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Django doesn’t make light of slavery (and random other thoughts)

I've been reading a lot of news stories (and, unfortunately, comments as well) about Tarantino's newest film, Django, and here are some of my random thoughts.

Race

First of all, I'm a big admirer of Spike Lee, but he admittedly has not seen (and refuses to see) Django, so his opinion on the film shouldn't be a huge news story. There are also seem to be a number of news outlets misreporting Lee as mainly objecting to the use of a certain six-letter racial slur in the movie instead of objecting to the movie being a spaghetti Western, and thus disrespectful to his ancestors. In the past, Lee has objected to Tarantino's overuse/misuse of that racial slur, but the tweet in question refers mainly to Django possibly making light of slavery.

Unlike Spike Lee, I have seen the movie, and I can assure you that it takes slavery very seriously. There exist funny moments in the movie, but no one in the theater laughed at slaves being whipped, branded, or torn apart by dogs. No one laughed at Django and Broomhilda being auctioned off separately. Those moments were sobering and deadly silent ones among the audience members I watched the film with (racially mixed and predominantly white).

Are there silly moments in the film? Sure. But it isn't a silly movie. The movie is a weird hodgepodge (as most Tarantino films are) of intense drama, light comedy, silly action, and graphic violence. Does Reservoir Dogs make light of ear dismemberment because there's also a funny moment when Mr. Pink explains why he doesn't tip at restaurants? No.

What I would contend is that this film is probably one of the least racist films I've ever seen a white man direct (The Negotiator is also not that racist, but a black man directed it). How many films have you seen from Hollywood in which the black guy is the main character, the white guy the sacrificial sidekick, and most of the other white people in the film villains? Where are all the people complaining about Amistad or The Blind Side? How many movies have we seen get virtually no press for being racist that are actually racist? If you see another movie in which the black actor's sole purpose in the film is to help the white protagonist find himself or win the battle, are you also going to say it's racist and disrespectful? I hope so. If you see another movie that's supposedly about black people but is really about how some nice white person lifted the black person up from poverty and ignorance, are you also going to say it's racist and disrespectful? I hope so. Who, apart from the Asian American community, spoke up about the yellowface in Cloud Atlas? How many times have we been told "it's just a movie" or "it's just entertainment" when Hollywood movies depict non-whites negatively?

I'm actually quite proud of Tarantino. I remember watching Inglorious Basterds and thinking to myself "Yeah, people seem cool with Jews killing Hitler, but when will there be a movie about black slaves killing white slave owners?" Little did I know that was Tarantino's next project.

Gender

There's been a lot of focus in the mainstream press about race in the movie, and very little about gender. The movie barely passes the Bechdel Test (I think Miss Candie asks Broomhilda to speak German). Regardless, the women in the movie are basically useless props. Broomhilda is a totally helpless maiden, as badly fleshed out a character as any Disney 1950s princess (Mulan and Belle have more depth). Miss Candie and her female slaves all have very little to no personality or depth. I understand in the deep South of the mid-19th century women didn't have a lot of power. That's fine. Does that mean they also have to be totally devoid of personality or feelings?

Guns

The other thing I thought about while watching the film was the whole gun control debate. There was a lot of shooting in the movie, lots of bloodshed. What's more interesting, though, are all the times the camera does a close-up on Django reaching for his gun when he gets upset, and then deciding not to use it. The gun, as the movie portrays it, is an easy way to kill lots of people without thinking about it. Without spoiling the movie with exact details, there's another character who compulsively shoots someone else, and it wasn't necessarily a good idea. At another point in the movie, a character rigs a building to blow up. The rigging took a lot of time and setup. It was deliberate and planned. A lot of the shooting comes from impulse.

This reminds me of a normally politically conservative former co-worker of mine, who surprised me by telling me he didn't think people should have guns. He used to own guns. But he said one time he got really angry at someone he was driving behind (ye olde road rage), and he was very glad to not have his gun with him, because he said he probably would have taken it out and shot the other driver. That compulsion frightened him.

