The good white folks of the Academy


The good white folks of the Academy

by Willie Osterweil @ajam January 15, 2014
How Oscar-nominated films misrepresent African-American history

slave racist african american 12 years a slave mcqueen

A scene from “12 Years a Slave.” From left: Lupita Nyongo, Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Fox Searchlight/Everett Collection

The Academy Awards have made progress in terms of racial representation. This year a film about slavery is the clear front-runner in many of the major categories, and if “12 Years a Slave” or “Gravity” wins best picture, it would be the first time a movie by a nonwhite director takes the prize. It’s also possible that Lee Daniels (“The Butler”) could join Steve McQueen (“12 Years”) and Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”) to make best director a majority-minority category for the first time ever.

It’s certainly a relief to see Oscar-nominated films about black experience actually written and directed by black people (unlike, for example, recent Oscar darlings “Django Unchained,” “The Help,” and “The Blind Side”). But it’s the movie’s producers — who have more power over a film’s content than most recognize — who will actually walk up to accept the best picture statuette. Unsurprisingly, most of them are still white.

That might be one reason why the representations of black experience that the Academy deems best-picture-worthy remain fundamentally unchallenged. Out of the 120 films that received a best picture nomination in the last 20 years, only 17 featured nonwhite protagonists or major characters. In all but four of those films these characters were either extremely poor or criminals. Out of the four remaining, one featured a slave (“Django,” 2012), another an entertainer (“Ray,” 2004), another an athlete (“Jerry Maguire,” 1996). Needless to say, the white characters in these and the other 103 films nominated for best picture held a much wider variety of occupational and socioeconomic positions.

When “The Butler” is nominated this year — as it will surely be when nominations are announced on Thursday — it will buck this trend by featuring a black domestic servant who happens to be middle class [editor’s note: the film was not nominated for best picture]. The biopic traces the civil rights movement through the eyes of one of the White House’s black butlers. In its version of 20th-century black struggle, the civil rights bill came about because the movement appealed to the goodness of JFK’s heart (rather than forcing his hand with its power), the Black Panthers were overaggressive youth who got what they deserved, and Obama’s election is the apotheosis of everything the movement was fighting for. “The Butler” won’t win, but it would have had a much better chance last year, when historical-revisionist ideology celebrating the executive branch (“Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lincoln”) was all the rage.

Based on a true story

A much better film, “12 Years a Slave” focuses on the visceral horrors of American slavery. Produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and John Ridley, among others, it tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold in the decades before the Civil War. Based on Northup’s memoir of the same title, it’s a well-crafted and emotionally powerful film, and for many has provided a devastating condemnation of slavery.

And yet it has major shortcomings. The film portrays the North in 1841 as a racism-free place where black and white live in harmony. White characters get much more dialogue and characterization than black ones: We learn more about the life story of Armsby, a white laborer who appears for two scenes, than we ever do about Patsey, one of the film’s slave protagonists. The slaves are often singing but rarely speak to one another: They remain mostly-silent extras whose graphically suffering bodies make us feel bad about slavery. Though there is a plethora of white stars, the three famous black actors outside of Chiwetel Ejiofor as the lead character get token roles, appearing only once or twice. What happens when we recognize the white characters and actors, while the black people remain largely anonymous? Who does this suggest the film is for?

In the predictable ending, the good white people outmaneuver the evil white people and return Northup to safety. The obvious defense of this dramatic device — “but that’s what really happened!” — shows exactly how “based on a true story” shuts down critical thought. The point is not to question its factual accuracy: The film by all accounts keeps quite close to Northup’s memoir (although some scholars debate the memoir’s veracity). But that objection ignores the fact that the filmmakers chose to tell this particular story and to tell it in this particular way.

Executive producer and screenwriter Ridley’s 2006 article “The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger,” in which he glorifies Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Ayn Rand and calls on wealthy black people to separate themselves from “niggers” — i.e., poor black folks who victimize themselves — exemplifies this position on race and storytelling. Ridley writes, “If we as a race could win the centuries-long war against institutionalized racism, why is it that so many of us cannot secure the advantage after decades of freedom?” Of course, the idea that institutionalized racism disappeared with Jim Crow is absurd. But Ridley’s answers to this loaded question imply that now that racism is over, then black folks have no one to blame but themselves and should drop their anger and just forgive white people, for their own good.

A historical aberration

Modern filmmakers who want to accurately convey the evils of slavery could do so through the stories of Toussaint Louverture or Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass — or any of the other thousands of slaves who didn’t look to white saviors to escape their bondage. But you’d never know from watching Hollywood movies that a single slave ever freed herself. “Django Unchained, “Glory,” “Lincoln” — these films all feature the benevolent intervention of white protagonists. Even Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” about a slave uprising, is as much about the white lawyers arguing the slaves’ case.

