This article originally appeared on AlterNet
Black abolitionists. Black outlaws. Black gunslingers of the west, south, east or north. These are the three groups of people that truly scare white Americans. And they rarely, if ever, appear on a Hollywood screen. They don’t appear in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, either.
So what do we get? A violently entertaining, rugged individualist and shallow “abolitionist” by the name of Django, a bounty hunter whose killing spree is sanctioned by the U.S. government. That would be the same government which, in 1858, maintains “the peculiar institution” of slavery as a legal entity in many states. The same government that in most circumstances would have considered Django as bounty to be captured, not the bounty hunter. But this is Tarantino’s playground.
Watch Tarantino in interviews. He’s rather cocky about the history he thinks he’s relating to Americans (which is sad, actually), so while Django is not a documentary, it’s not “just a movie,” either. Unfortunately, much critical history is lost or completely skewed in Tarantino’s telling, even when totally unnecessary. This is a major flaw in a film that is supposed to be about a black superhero turning the tables on history. The problem is, you have to know the history first.
Let’s start with the history of the way blacks have been stereotypically portrayed on the silver screen. In the film, Monsieur Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), the French-speaking owner of the plantation Candyland tells Django that he is “one in 10,000.” In his interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr. in The Root, Quentin Tarantino states, ”The fact is, Django is an exceptional human being. That’s why he is able to rise to this occasion.”
This fascination with “the exceptional negro” is an old stereotype born of white supremacy. It’s another form of what we might think of as the “model minority” — the exception that proves the rule. It implies that most blacks are something very far from laudable.
There’s also a problem of white characters “teaching” black characters about their own historical circumstances. Pondering slavery, Candie asks Django, “Why don’t they rise up?”
It”s supremely offensive, as if African people had never seen, dreamt of or participated in killing a white slavemaster, overseer or other plantation worker. Perhaps Tarantino has forgotten the many enslaved people who mastered “accidents” involving the burning of crops, sheds and houses, and the house slaves who, among other things, poisoned “Big Daddy” and “Miss Ann” with their culinary marksmanship.
In the first scene, when a German dentist known as Dr. King Schultz (oh, come on) tells the others enslaved on Django’s chain gang what their options are to get free, he points out the North Star for them. You’ve got to be kidding me. What slave, captive, runaway or free, would not know about the role of the North Star in African liberation? Ask Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, David Walker, Maria Stewart, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth or any of the Maroons who used the star to guide their way. Ask the Africans who fled amongst the Native Americans and the ones who escaped to Mexico and later fought in the Spanish-American War, on the Spanish side.
In Django Unchained, Tarantino suggests that whites led the way for blacks to free themselves. But black abolitionists spearheaded the movement for their own freedom. It’s true that they were, thankfully, aided by conscientious whites who assisted them in various ways. But the violent revolts, the mutinies, the secret societies, the machete wielders, the forgers, the runaways, the spies, the fakers, the poseurs, the Underground Railroad leaders were overwhelming black. Let’s not forget the hundreds of thousands of blacks who joined the Union Army to “live free or die” for themselves and their loved ones.
Tarantino also doesn’t seem to understand that gunslinging alone was not going to defeat the monstrosity of inhumanity that was slavery. Has the self-described film buff ever seen Sankofa, Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima’s tale of resistance?
Sadly, the ultimate showdown in Django Unchained – the Armageddon between Django and Samuel Jackson’s Uncle Tom – turns out to be not much of a climax at all. In the end, Uncle Tom is still a slave with largely truncated choices. A true Western outlaw would not treat the lackey as the ultimate villain. He would know the truest villains were the slavemasters and the laws that supported them. That’s why he would be an outlaw. That’s what makes the Western work. For white Americans, anyway.
The gore and violence of slavery in Django, it must be said, were actually pretty well-depicted and at least two of the whippings could have been taken directly out of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and other slave narratives. But even in the 19th century, some whites had begun treating the sexualized violence in these narratives as pornography. They were high on the masochism. Such is the case with Django, except we are all high on the violence, now.
In a Daily Beast interview, Tarantino expresses amazement that Westerns “could get away with not dealing with slavery at all.” Why the surprise? The American West is North America’s grand mythological narrative and Tarantino is wondering why the genre never dealt with America’s greatest contradiction and unresolved racial conflict? Is he unaware that when it comes to black Americans, in particular, and our right and responsibility to be either “the law” (as buffalo soldiers, American militia, the sheriff or President Obama as Commander-in-Chief) or “outlaws” of American injustice (as practitioners of civil disobedience from Martin Luther King Jr. to Fannie Lou Hamer, Deacons of Defense or the Black Panther Party), we have more often been what Walter Mosley calls, “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned.” Has he never heard of the Houston Race Riot of 1917? Or Tulsa, 1921?
“Negroes with Guns” has always scared a particular set of Americans committed to maintaining the structural inequality from slavery. It’s natural, then, that Hollywood would find it hard to promote a black outlaw with his/her “own set of rules.” Indeed, black, radical political groups embracing Second Amendment rights to bear arms caused the U.S. government and then-governor Ronald Reagan (and Western movie star) to consider them America’s “public enemy number one.” Enter gun control laws, not Django.
But at least we are entertained. I love that Hollywood’s vast historical inaccuracies are all being highlighted, simultaneously. The CIA is pissed at Zero Dark Thirty, American historian Eric Foner, has frowned upon the lack of facts in Lincoln (but still told people to “enjoy the movie, then read a book”) and now we get Django, living as the only African in America who wanted to be free from chattel slavery and did something about it. I was certainly entertained. But an alternate history? Child, please. Hollywood isn’t ready; but maybe Tarantino’s efforts (and huge box office sales) will pave the way for something entirely new: a black hero with ancestral memory and community accountability who can be accepted by the mainstream. Now, that would be something. Yippie ki-yay.
