Saturday, January 05, 2013

Django Unchained continues Hollywood's sad, shameful legacy of dealing with slavery era

By Marc McDonald

The critical adulation that greets every new movie by Quentin Tarantino is a sad commentary on our culture. Tarantino is an overrated hack who does nothing more than rip off ideas from vastly superior directors from Europe and Asia. He then waters down these ideas and re-works them into movies that are infinitely inferior to the originals. 

Tarantino is hailed as a "daring" and "radical" filmmaker, when in fact his slick, commercial movies are about as daring and radical as a cup of Starbucks coffee. 

Django Unchained, the latest Tarantino film, is receiving universally rave reviews, as well as big box office numbers. It has also drawn controversy (which no doubt has boosted the film's box office -- as controversy always helps shift product). 

I haven't seen Django Unchained and I have no intention of doing so. So why do I already detest this movie and urge my fellow progressives to boycott the film? 

It's because I believe that the American film industry really has no business making mere "entertainment" movies about the slavery era. 

Hell, America has never even honestly confronted this horrific chapter in our history. In fact, we are still in many ways a racist society. (The incredibly vicious right-wing attacks on President Obama over the past few years merely confirm how racist a nation America is to this day). We can try to pretend we've moved beyond racism as a nation -- but we're really just fooling ourselves.

I believe most African-Americans will understand what I'm talking about. But many (if not most) white people won't -- which serves to prove my point. 

Django Unchained has drawn outrage from a number of notable African-Americans, including director Spike Lee. 

"American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western," Lee recently Tweeted. "It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them." 

Lee was right. Slavery was a Holocaust. It was one of the greatest crimes in history. 

Millions of Africans died during the years of slavery. And the slaves who didn't die suffered a fate that was actually worse than death.

They were locked up in chains. They were forced to work long grueling hours for no pay at the barrel of a gun. They were beaten. They were tortured. They were raped. They were bought and sold like cattle. 

Slavery was a horrific crime against humanity. And it was a colossal crime that white America has never honestly confronted. 

Germany killed six million Jews during World War II. But at least that nation has made an effort to try to atone at least a little bit for its crimes. Germany has paid billions of dollars in reparations over the decades. The country has also passed strict laws to try to ensure that the nation never forgets its crime. (For example, denial of the Holocaust is illegal in today's Germany). 

But America has never atoned in any way for slavery. It has never paid reparations. Indeed, America continued to oppress African-Americans long after slavery ended. America brutally oppressed black people via Jim Crow laws, as well as lynchings, and it treated them like second class citizens for many decades. Black people couldn't even vote in the Deep South, all the way up until the 1960s. 

Indeed, Jim Crow still exists in today's America in some ways. The huge numbers of largely low-income black men who are serving long, harsh punishments in prison for nickel-dime petty drug crimes is evidence of that. 

What's particularly nauseating about today's America is that so many white people continue to be racist, but deny it. 

You've met these people yourself. They include your right-wing brother-in-law who rails against "lazy blacks collecting welfare" while you're trying to enjoy your Thanksgiving meal. These are the people who bizarrely believe white people are somehow the victims of racism these days. They also believe that no black person was ever mistreated in America after 1865. 

I know a number of these people. They all listen to Rush Limbaugh's racist spewings. And yet they deny that Rush is racist in any way. Indeed, these are people who privately and routinely use the "N" word (and then publicly declare that they're not racist). 

I have nothing but contempt for such people. In fact, I actually have more respect for old-school bigots who were at least upfront about their racism. I'd actually prefer a racist who is at least honest enough to openly use the "N" word and express his hatred for black people. I'll take a bigot like that any day over a typical Limbaugh listener who carefully dances around the "N" word and then denies his racism. 

Slavery was a horrific crime. It is not something that America should be using as a topic for mere entertainment in another of Tarantino's overrated films. 

It's a sad commentary on just how abysmal the art of cinema is these days that a mediocrity like Tarantino gets the time of day. 

And yet critics line up to kiss Tarantino's ass. They over-analyze and over-intellectualize his films. They read a great deal of Deep Meaning into his movies. 

But Tarantino doesn't deserve such critical devotion. 

For example, consider all the critical commentary and analysis that has been prompted by Tarantino's heavy usage of the "N" word in all of his movies. 

Actually, there's no mystery to Tarantino's love of the "N" word. It's nothing more than a crutch to prop up his overrated, weak scripts. The fact is, the "F" word no longer packs a punch, because of over-usage. But the "N" word still does pack a punch. It's still "controversial." 

Anyone who thinks there's any Deeper Meaning to Tarantino's heavy usage of the "N" word is kidding themselves. 

Critics also constantly praise Tarantino for being a "daring" and "risk-taking" director. But this is nonsense. There is absolutely nothing daring and risk-taking about Tarantino. True risk-taking directors don't enjoy movies that have blockbuster worldwide box office of over $300 million (like Tarantino's last film, Inglourious Basterds, did). 