A particular narrative about slavery is told over and over: The institution was a historical aberration perpetrated by evil white people, but luckily there were good white people who listened to the black people, and they helped free the slaves, and now it’s all over. A similarly simplistic narrative emerges out of Hollywood’s revision of the civil rights movement: In “The Butler,” the cause was noble, but some black people took it too far and it was ultimately victorious because white presidents listened to the brave moderate blacks and beat the evil white racists. Now racism is over, because, you know, Obama.

Thanks to the Oscars, hundreds of thousands more will see the versions of black history told by “The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave”: A best picture nomination is a huge boon for ticket sales, adding millions to a film’s box office, rental take, and audience. The Academy that chooses who gets that cash is 77 percent male, 94 percent white and 86 percent over the age of 50. As such, if a movie wants that precious Oscar bump, it would do well to reproduce the worldview of the rich old white men who run the industry. And that’s precisely why “Fruitvale Station, the movie about the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant, a young black man whose murder by police in Oakland sparked riots, is unlikely to receive a nomination.

The real problem for ‘Fruitvale Station’ is that it’s a film about racism without a happy ending

“Fruitvale Station” won the 2013 Sundance Grand Jury award, the same award that “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” another film about black experience in America, won in 2012. Notorious Oscar campaigner the Weinstein Co. distributed “Fruitvale Station,” and it opened in more than 1,000 theaters. It was met with universal critical acclaim and made $16 million at the box office, more than presumptive nominees “Nebraska” or “August: Osage County.” The point being, this is no tiny indie or critical cause celebre: “Fruitvale Station” has a solid resume for a best picture nominee. It’s even based on a true story! Commentators have claimed it’s not “stylistically innovative” enough, but it’s stylistically consistent with the washed-out steadycam of guaranteed nominee “Captain Phillips,” and a markedly better movie to boot. “Fruitvale Station” develops real emotional stakes (unlike “The Wolf of Wall Street”), refuses to stereotype its black characters (unlike “The Butler”) and doesn’t rely on precious twee misogyny to make you care about its protagonist (unlike “Her”).

But the Oscars have never been about celebrating the year’s best movie (“Crash, anyone?). The real problem for “Fruitvale Station” is that it’s a film about racism without a happy ending. It’s about a tragedy that cannot be redeemed. Not that it’s even a particularly radical film — it just can’t pretend that time has solved the problems it portrays, as “12 Years a Slave” does, and can’t give the contradictions of history a tidy conclusion, as “The Butler” does with Obama’s election. Instead, it connects into a current struggle, evoking the trauma and horror that racist violence and overpolicing produce in minority communities across the country.

The point is not to berate the Oscars for not nominating “Fruitvale Station,” but rather to see how the Oscars, and the film-critical apparatus surrounding them, dictate what constitutes a “serious” depiction of race. No one really believes the Oscars are a meritocracy, but the awards still end up giving certain movies massive new audiences, deciding which films critics will write about and people will talk about.

If, come March 2, when the envelopes are opened, “12 Years a Slave” gets snubbed — beaten by, say, “American Hustle” — expect a lot of people to start talking about the racism of the Oscars. They’ll be right to. But if “12 Years a Slave” wins, let’s not be too hasty in celebrating the Academy’s rich white men for an anti-racist victory.

Willie Osterweil is a writer and editor at The New Inquiry and the frontman of the punk band Vulture Shit.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.



Oprah Winfrey’s Butlers – Lee Daniels and Tyler Perry

Oprah Winfrey’s Butlers – Lee Daniels and Tyler Perry


AUGUST 21, 2013

I have a knot in my heart. It was in my throat, it moved along. Eventually, I am sure it will suffocate me if I don’t get this out. Black women, listen, we’ve got to stand up. We need to be mad as hell and not take it anymore.

Please indulge me because I am, admittedly, angry. And, before anyone starts rolling their eyes, I am not an angry black woman (whatever the fuck that is). I put compassion and understanding at the center of all things. Having survived sexual abuse as a child. And, rape as an adult, I have a right to be angry. But, no, I have decided that compassion is essential if I am to walk amongst humans. Because human beings do some foul shit.

The first person I encountered outside of the theater, as I went in to see ‘The Butler’, was a young black woman with a dishrag in her hand. She waited, patiently, for the men to exit the toilets so she could clean the bathroom. People like this woman and the butler have not been on black folk’s agenda for decades. So, why now? Is it simply a good story, provides a good arc and has potential for an Oscar run?

