverts a perversion by turning it into a cruel farce of those who thought there was nobility in owning (and treating) a man as if he were a horse.
While it recalls 1970s exploitation flicks Mandingo and Addio Zio Tom, it only references their most comically absurd and unsettling parts. And rather than become slavery-based torture porn, in Django every white person who is a slaver gets their comeuppance — “Antebellum Die Hard” style — with Jamie Foxx as Slave John McClane.
For example, there’s a scene in the miniseries Roots where Chicken George has a chance to whip a white man, but takes the high road.
In Django, Jamie Foxx — former slave turned John Shaft — beats his ass.
The cinematic equivalent of a Rick Ross album title — God Forgives, “Django” doesn’t.
The film is a well-acted, directed and a cinematic and aural feast, yet Tarantino’s Django remains hotly debated among black intellectuals. And when it comes to why this is such a lightning rod, I have a theory.
Black people have a complicated and frustrating with popular cinema as stereotypes — the hallmark of lazy storytelling — are easy to market and produce. But we, as African Americans, are also guilty of drafting our own inflexible standards and mythology, choking out individualism and creative freedom in the name of “progress.”
Film is an art form. It is a form of expression. And it is a business. And I want my films about my culture to be honest. Not positive or negative, just honest. There are those who feel all slavery-era films should be of the same tone where a gospel choir plays in the background as the noble slave is whipped and defiantly refuses to cry… a story where the prospect of revenge would never enter his mind because he is chiseled and formed from the spirit of Mother Africa.
Well, that’s boring.
And doesn’t really reflect the much more complicated story of black slaves — from Harriet Tubman to Nat Turner to the anonymous slave just trying to make it another day in hell.
All these stories deserve telling. And they deserve to be told in many different ways. And there’s nothing wrong with one of those stories being about the slave who got angry, as there were most assuredly slaves who got angry.
And in some ways it’s more honest than the raft of African American films that shine a light so brightly on our heroes it canonizes them to the degree that they are no longer real.
If Lee has any real challenge with the film it should be about how, due to virtue of Tarantino’s whiteness (plus his marquee reputation), it was easier for him to get the film he wanted made while Lee has had to fight for everything from Do the Right Thing to Red Hook Summer.
Prestige in the form of Malcolm X and the commercial success of Inside Man, hasn’t made it any easier for the auteur and that’s well worth getting upset over.
But Django is not.