Speaking of Inglourious Basterds, that film revealed just how full of crap those who champion Tarantino as a risky, daring director are. 

If Tarantino were really a brave director wanting to make a war movie, he would have tackled the Iraq War. That whole evil, rotten enterprise would have been a perfect target for any director who wanted to make an edgy, risky film. 

In taking on the Iraq War, Tarantino could have poked a finger in the eye of the whole jingoistic Fox News / neocon crowd who cheered the nation into war and who ferociously attacked anyone who dared question their beloved commander-in-chief. (We saw a glimpse of the latter when the Dixie Chicks made what was actually a very mild criticism of George W. Bush and received an avalanche of neocon hatred and death threats as a result.) 

Yes, the Iraq War would have been a logical target for any U.S. film director who wanted to make an edgy, brave, risky statement. 

So which war did Tarantino target in his movie? World War II. 


Like there haven't already been enough films about World War II. 

Of course, with Django Unchained, Tarantino is simply following in the footsteps of other Hollywood directors who have a shameful track record of films set in the slavery era. 

After all, Hollywood has almost always been dishonest and cowardly when approaching the subject of slavery. 

Take, for example, the very first Hollywood feature film ever made: D.W. Griffith's sad, shameful The Birth of a Nation. This was an outrageously racist film that depicted African American men as stupid and as extremely sexually aggressive towards white women. The film also glorified the Ku Klux Klan.
Hollywood's other big blockbuster set in the slavery era, Gone With the Wind, was hardly much better. This was a film that glamorized the old Deep South. Slaves were shown happily singing, laughing, dancing and enjoying a colorful agrarian lifestyle. It was a grotesque distortion of the realities of slavery. 

In reducing the horrors of slavery to mere entertainment, Tarantino is carrying on a sad tradition for Hollywood (and indeed American society in general) in refusing to honestly confront America's own Holocaust. It would be impossible to imagine, say, Germany making a similar film about the Jewish Holocaust. 

I can hear the Tarantino defenders already, though. "But it's just entertainment!" they'll say. 

The problem is that slavery is simply too horrific a crime to be the topic of a movie made for mere entertainment (particularly coming from a white film director). White America has never honestly confronted this horrific crime. 

If Hollywood is to ever properly tackle the slavery era, it needs to do so with a respectful, dignified Schindler's List type film (preferably made by an African-American director). What we don't need is an profane, cartoonish, overrated Tarantino ripoff of a Sergio Leone film.

(Cross-posted at BeggarsCanBeChoosers.)

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  • You haven't even seen the movie, you have no idea how ignorant you sound when you pass judgement on a film that you haven't seen. How can you be taken seriously? And comparing the holocaust to slavery? Are you kidding me? Not only did Hitler slaughter 6 million Jews, he also killed another 6 million Catholics, homosexuals, gypsies, and Russian POWs. These are two very different situations that I think you should do further research on before trying to draw comparisons

    And after seeing Django myself I didn't feel like slavery was glorified or even made too look as if it weren't so bad, hell no! It only reinforced what I already knew to be a horrific time in our past. And at the end of the day, it is just a movie, it'll be a big hit for a year maybe and then people will forget about it, and your crusade against Tarantino will be forgotten too

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:05 PM  

  • Might I remind you, Hitler's horrors came to an end with the end of WWII, having lasted less than a decade.
    Black slavery was practiced on the North American continent for over 100 years.

    By Blogger Bronxboy47, at 4:10 PM  

  • I don't think there's any doubt that slavery was a kind of holocaust and that a comparison like this is appropriate.

    Furthermore, Marc's point is that slavery shouldn't be turned into Hollywood entertainment of the awful kind that Tarantino produces.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 12:18 AM  

  • The Jewish Holocaust was a horrific crime against humanity. I think everyone understands that.

    However, it's important to remember that millions of Africans died as a result of slavery. And, as I pointed out in the piece, it's clear that life as a slave was clearly a fate worse than death.

    The fact that many white Americans today would dispute this indicates to me that we as a nation have never really honestly confronted the holocaust that was slavery.

    But that's not really surprising to me. America has never honestly confronted its crimes, from the genocide of Native Americans to the Iraq War, which slaughtered over 1 million Iraqi men, women and children civilians.

    But of all our nation's crimes, I think the crimes against African-Americans rank at the top of the list as far as crimes we've never honestly confronted.

    Take the so-called "spectacle lynching era" of the late 1800s. The vast majority of Americans remain completely ignorant of the horrific crimes that occurred during that era.

    I consider myself a very well-informed, well-read progressive. And yet when I read Philip Dray's "At the Hands of Persons Unknown," I realized how little I really knew about the lynching era. Frankly, that's one of those books that has made me ashamed to be an American.

    It's not just Tarantino I have a problem with. I'm sick to death of Hollywood whitewashing America's crimes against humanity.

    By Blogger Marc McDonald, at 1:06 AM  

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