Previous Joints

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Django and Bullshit

I’m a huge fan of Spike Lee. In fact, fan is an understatement - I consider him a hero. To top it off, he’s an Arsenal fan. I say this to make it clear that I get no pleasure out of saying anything negative about the man. But his criticism of Django is straight up bullshit:

 “I can’t speak on it ’cause I’m not gonna see it. The only thing I can say is,it’s disrespectful to my ancestors, to see that film.” – Spike Lee
How? The fact that a white man has directed a film which uses the word ‘nigger’ liberally? I know that Spike has had a long time beef with QT, but this particular nit he chose pick is a bug too far. The greatest television show of my time, The Wire, also uses the word ‘nigger’ like it’s the word ‘a’ or ‘and’. In The Wire, not only is the word used by black characters, but like most of QT’s films, it’s used by white people as well. Not only white people, but white “Poh-Leece” - just to add insult to injury. Now as far as I or my Google searches know, Spike has no beef whatsoever with The Wire, the way it uses racial profanity or, for that matter, its two snow white creators. In fact,he’s a fan of this great piece of television work.

Now, I maybe simplifying Spike Lee’s and others who have a race based argument against Django Unchained, but I have a real problem with hypocrisy, especially when it comes from my own (black) camp. How can you wild-out against something you haven’t experienced? How do you know that it is disrespectful to your ancestors?


This is the point where I stop concentrating on Spike Lee as I already feel uneasy. Instead I’m going to concentrate my erk at a man I have no problem disliking – Tavis Smiley.

Every time I’ve heard Tavis Smiley speak, I’ve wanted to smack something. He’s the type of public figure that begs to be taken seriously, not only by the American black public, but by black people full stop - but every time he has said anything black related, I’ve wanted to disagree with him, even if he I agreed with his general point. I’m sure everyone has one – but he’s that one quasi-famous person that I just can’t stand.


Tavis Smiley gave one of the most maddening interviews I have ever read, period, for The Daily Beast about Django Unchained. In this interview, he pretty much echo’s Lee saying he hasn’t seen Tarantino’s film, but goes on to savage it as if he has. It’s pretty shameful.

There is a rotten insincerity that infects his words and I’m not sure he even knows it:

 "I’m troubled that Hollywood won’t get serious about making an authentic film about the holocaust of slavery but they will greenlight a spoof about slavery, and it’s as if this spoof about slavery somehow makes slavery a bit easier to swallow. The suffering of black people is not reducible to revenge and retribution. The black tradition has taught the nation what it means to love. Put it another way: black people have learned to love America in spite of, not because of, so if the justification for the film in the end is, as Jamie Foxx’s Django says, “What, kill white people and get paid for it? What’s wrong with that?”­ well again, black suffering is not reducible to revenge and retribution. "Tarantino even went on the record saying Roots was inauthentic. First of all, Tarantino is not a historian. When people see his film who don’t have any understanding of history, they take it as history, because Tarantino passes himself off as a historian by declaring Roots inauthentic, and then goes on to make the “authentic” story about slavery. It doesn’t tell the truth about what the black contribution to this country has been. Tarantino has the right to make whatever films he wants to make. What he’s not entitled to is his own set of facts and to lecture black people about the inauthenticity of an iconic, game-changing series like Roots. I don’t take kindly to white folk like Tarantino lecturing black folk about their history. That’s just unacceptable. Tarantino is absolutely exhausting." - Tavis Smiley

There is a hint of a reasonable point in there somewhere. African American’s have a wonderful history of forgiving but not forgetting one of the worst injustice known in human history, slavery – but he’s assuming that the majority of black people are not aware that Django Unchained IS NOT REAL. I’m pretty certain that I and most other black cinema goers are aware that Django is, indeed, fiction and does not set out to be a dramatisation of history. No matter how much Tavis would like us to believe that Tarantino believes his films are a historical lesson, he doesn’t and importantly, WE (black folks) DON’T.

And here is the thing. I don’t understand what is so controversial about the Django line about “killing white folk”. Every time I've heard this line used to criticise the movie, it’s used to suggest that somehow the general public will believe that all black people secretly feel this way (we really don't by the way. You're safe). What pisses me off most is the suggestion Tavis and other critics make that it was beyond the realm of possibility that, way back when, a slave in Django’s position would have said and felt the same way. Almost as if a free slave thinking that way was a disgrace.

But it’s the Roots analysis that turns me off totally to Tavis' argument. Here’s the thing, I read what Quentin and Reginald Hudlin (the black producer of Django) actually said about Roots – a TV series I have watched god knows how many times – and they have a point. QT goes on to qualify his inauthentic claims by highlighting the Roots finale's closing scene where the freed slave, Chicken George, has the opportunity to put a whooping on his former rapist of a owner, in front of his newly freed family. Instead of opening a can of hurt, he chooses to be the “bigger man” and walk away.  That scene and the lack of authentic anger in other instances in Roots is QT’s main beef:

“Bulls--t, no way he becomes the bigger man at that moment. The powers that be during the ’70s didn’t want to send the message of revenge to African-Americans. They didn’t want to give black people any ideas. But anyone knows that would never happen in that situation. And in Django ­Unchained we make that clear.” - Quentin Tarantino

That's a very difficult point to argue against. And although I absolutely adore Roots, there is a Disney-like, Kumbaya feel to the series which has resulted in the series still being respected but not ageing well.


So I’m going to stop beating around the bush and start cutting to the chase. A lot of this criticism from the elite black folks toward Tarantino just stinks and doesn’t add up. It stinks of an us-and-them culture that has developed within the black community.

We will celebrate and defend the achievements of our brothers and sisters that excel in typically white fields, such as Tiger Woods (before the long-ass-cue of white (mostly porn star) women came out of the... erm...woods), the Williams sisters and (Saint)President Barack Obama. And rightly so. But god forbid white folks excelling in traditionally black arena’s – that’s culture stealing, right? You won’t Elvis us again.

In a nutshell, Travis and co wouldn’t have any problems if Django Unchained was made by a black man. I truly believe that – I don’t care how much they say otherwise. There would be no talk of history jacking or of not knowing what is QT’s heart – there would be quite acceptance.

Like I’ve already said, I’ve watched Roots many times and I’ve read the book and what people fail to mention about these seminal pieces of work is that their historical authenticity have been questioned. Also, X is one of my favourite films of all time and Malcolm X’s biography is one of the first books I ever fell in love with, yet both of these work’s historical accuracy has been questioned (go and read Manning Marble’s excellent biography, Malcolm X: A Life of ReInvention). Yet in the case of all of these works, their authors were damn right ambiguous of whether they considered their books/film a piece of historical recounting or whether they should be viewed as piece of fiction. Should I, as a black man, be offended by that?

Well, I’m not.

I take the point that Tavis makes that Hollywood has thrown shade at black film makers and it’s hard for a black director to get a black film made – but I fail to see why this is the fault of Quentin Tarantino.

Bullshit is bullshit, regardless of the skin colour of the person serving out that bulldung.

If you don’t think that a white director has the right to tell a black story in the way it’s told in Django, then fine, say just that, but don’t bullshit the people you claim to be speak for.