Kimberly Ellis is a former Sr. Producer of OUR COMMON GROUND Media & Communications. She is affectionately known throughout the ‘Net community and the twitterzone as Dr. Goddess.
Who is Dr. Goddess?
Kimberly C. Ellis, Ph.D., is affectionately known as Dr. Goddess,” and a true Renaissance Woman. She is a writer, an entertainer, an entrepreneur, a scholar (of American and Africana Studies), and an activist. Dr. Goddess engages social media to promote a new age liberation ideology undergirded by revolutionary love and uses art, humor, scholarship and politics to do it. Her slogan is “Meet Dr. Goddess. Become a Believer.”—a believer in empowerment, in Womanism, in freedom, justice, equality, citizenship and in the fullness of our humanity.
Dr. Goddess is a writer for TheLoop21.com and her own“Revelations” blog, a former columnist for the Pittsburgh City Paper and is published in the Special Inaugural Edition of Ebony Magazine about the “Real Love” of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. She is also the first full-time columnist and dance expert for BuddyTV.com, where she covered the popular show, “So You Think You Can Dance?”
In addition to her online column work and blogging, Dr. Goddess is a published author and scholar, whose works include poetry, essays, and a chapter (“Enemies, Both Foreign and Domestic: The Tulsa Race Riot, War and Massacre of 1921”) in the book, The Paradox of Loyalty: An African American Response to the War on Terror edited by Julianne Malveaux and Reginna Green, as well as a forthcoming publication, “A Tale of Two Cities: Teaching August Wilson in Pittsburgh” Approaches to Teaching August Wilson, by the Modern Language Association, edited by Sandra D. Shannon. Dr. Goddess is also an award-winning poet, playwright and performing artist, who is presently on tour with, “Dr. Goddess!: A One Woman Show” and screenings of its sequel, the ensemble production of “Dr. Goddess Goes to Jail: A Spoken Word, Musical Comedy (Unfortunately) Based on a True Story,” now on DVD.
Named one of the “Most Influential Black Women on Twitter” by “For Harriet” Digital Magazine and profiled as one of the “Exquisite Women” by The Black Man Can, Dr. Goddess is known for her “Twectures” (Lectures on Twitter) on American and Black History, Popular Culture and Activism. She has also created some of the most memorable trending topics to date, including #FoodiesUnite (for people who like to eat mostly healthy but delicious food), #GradChat (for people of color who want to learn more about graduate school), #BlkNat (for discussions and critiques about Black Nationalism and its cousin, Pan-Africanism), #BlkTheater (to promote and discuss Black Theater) and the humorous, cult-favorite, #BaracksFlagPin (providing hilariously irreverent translations of President Obama’s speeches as information and inspiration for the masses).
Dr. Goddess’ knowledge of and love for technology and keen sense of the media are quickly making her one of the most recognizable and influential personalities online. Her commentary has been referenced onNPR Radio, KDKA, WQED, WTAE, KQV News Radio, WAMO, “Blackademics” in Washington, D.C. and numerous other radio stations and news media outlets.
Activism and Social Media
Dr. Goddess is the Creative Organizer and Media Director for the “Are You for Fannie Lou?” Campaign on behalf of the Fannie Lou Hamer Statue Fund and Consultant for the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement. In addition, she organized and moderated the “Tweeting the Revolution: How Hip Hop Transformed 140 into 360″ panel for Netroots Nation 2010 in Las Vegas as well as discussed taking online activism offline at Blogalicious Bloggers Conference 2010 in Miami. Dr. Goddess was the Lead Organizer for Pennsylvania’s Statewide, progressive, “RootsCamp” with 32 other states for the New Organizing Institute.
A veteran of lecture performances, workshops, and master classes, Dr. Goddess has lectured and taught throughout the United States and abroad, including Jamaica, Ghana, China, Dubai, and UAE. She also engages in local artist residencies for young people, lending her expertise and leadership to such places as the Urban League Charter School, the Hill House Summer Arts Camp, the Hill Dance Academy Theater and the Lighthouse Project at Westinghouse High School.
Education and Scholarship
As a graduate student in American Studies at Purdue University, she launched the “All Eyes on Tulsa” Campaign in order to secure reparations on behalf of survivors of the Tulsa Race Riot, War and Massacre of 1921; and worked with a “dream team” of lawyers (including the late Johnnie Cochran, Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, #1 Washington, D.C. Lawyer, Michelle Roberts, former TransAfrica Forum’s Randall Robinson and Al Brophy) to file a lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court. Dr. Ellis testified at aCongressional Black Caucus Hearing in May 2005.
Dr. Goddess completed an artist residency at the Banff International Center in Alberta, Canada, where she focused on her upcoming works, “She Put a Hammer in My Hand”, a one woman performance about women and home improvement and “Community Meeting” an ensemble cast, spoken word, musical comedy about, well, a community, meeting.
Dr. Goddess is presently working on her scholarly manuscript and memoir, “The Way We Fought and Why: The Tulsa Race Riot, War and Massacre of 1921”. To order Books, CDs, DVDs or to Book the Show or Speaking Engagements, please contact Dr. Goddess Arts, Education and Management Co.
Keep up with Dr. Goddess via her Mailing List, on Twitter and Facebook.