Monday, January 14, 2013

Django Unchained? None For Me, Thanks

Perhaps the best thing about being a cranky middle-aged man is that you don’t have to care about what’s cool, or hip, or trendy anymore. Even using words like “cool” and “hip” and “trendy” betrays a certain I’m-out-of-touch-and-I-know-it attitude: Yeah, I know the youngs have an entirely different vocabulary for those sorts of things. Ask me if I care.
So I don’t mind telling you that I don’t like Quentin Tarantino’s movies very much. In the interest of full disclosure, my wife and I saw Pulp Fiction when it came out in 1994, and I enjoyed it. That was when we were dating, and still relatively young. But sometime after we got married and started having kids, I lost interest in his violence-as-porn shtick. Actually, it wasn’t sometime after we got married and started having kids; it was at precisely this point in time: We were home on a Friday night in the late ’90s, with two little kids in bed, and we flipped on Reservoir Dogs on IFC – that’s a movie I didn’t see in the theater when it came out – and when that infamous torture scene came on my television … that’s when I said to myself: None for me, thanks. I’ve had my fill.
Look, I’m not prudish about this sort of thing. I don’t want to censor Tarantino’s work, or boycott it, or any of that nonsense. I don’t blame him for society’s ills, and I couldn’t care less whether other people like his movies and turn out in droves to see them and make him even richer than he already is. I’m sure his movies have some – probably more than some – redeeming qualities. So if you like them, hey, knock yourself out.
But none for me, thanks.
I have to say, though, that I’m more conflicted than usual about Tarantino’s latest release, Django Unchained. On the one hand, I understand the base impulse behind films like Django and his last film, Inglorious Basterds: Sometimes you just want to see bad people, like Nazis and/or slave owners, get their Nazi and/or slave owner asses kicked. Repeatedly. And, you know, with extreme prejudice.
On the other hand, the idea of yet another White director making a film about race (and not just about race; about the most racially charged subject of all – slavery in America) makes me uncomfortable. I don’t doubt that Tarantino means well, but there’s so much more to race in America than wanting to kick the asses of racists and slave owners, however understandable the impulse to kick their asses may be.
In fact, well intentioned or not, Django Unchained mangles its subject matter pretty badly, at least from a (an?) historical perspective. Don’t take my word for it; take the word of an actual history professor who knows her stuff. Writing for Ebony, Prof. Blair L.M. Kelley of North Carolina State University explains:
Slavery was not just about cruelty and barbarism, although it was cruel and barbaric on a daily basis. Slavery was not created just to satisfy rapists or sadists. It was an economic system that enriched those who owned slaves and those that manufactured the goods they produced. It was an industry that benefited elite Whites. While only twenty-five percent of White southern families owned at least one slave, the majority of slaves were the chattel of just the top one percent of slave-owning families, held in vast plantations where their children were passed down as property. The work done by slaves enabled slave masters to purchase and clear more land. The enslaved built the infrastructure of roads, bridges, and railroads, while the profits from their labor funded the westward expansion of the United States. Slave owners used their vast wealth to hold political sway over the nation, its Constitution, courts, and legislatures for decades.  This wealth built banks and trading houses that still exist today. The enslaved weren’t held for show or entertainment; their labor constructed cities and built universities. Enslaved craftsmen even laid the bricks and did the woodwork for the construction of the White House.
The men and women who owned slaves were not bizarre cartoon villains or the bumbling proto-Klansmen depicted in Django Unchained. They were educated. They attended churches. And they used their education and religion to try to justify the horror that the majority of their wealth was not in land or livestock, but based in their ownership of other human beings.  When we think about slavery in these terms, it isn’t as easy to laugh.
But, see, that doesn’t sell movie tickets. It doesn’t win Golden Globe Awards or Oscars. It’s kind of dry and heavily factual. And, worse, instead of making us feel good about the asses of slave owners and racists being kicked and kicked hard, it makes us – especially us White folks – think about the lingering effects of slavery. I mean, really think about them. And not just about the lingering negative effects of slavery on the African American community, but the lingering benefits that many of us enjoy because of the color of our skin, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

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