I watched Oprah’s talk show, continuously, for many years. Struggling after film school, I watched one of her home makeover shows. On the show, a lamp was apart of the makeover. She said something along the lines of “If you can’t afford this lamp, you are not doing something right.” The lamp was $20. I couldn’t afford it. And, I was one of those black people who had done everything right. I also thought about my family, in rural North Carolina, that lived in a trailer. At 23, I went to find my father’s family. They knew nothing about me (this is a story for another day). Anyway, fearless, I wanted to know this side of my family.

One cousin lived in a trailer. Children were everywhere. I mean, everywhere. And, the women were, what is considered, dark, overweight and opinionated.  At 4pm, all of the women and children gathered around the television. I wondered what was going on. I asked what was coming on. “Oprah”, my cousin said. She then gave me a side eye and asked, “You got any children?” I knew a ‘no’ was going to bring harsh judgment. But, I gripped the couch and, barely, uttered the word, “No.” Oprah’s show began, thank goodness. No one in that room, in full support of and offering unconditional love to Oprah, could afford that lamp.

We cannot underestimate her influence on American culture. We cannot yet determine how her presence has impacted the landscape. Unlike my mother’s generation, I grew up hearing conversations about child molestation, abuse against women, all of the things that remained in the shadows for centuries. Oprah brought all of that to the center of the conversation. She made it visible. In this regard, she is a heroine of the highest order. To speak, in spite of the shame that sexual violation rains upon you, is serious. And, she did it before the world. And, she did it in triumph.

I watched Oprah’s performance in ‘The Butler’ and I thought about her ‘lamp’ statement. I wondered if the character she portrayed could have afforded that lamp. Would that lamp have been a priority for her character? And, yes, probably. The film is an homage to the middle class. It honors hard work, discipline, loyalty to family, black men who put family before “running the streets”. Unfortunately, we are never inside of the Butler’s head. We don’t experience what he thinks or feels about the unique situation he is in. This is a script issue. The writer didn’t see the world through his eyes.

I am not anti-‘The Butler’. I do not feel that ‘The Butler’ is the male version of the ‘The Help’. I do think Lee Daniels is thoughtful about his work. I do think he has an agenda. What that is, I don’t know. I think the Butler’s story is a moving one. Do I think Lee pulled it off in this film, no. I think it is Lee’s best film to date. So far, he has directed ‘Precious’ and ‘Shadow Boxer’. You can determine if this being his “best film” is significant in light of his track record.

I am, however, anti-Precious. The film was exaggerated horror and poverty pornography. Like Sapphire, I knew the population that she worked with. I, too, worked with girls in group homes. Girls that have survived unthinkable horrors. And, let me tell you, like Oprah, they are some of the most creative, complex and extraordinary girls on the planet. I have known girls that got their heads bashed into the sidewalk by their mother and could dress up in a fierceness that would shame a Parisian runway. Trauma does not equal despair, fatigue or isolation. Depression is not the only result.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was in consideration to write the screenplay for ‘Push’. Ultimately, Lee made his choice. And, it would have been a much different movie had I penned it. But, I went to see it with an open mind and heart, hoping the best for Lee Daniels. Because, in my eyes, black representation trumps all. It is not about me, it is about the images that, ultimately, wind up on the screen. And, to me, Precious was beyond disappointing. But, you see, it received “the stamp” from Sundance, etc. A stamp that was misplaced because white liberals wouldn’t know an “authentic” black narrative if it hit them in the face. It is easier to accept the idea that black people are depraved, grotesque and horrifying than to understand our nuance. But, Lee Daniels got what he wanted- a platform for his demons.

Where am I going with this? Here. And, perhaps you can help me. For the life of me, I cannot understand why Ms. Winfrey supports black filmmakers whose work denigrates black women. Yes, I am referring to Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels. Help me to understand this. Madea?! Madea. Really?!

Now, mind you, I have had to make sense of Madea for myself. Clearly, black people are underrepresented in cinema. Elderly black women, especially. Church going women as well. I get it. There is an emotional connection to the “idea” of Madea that black people may be responding to. Unfortunately, it is hyperbolic and exaggerated. Kind of like Precious, but, the opposite. I’ve watched Tyler Perry’s stage shows on youtube. Only because I needed to understand what people were watching. Okay, I get it. Where in American culture, are you going to hear someone crooning Vandross or Phil Perry? There is an emotional connection, a validation of experience in Tyler Perry’s work that folks can’t get elsewhere.

And, I believe in freedom of expression. So, here’s mine. We have to expect better. We have to do better. We have to stop making a joke out of black women. We have to stop looking at black women as the shrew. Which is what Oprah was in the butler. Oprah was in a Tennessee Williams play while everyone else was in the movie ‘The Butler’. Oprah appears to be angling so hard for an Oscar that she cut off from the rest of the cast and did her own thing. The moments where she showed serious chops were when she was in step with the cast.