I think that component of "the gun" is often missing from all the gun control debates. Yes, you can blow people up with fertilizer or crash a plan into a building using a box cutter. Those methods of destruction require a lot of planning and forethought. If you happen to be angry and have a gun nearby, you can go on a rampage without thinking the whole thing through.

I remember the debates a couple of years ago in San Francisco about the Golden Gate Bridge nets. Many people thought it was stupid to have nets. The logic went "If these people want to kill themselves, they'll kill themselves. If it's not jumping off a bridge, it'll be something else." I get that logic. In fact, that's what I thought, too, until I kept reading more letters to The San Francisco Chronicle and also watched the documentary The Bridge. Yes, someone who's completely determined to kill herself or himself will find a way to do so. But many people who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge (or any bridge) just have a suicidal compulsion at that moment (they may be depressed in general but not determinedly suicidal). The bridge being closed or a net being in place may stop those people from making a stupid mistake.

Just some random thoughts I had that I didn't see in a lot of the mainstream media or even the blogosphere.

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Cinema Rewriting History

Spoiler Warning: If you want to eventually see Avatar or Inglorious Bastards, I reveal plot details here.

There has been quite a bit written about James Cameron’s Avatar. Here are two examples:
Annalee Newitz’s “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?”
Ariel Boone’s “Avatar: Count the ‘isms'”

I get it. I understand all the racial, imperialistic, and gender issues with Avatar. I knew all that stuff going in. And, you know what? It didn’t bother me that much. I was actually able to enjoy the movie, despite the “White guilt” sign that practically flashed on the screen every other scene.

What I find interesting, though, is Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards. In it, there’s quite a serious rewrite of history, in which a Jewish woman, whose family is killed by the Nazis, is able to destroy the leadership of the Nazi party, and a rebel American group gets to carve the Swastika symbol on the foreheads of other Nazis so that they can’t later pretend they had nothing to do with the Holocaust. A nice, quaint rewrite of history, just as James Cameron’s Avatar says “Oh, wouldn’t it have been nice if one of the White settlers in the Americas could have led the Native Americans in revolt against the other evil White people, and the noble savages could keep the land pure and untainted by technology and corporate interests?” Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards says “Oh, wouldn’t it have been nice if we got all those Nazis, and if the Jews themselves could have given the Nazis a taste of their own medicine?” The cinema itself becomes a kind of gas chamber for Nazi leadership.

No one in the theater I saw it in was horrified. People were cheering. Everyone seemed to enjoy the film. I enjoyed the film. But I wonder… if Quentin Tarantino had decided to make a movie in which Black slaves in the American South in the 18th or 19th century violently revolted against their masters and lynched those White slave owners, would (predominantly White) American audiences still cheer? After all, those White people aren’t you, right? For many White people in America, those slave owners aren’t even their ancestors. And for those White Americans who did have slave owning ancestors, do you think about how the descendants of Nazis feel watching Inglorious Bastards?

Maybe I’m guessing wrong. Maybe American audiences would give it the same kind of reception. Maybe it would, as Avatar seems to do, soothe some White liberal guilt. Maybe James Cameron’s next movie will feature John Brown leading a successful slave revolt at Harpers Ferry. I just haven’t seen anyone discuss this angle when talking about Inglorious Bastards. For those of you who’ve seen both films, what did you think? Is there a connection between the two? How did you think about them sociologically?

P.S. I don’t really dig White liberal guilt. I am a non-White liberal (very liberal when it comes to race, gender, politics, etc.). If White filmmakers want to make a real change, a great start would be making more films that feature Asian American, Latino, and Native American (both female and male) protagonists (no reason to have foreign-sounding accents, either). The White straight male protagonist with a supporting cast of women, geeky men, non-Whites, and possibly a gay person approach has been done… and overdone, way overdone in Hollywood movies.