The slave In The Corner (the elephant in the room)

Tue, 02.12.2013

The slave In The Corner (the elephant in the room)

What makes The United States of America just as hypocritical in the 21st century, as we were in the 20th and 19th? On one side, we talk about progressing towards a better future: more efficient fuel sources, a safe environment, better opportunities to improve economic standing, and maintaining a healthy life so that we may enjoy old age. On the other side, we continue to burn through natural resources without knowing how long they will last, we do not reprimand those who collude against the country as a whole by engineering economic disparities, and we wind up working ourselves into sickness all the while slipping away from enjoying our friends and family.

Americans have a hard time talking about the truth as of late. In the context of film and entertainment, we cannot allow a simple story to challenge us without setting off some ire of pride that if analyzed, would most likely bring resolve to a vast majority of the population. Currently, the movie “Django Unchained” has brought a lot of opinions to the table. Much of the rhetoric centers on the use of the word “Nigger,” and how it is characterized throughout. Some members of the African American community have refused to see the movie or have announced their dislike for what they view as, a condescending representation of their ancestor’s history. I can imagine that for anyone born prior to 1965, the images and language used in the film might stir long-suppressed experiences and feelings. However, We live in an age where anyone can access biased or unbiased information, instantaneously.  It is hard for things like memes and Facebook posts to go unnoticed, let alone racism and bigotry.

I have seen the movie twice, and as someone who appreciates the art of film and acting, a story like “Django Unchained” comforts me on three levels.

1. First, this movie is unique as only Quentin Tarantino could create. Sure the story is about a ‘Hero’ coming to rescue a ‘Fair Maiden’ but, the backdrop explores an ugly truth about American history. The main character ‘Django’ represents a desire in all of us to live a free life and to what extent we will see that through. In some of our darkest hours, there are people who see what we are going through to obtain happiness, and they wish to help. Even this can be hypocritical in that, the measure of one’s desire to succeed acts as the barometer for the mentor, whose perception of themselves is often reinforced by those who they believe deserve assistance. As adults, we learn quickly that, "It's not so much what you know, but who you know." And while not every story ends in happiness, this film being fiction, the director chose an ending that many of us could believe in… the ‘Hero’ deserves to win, and the villainous oppressors deserve to suffer in the process. In some sense, this is ‘an eye for an eye,” another common hypocrisy that is often put into practice depending on who is seeking justice. Recently, the U.S. government has been hard at work assassinating those they deem terroristic threats to the country. I am not condoning or disapproving the government’s actions at this time, merely illustrating how we pick and choose when to bring someone to trial.

2. Second, by implementing slavery as a backdrop to this work of fiction, the audience receives a sobering tale, which the general history books do not elicit in our schools. One would have to take a few different college courses to obtain such a visceral picture of how this country was built. This is art, imitating life, which has the ability to make people uncomfortable. Although the film’s style is not meant to handle the entire brevity of slavery, there is enough interaction amongst Black and White people to provide a decent overview of the sadistic and condescending attitude that became institutionalized for close to 250 years.  I did not pay to watch a story so serious that it kept me focused on the hardships of America, yet, as an educated man, blending the harsh realities with fictitious characters did help to maintain my interest over the length of this film.

3. Last, the film’s propensity for violence against white people is nothing more than justified punishment for an attitude with which the anti-heroes so highly proclaim amongst their slaves. These god-fearing Christians view their African counterparts as nothing more than animals, whose value can only be measured by their ability to generate revenue.  The fact that a White man intended to make a film that would portray his race as hypocrites, suggests that had a Black person directed this project in a similar fashion, audiences may not have ever had the pleasure. The debate would completely shift, from how Tarantino used the subject matter and the word choice to whether or not a Back director should be putting out such material in the first place. Would Hollywood really have accepted this film from an African American? Would there not be calls for reverse racism as to how White people are ruthlessly portrayed and ultimately killed. And that is hypocrisy at its finest.

The grittier details of the story are liberties of creativity, based on historical reference that will no doubt bother, unnerve, and cringe some viewers. That is something people should already know about Tarantino because his films suggest as much: Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill (Vol. 1 & 2), Grindhouse, Death Proof, and Inglorious Bastards use violence as some bit of panache, which is one of the draws for his storytelling. Even more so, this film is a small homage to ‘Spaghetti Westerns,’ which in some ways is hypocrisy too, due to the term’s origin.  Spaghetti Westerns were associated with the crew (Directors, Composer, Actors) whose roots were mostly from Italy or Spain. It was a derogatory way of describing the sub-genre at the time, which did not equal the ‘Hollywood’ standard for ‘Westerns.’ However, due to the success of many of the films, the term became celebrated.

Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars and the following films in his Dollars trilogy created the Spaghetti Western as a novel kind of Western. In this seminal film, the hero enters a town that is ruled by two outlaw gangs and ordinary social relations are non-existent. He betrays and plays the gangs against one another in order to make money. Then he uses his cunning and inordinate weapons skill to assist a family threatened by both gangs. He is disclosed and severely beaten, but in the end, he again uses cunning and inordinate weapons skills to defeat the remaining gang. The interaction in this story between a mode of cunning and irony (the tricks, deceits, unexpected actions, and sarcasm of the hero) on the one hand, and a mode of pathos (terror and brutality against defenseless people and against the hero after he has been revealed) on the other, was aspired to and sometimes attained by the imitations that soon flooded the cinemas. Just as seminal and imitated was Ennio Morricone's music that expresses a similar duality between quirky and unusual sounds and instruments on the one hand and sacral dramatizing for the big confrontation scenes, on the other. (Wikipedia: Spaghetti Westerns)

Knowing that this film is done in a particular style and that Quentin Tarantino’s previous films celebrate violence, to assume that this story has a moral obligation to portray slavery in a certain manner only begs to ask,  ‘By who’s level of expectation is this movie suppose to live up to?’ Apart from all of that, having viewed the film twice, the only critique I would levy against Tarantino is the number of times the word ‘Nigger’ is used. Still, the director’s previous work only reinforces his choice to use vulgarity so much so that, it becomes a joke in itself. From ‘Pulp Fiction’ to ‘Jackie Brown’ to ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ they all push the boundaries of what many of us consider an appropriate measure of profanity. Less we forget, even refined people used the word (during that time period) to describe the Black race. They had different ideas about what was PC (Politically Correct) back then.

In the end, ‘Django Unchained’ is worth seeing in the theater on a large screen. It does exactly what it was intended to do, which is penetrate your subconscious and cause you to have any number of feelings towards any number of characters, situations, and language used. The sad part of all of this is, it is not the slavery or word choice that is really up for debate. No, it is the hypocrisy that we as a people in the 21st century still have a hard time accepting the truth. That is, we are the hypocrites. America is the biggest offender, and the world knows it. Until we get our house in order, let us stop weighing in so much as to the affairs of others, and maybe then, we can recapture our place on the podium that made this country an immigrant’s dream, to live free or die trying!

by J. Marcus