Oprah was in a film where the two lead black women were foul (although Yaya DaCosta was a beautiful representation of a black woman from that period). Lee, ultimately, maligned Yaya’s character. He built up this amazing black woman only to undercut all that he had done in one, ridiculous, moment. The two women then go on to detest one another. The black men in the film, however, take care of each other.

Honestly, the best thing about ‘The Butler’, well, other than Forest Whitaker’s sublime performance, was the camaraderie of the black men. That was a thing of beauty. And, it was good to see a relationship between a black man and a black woman that unfolded over time. But, honestly, for most of the film, I wondered why the butler was with such a, glaringly, haunted woman. It made no sense. Oprah’s character could have been sister to the mother in Precious. Did Oprah and Mo’nique share the same acting coach? Oprah has gifts that are unique to her that were not called upon. Oprah’s charm, wit and intellect are her light. Blinded by trinkets like ‘The Oscar’, we got regurgitated Mo’nique.

Why is Oprah supporting these “filmmakers” who have shown very little respect for black women? Is the dream of ‘the Oscar’ and the cash flow all that important? Perhaps it is. As Oprah stated, she still has dreams. One of them, it seems, is to get an Oscar. And, let me tell you, these black folks are going to get that Oscar if it kills them. Even if they have to pay for it. That’s cool, that’s the marketplace. But, in the midst of the journey, can we show some love to black women? Oprah knows our story. Oprah is aware of the particular pains that black women experience. Is it fair to burden her with “proper representation”? No, I am not asking for that. I love drama. I love haunted characters. I believe in exalted drama. It is possible to work with people who write the hell out of the black experience with sensitivity and depth. Find them! Ms. Winfrey, have a black woman write the Henrietta Lacks story because NO ONE, NO ONE, will write her life like a black woman writer. A black woman who understands what it is to be violated in the most intimate regions of our being.

Recently, a friend sent a video interview to me. In the interview, Oprah asks Tyler Perry (of all people), “Why is it, that you think, Hollywood doesn’t see a consistent space for roles for black women?”  The real question is, why don’t you two see a consistent space for talented black women writers and filmmakers? That’s the question. Why aren’t you all employing and lifting us up?! Black women will flock to the theaters if Oprah began to create portraits of black women that sing us true. The way to make this happen is to hire black women to tell our fucking stories. And, if you don’t know where to find us ask Lee Daniels, he knows.

As we prepare for the 50th anniversary of the ‘March on Washington’ let us all remember, ain’t nobody cared about the butler or the woman cleaning the toilets -for generations. The Black 1% has to learn to lift up all black folks -not just the ones whose stories have the potential to garner an Oscar or a bright new shiny lamp.


Follow Tanya Steele on Twitter at @digtanya. Or on facebook at Or visit

Article Appears in Shadow and Act

The Oscars, Quvenzhané & The C-Word

The Oscars, Quvenzhané & The C-Word

  on Feb 26, 2013

By Tracy Clayton



I watched every piece of the Oscars Sunday night, from pre-shows to the very end, which means that I was in front of my television for roughly 23 hours.  My viewing experience began in anger and fury, and it ended the very same way.  And thanks to some despicable behavior from the internet, that anger and fury is persisting hours after the show has ended.

It began when I heard Ryan Seacrest say that “they” (meaning, I assume, he and his E! red carpet cohorts) had decided to call Quvenzhané Wallis, the 9-year-old dynamo nominated for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild, “Little Q” instead of her actual name.  Here’s a quick breakdown of the problems with this:

1.  That isn’t her name.
2.  To my knowledge, neither Quvenzhané nor her family OK’d this nickname.
3.  That nickname wasn’t given to her out of love or adoration; it was given out of discomfort and a need to control what they deemed as “other” in society.

Naming and names are important because they are entwined in our identities and the ownership of us and our bodies.  We name things that belong to us.  We name our children.  We name our pets.  We name our cars and our plants and our stuffed animals and even our hair.  The act of naming and/or re-naming something is absolutely about power and control, and this is something that slave owners knew very well–a standard practice in “seasoning” and “breaking” a slave was assigning them Anglo-Saxon names.  This established that those men and women were, without a doubt, property of their purchasers, and completely severed them from the identities they knew.  Further, the names that were assigned to enslaved black men and women were often diminutive versions of common names–Billy instead of William; Donnie instead of Donald.  These were verbal reminders that you were not a whole man or a whole woman, that you were not fully human.  And when that wasn’t enough, they were stripped of those names and called “boy” or “gal,” because acknowledging a person’s self-approved name is to acknowledge the humanity in someone.

This is still the function of naming, and precisely why the insistence on not learning how to prounounce Quvenzhané’s name is so problematic and outright offensive.

The erasure of Quvenzhané’s name is an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to step around and contain her blackness.  Yes, sometimes black people have names that are difficult to pronounce.  There aren’t many people of European descent named Shaniqua or Jamal.  Names are as big a cultural marker as brown skin and kinky hair, and there has long been routine backlash against both of those things (see: perms, skin bleaching creams, etc.).   This insistence on not using Quvenzhané’s name is an extension of that “why aren’t you white?” backlash.

Calling Quvenzhané “Little Q” is a lazy way to keep from having to deal with the discomfort that race causes.  It is easier to be colorblind, to simply turn a blind eye to the differences that have torn this nation apart for centuries than it is to wade through those choppy waters.  And Quvenzhané’s very existence is enough to make the societal majority uncomfortable.  She is talented, successful, beautiful, happy, loved, and adored–all things that many people don’t figure that little black girls with “black” names could, or should, be.  Their answer?  Let’s make her more palatable.  If she insists on not fitting the mold of the ghetto hoodrat associated with women with “urban” names, let’s take her own urban name away from her.

Refusing to learn how to pronounce Quvenzhané’s name says, pointedly, you are not worth the effort.  The problem is not that she has an unpronounceable name, because she doesn’t.  The problem is that white Hollywood, from Ryan Seacrest to the AP reporter who decided to call her “Annie” rather than her real name, doesn’t deem her as important as, say, Renee Zellwegger, or Zach Galifinakis, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, all of whom have names that are difficult to pronounce–but they manage.  The message sent is this:  you, young, black, female child, are not worth the time and energy it will take me to learn to spell and pronounce your name. You will be who and what I want you to be; you be be who and what makes me more comfortable.  I will allow you to exist and acknowledge that existence, but only on my terms.


– See more at:

The Limitations of Rebellion in “Django Unchained” l

The Limitations of Rebellion in “Django Unchained”

Jennifer Epps's picture
by Jennifer Epps | February 24, 2013

The spirited antebellum western Django Unchained is nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, and it could win for Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay and for Christoph Waltz’s supporting performance as bounty-hunter Dr. King Schultz. (It has won in these categories at the Golden Globes and at the BAFTAs.) Indeed, the script is clever and compelling, with moments that induce giddy delight – like the fact that a notorious, lethal plantation is ironically named “Candieland”, and like the way Django makes known that “the ‘d’ is silent” in his name. These are interwoven with scenes of gripping, slowly-mounting tension. Also, it is true that Waltz is endlessly enjoyable as a wryly articulate, understated assassin. Though not nominated, Jamie Foxx also adds a great deal to the film’s strengths, being undeniably charismatic as the proud, sharp-shooting titular slave who turns the tables on his oppressors, while Leonardo DiCaprio steps outside his normal range of positive role models and portrays cruel, wrathful plantation owner Calvin Candie with surprising gusto. And in a classic, inspired bit of Tarantino casting, Don Johnson puts in a cameo as a genteel, paternalistic slave-owner (whose minions carry out the brutal side of slave-owning while he dresses in white).

There is much that the movie does very well. Most importantly, the fact that Django single-handedly takes on the apparatus of slavery feels thrillingly subversive. Django’s resourcefulness, strength, and sense of dignity are immensely appealing. Though there has been much controversy over Tarantino’s prolific use of the n-word (110 times during the movie, it is reported) the iconography of a heroic, brooding Django who simmers with moral outrage until the time is right to boil over is ultimately much stronger than the word is. We are all encouraged to identify with the iconic, brave Django, to want to be like him, to leave the theater thinking “I am Django” — to paraphrase the famous “I am Spartacus” line in Dalton Trumbo’s 1960 slave revolt epic.

But as political philosophy, Django Unchained is the opposite of Spartacus. Tarantino is fully committed to the Western movie trope of the stoic lone gunfighter. His hero, like the Western archetype, faces down a horde of villains, dispenses justice, and then, ever self-sufficient, rides off into the picturesque sunset. In this case, he takes his beloved (Kerry Washington), but it is still likely that they are going to live on the edge of society. For one thing, Django’s going to have to go into hiding after all he has done.

Though Tarantino shows plenty of horrors in the system of slavery, making it clear that power over other human beings was maintained by savage violence, he celebrates the rugged individualist principles of the Western genre above all; when Django and his lady ride off together, it doesn’t seem to matter to them that, in the larger world, that system is still in place and slaves all over the South are still suffering.

Tarantino really has no interest in the collective action that forms the backbone of the slave revolt in the sword-and-sandal epic Spartacus. None of the slaves inDjango are inspired by the titular character to throw off their own chains. (An astonished chain-gang at the beginning of Django does decide to gain freedom by killing the slave-trader transporting them, but it is white Dr. Schultz who gives them that option.) Instead, pampered house slaves continue business as usual even after their master is gone; when they do eventually flee, it is because Django forces them to – and they look just as foolish running in their layers of petticoats as the landed gentry would. The slave women of Candieland are almost all depicted as courtesans – they dislike seeing male slaves murdered in front of them, but like gangsters’ molls, they accept it with an averted glance. Even the talented Washington is in the movie just to motivate Django with her beauty and fragility; her dialogue consists almost entirely of shrieking and crying over her abuses by whites. Though she is described as willful, we never get to see her will in action. She just waits passively and admiringly while Django wages his “unconventional and asymmetrical warfare” alone.

Understandably, Django cares more about his wife than he does about other slaves. His romantic quest to rescue her provides an urgent throughline to the movie, and is overtly likened to the German legend of Siegfried and Brunhild. But this mission also brings out a kind of selfishness in Django. His first use of his new freedom is to strike back against wicked plantation overseers who are whipping a young female slave, but Schultz warns him that his wrath isn’t strategic. If he’s going to save his Brunhild, he has to play it cool and make sure he doesn’t cause trouble, no matter what he sees done to his brethren in front of him. In essence: to get what he wants for himself and his wife, Django has to betray his race. (It is worth noting that Schultz the reserved diplomat isn’t constrained by the same caution. When he explodes in moral indignation, Django and Broomhilda are on the threshold of freedom, and he recklessly destroys their chances.)

Spike Lee took issue with Django Unchained sight unseen because he didn’t think Tarantino could present slavery with sufficient gravitas. In my opinion, the fact that Tarantino tackled such a serious subject actually ought to be applauded, since it shows some personal growth, but it’s true that all that Tarantino panache and effervescence really ends up just in the service of entertainment, of mere diversion. And this is not too much of a surprise considering who made the film.

It was during Pulp Fiction that I began to suspect that Tarantino was not going to be the kind of director he seemed to be in Reservoir Dogs. When hit men John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson were talking and a loose gesture with a pistol accidentally killed their back-seat passenger – and the audience guffawed – it occurred to me that Tarantino might not be interested in using his gifts, which are obviously prodigious, for a very serious purpose. And I realized that I couldn’t relate to the way he found movie violence so supremely amusing. Little did I know how high the body count would climb as his career went on.

The complexity and intensity of the bond between the Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth characters in Reservoir Dogs had been deeply moving – at the time, it seemed like Tarantino was going to make movies about human beings. It’s true that Pulp Fiction also had some of those strong relationships between characters – its assets weren’t only its boldness, wit, sense of fun, and structural ingenuity. By Kill Bill,however, he seemed to lose interest in genuine characters and in the human condition. He seemed more intrigued by aerodynamics (of bullets, swords, etc.) than by psychodynamics.

And so he ends up with Django Unchained, a film about an enduring American shame – and a film that frequently lacks insight. The bounty-hunter subplot aligns the picture early on with the Western genre; conveniently hooks Dr. Schultz up with Django; and provides a slave, who would otherwise have no marksmanship opportunities, with the training he needs to become an avenger. It also lets Tarantino have scenes of violence in the pre-plantation half of the movie without alienating audience sympathy from Schultz. This erudite German calmly announces himself as “an officer of the court” and assures us and whoever on-screen will listen that the people he kills deserve to die because it has been so decreed. Schultz comes across as a good guy, an enlightened free-thinker – he abhors slavery, he is willing to share Django’s quest to liberate Broomhilda from bondage, and he knows that novelist Alexandre Dumas’ grandmother was an Afro-Caribbean slave. But he also seems to have absolute trust in law and order, far beyond his appreciation of the money he collects from bounties. The movie doesn’t contradict this faith, either; while being trained as a sniper, Django dispatches, from a great distance, a farmer peacefully sowing his fields — because he is a ‘wanted man’. It looks not unlike a drone strike, but neither Django nor Schultz have any misgivings about whether the ‘intelligence’ on him is accurate.

This is odd, since Tarantino otherwise shows the society to be fundamentally corrupt and unjust. Not only did the society consider some human beings property, it was also rife with many other examples of oppression — unmentioned in the film — such as a centuries-long genocide against Native Americans; the disenfranchisement of women, slaves, and wage laborers; and a system that abused the workforce while it bucked up the railroad and mining companies. It is unlikely that those laws which Schultz prosecutes with such reasonableness and deadly aim were only used to target legitimate criminals like stagecoach robbers. Considering how much of the process was conducted behind closed doors – and how unequal the criminal justice system is even now, when it operates in relative sunlight – one can assume those ‘dead or alive’ warrants were issued, at least occasionally, in order to entrench the existing power structure. But credulity in the bounty-hunter’s legitimacy helps mark the film as a Western. The fact that the genre may have really been propaganda for the U.S.’ westward expansion, for the overpowering of those people who stood in the way (such as Native Americans and Mexicans) and the subjugation of the wilderness, doesn’t seem to bother Tarantino. He loves movies so much, he is tickled by them in such a pure, fan-like way, that it would actually be hard to imagine him coming from a more critical theoretical perspective.

But this issue is nothing compared to Candie’s right-hand man Stephen, a shuffling, obsequious ‘Uncle Tom’ played by Samuel L. Jackson, and a character criticized by many in the blogosphere as an offensive stereotype. I’m not sure that ‘stereotype’ is the right word, however, since Stephen is far from servile underneath his bent-over posture; he in fact turns out to be a power-hungry manipulator who relishes sitting in Candie’s armchair, calmly warming brandy in a glass for himself while he reveals to Candie what he has discovered about Django. He’s not one-dimensional, he’s actually deceptive; he’s a collaborator or colluder who loves to be on the winning side. Moreover, as the story proceeds, he becomes more and more eager to inflict pain on the powerless. His obsession seems to be to beat down anyone who dares raise their head.

Tarantino never asks why Stephen is like this. Is he so molded by his enmeshed relationship with his owner that he has developed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome emotional dependency? It’s hard to believe that, no matter how emotional he seems over Candie, since we’ve already seen him swiftly and slyly change tones. Is he so circumscribed in his own life that he has become an unthinking rule-enforcer? Again, there’s a sadistic gleam in his eye which belies this; he doesn’t seem panicked by Django’s liberated attitude, but merely full of hate. Is Stephen so proud and committed to doing his job well that he’ll vigilantly protect Candie from all blows, even threats which emanate from his own people? (A precedent for a character like that exists in Alec Guinness’ British colonel, a prisoner-of-war who loses perspective in The Bridge on the River Kwai.) But if he were delusional that way, you’d think that he’d whole-heartedly embrace the decisions of his Mr. and Mrs., not be disappointed when they interfere with his agenda of black-on-black violence.

Fundamentally, Tarantino doesn’t care what makes the head house slave tick. Stephen shows up because a villain is needed in Act 3 and he needs to be worse than the villains who came before; Django needs to go from the frying pain into the fire. Maybe there’s racism behind the portrait of Stephen (it’s worrying that the character’s name has some similarities to a famous black buffoon of early 1930’s films, the persona of ‘Stepin Fetchit’) or maybe Stephen is just a plot contrivance. It’s hard to know, because Django isn’t really about slavery or racism, it’s about Tarantino’s one abiding subject: movies.

He has certainly made no secret of his adoration of the blaxploitation genre. Since he’s such an expert on it, however, one would think he might be more concerned about the arguments that were made at the time against the blaxploitation tidal wave. 50 movies in the genre came out between 1971, when the success of the legitimately revolutionary Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song inspired Hollywood to cash in with a slew of imitations, and the fad’s end in 1975 – and this glut of cheap and quickly made flicks aimed at black audiences led the NAACP, National Urban League, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference to join forces in protest. When Junius Griffin, the head of the Hollywood NAACP, coined the term ‘black exploitation’ in a 1973 article, he called it a “form of cultural genocide.” He lamented the black community’s children being “exposed to a steady diet of so-called black movies that glorify black males as pimps, dope pushers, gangsters and super males with vast physical powers but no cognitive skills.” Perhaps in part because these movies operated outside the mainstream, however, Tarantino the former video store clerk has long been fascinated with them, as if he has discovered a secret. He differs from some other directors – like Peter Bogdonavich and the French New Wave filmmakers who started out by writing forCahiers du Cinéma – artists who embraced what they regarded as old cinematic treasures too, because he is really not a theorist. He doesn’t seem particularly adept at evaluating what the flicks he loves actually mean, or how they fit into a social context; he just gets excited about them. If he were not a director, perhaps he would be a film programmer. In fact, when Django Unchained screened at the repertory cinema he owns in L.A., the New Beverly, it was preceded by an assemblage of trailers for 1970s exploitation movies which he had hand-selected to show the audience some of his influences for the film.

If Tarantino actually was more of a theorist, perhaps he would pay more attention to the fact that for much of the film, Django has to squelch his impulses and allow other slaves to be horrifically murdered in front of him. Though these and similar moments do highlight the barbarism of slavery, at the end of Tarantino’s Grand Guignol opus, the code seems to be: successful revenge cancels out suffering experienced by victims. One can’t help wondering if the violent atrocities against slaves that are included in the film do really exist to condemn the brutality of the culture, or if they serve mainly as strong motivators for the climactic, massively bloody revenge sequence that may be Tarantino’s real aim.

As a paradigm of how to overcome oppression, Django happens to give the worst possible advice, and in an age where our real world is beset by a great many senseless shootings, some of it clearly influenced by on-screen mayhem, one wishes Tarantino had more awareness of what he’s doing. Django runs the danger of encouraging people like Chris Dorner – who, incidentally, saw the film — to believe that a) murder is justified as a response to injustice; b) it is not self-destructive to try to fight on its own terms a historically violent and richly well-equipped power structure; and c) it is nobler to go out in an attention-getting blaze of glory than to actually do painstaking and largely invisible work on the grassroots level.

Django only speaks to whites; he is never seen forming relationships with other slaves (he barely even has one with Broomhilda, despite all the self-conscious romanticism). He may be a rebel, but he’s no revolutionary — he doesn’t bond with others who are oppressed. Though a film about a slave rising up would seem on its face like a left-wing enterprise, Django could just as easily be seen to perpetuate the right-wing mantra that has spread so widely in America: that we are each on our own, that it’s only individual action that is a source of pride, that none of us should identify with any particular caste but should see ourselves as having gotten to where we are purely on our own merits.

Tarantino is in an unusual position because even if all he really wants to do is make movies celebrating B-movies, he is too creative a director and too captivating a writer to operate in counter-culture obscurity. He is instead very much a part of the mainstream – everyone knows his name, more so than they know the names of filmmakers of blandly formulaic fare – and what he puts out there is going to get analyzed. Whether he likes it or not, his films become part of the national conversation. Even if he is constantly signaling that it’s ‘just a movie’, he’s going to fall under fire, sometimes, precisely because he has made ‘just a movie.’

Original Creator of Matrix & Terminator Wins $2.5 Billion In Lawsuit

NOVEMBER 17, 2009

Original Creator of Matrix & Terminator Wins $2.5 Billion In Lawsuit

After a six year dispute, prolific writer and profound spiritualist, Sophia Stewart has received justice for copyright infringement and racketeering and will finally recover damages from the films, The Matrix I, II and III, as well as The Terminator and its sequels. Yes, you heard that correctly – the entire Matrix & Terminator franchises, and her suspected pay off is expected to be the highest in history – an estimated 2.5 billion.

Her case is a true landmark, and far too uncommon as countless creatives are exploited by the snake-like dealings of the movie industry. Here’s a recap of her triumphant journey by way of George2.0:

“Stewart filed her case in 1999, after viewing the Matrix, which she felt had been based on her manuscript, ‘The Third Eye,’ copyrighted in 1981. In the mid-eighties Stewart had submitted her manuscript to an ad placed by the Wachowski Brothers, requesting new sci-fi works.

According to court documentation, an FBI investigation discovered that more than thirty minutes had been edited from the original film, in an attempt to avoid penalties for copyright infringement. The investigation also stated that ‘credible witnesses employed at Warner Brothers came forward, claiming that the executives and lawyers had full knowledge that the work in question did not belong to the Wachowski Brothers.’ These witnesses claimed to have seen Stewart’s original work and that it had been ‘often used during preparation of the motion pictures.’ The defendants tried, on several occasions, to have Stewart’s case dismissed, without success.

Stewart has confronted skepticism on all sides, much of which comes from Matrix fans, who are strangely loyal to the Wachowski Brothers. One on-line forum, entitled Matrix Explained has an entire section devoted to Stewart. Some who have researched her history and writings are open to her story.”

Although it’s long overdue, and buried in large part by the media machine, Stewart has finally received official credit (and hopefully financial settlement by 2009) for her prodigious contributions to both Hollywood, and the world for her ground breaking sagas, both the Matrix & Terminator franchises. Let us hope that this landmark ruling provides a measure of hope for other ripped off screenwriters seeking justice even if only by way of public recognition.

To echo her 2004 victorious press release:

‘The Matrix & Terminator movie franchises have made world history and have ultimately changed the way people view movies and how Hollywood does business, yet the real truth about the creator and creation of these films continue to elude the masses because the hidden secret of the matter is that these films were created and written by a Black woman…a Black woman named Sophia Stewart. But Hollywood does not want you to know this fact simply because it would change history. Also it would encourage our Black children to realize a dream and that is…nothing is impossible for them to achieve!’

We’d like to believe that the justice she received was not in name only, and she is able to reap the benefits of her enormous creative contributions.