Whether You Like The Movie Or Not, We Need More Characters Like Django On-Screen

December 27, 2012  |  

When I first saw the trailer for Django Unchained, I just knew that we would be embarking on months of debate–It was just a matter of waiting to see who would start it.

And then Spike Lee said this:

‘‘I can’t speak on it ’cause I’m not gonna see it… All I’m going to say is that it’s disrespectful to my ancestors. That’s just me… I’m not speaking on behalf of anybody else.”

I hear ya, but sorry Spike, as well as those calling for a boycott of the film, because I saw the film opening day. While I can’t speak for the other few dozen or so black folks who saw Django, but a film about a black person taking revenge on an evil slave master sure sounds like a hell of a good time to me. If it is any consolation, I saw it for a discounted price at the matinee and I didn’t get extra butter on my popcorn – although I did have Raisinets…

Not giving too much of the film away, I thought the movie was all right. I give the film points for not following the standard stereotypes, which always seem to befall black characters in cinema. And it was interesting to see a white guy play buddy/sidekick to a black main character for once. However, many of the other characters seemed cartoonish, particularly Leonardo DiCaprio, who at any moment I kind of expected to see twirling his evil, diabolical mustache. And don’t forget Sam Jackson’s character, who was giving us a live action version of Uncle Ruckus from The Boondocks.  And parts of the story, particularly the action scenes and violence, felt rushed and anti-climatic. No shotgun up the butt, à la I Spit on your Grave? No metal rod through the body, as seen in The Woman? Not even a spike bat to the gonads (like Boaw!) as told in an intro to Method Man? This film, which billed itself as a hard-to-watch revenge film, could have been a bit more creative. I mean, the fate of the overseer, who whipped you and your lady to the point of permanent scarring, is in your hands!  Take your time and beat him ’til we can at least see the white meat.

Halfway through Django, I began imagining how different this film might have been had a black writer/director actually made it. But then I started thinking, well, why aren’t we making more films like Django?

In an interview with the Guardian UK, Reginald Hudlin and Quentin Tarantino, co-writers and producers of Django, were very vocal about the passivity, which often arises in stories centered around black enslavement here in America, taking particular issue with the made-for-TV miniseries, Roots, which was based off of the book by Alex Haley. From the article:

 “One thing both men agreed on was a scene in Roots that served as an example of what not to do in Django Unchained. The last act of the final episode features the character Chicken George being given the opportunity to beat his slave master and owner in much the same way he’d been punished and tormented. In the end the character chooses not to so he can be “the bigger man.”
“Bulls–t,” exclaim both Tarantino and Hudlin in unison as they discuss the absurdity of the scene. “No way he becomes the bigger man at that moment,” says Tarantino. “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.”

Considering the repercussions, which were bound to happen to not just you, but anyone of the same hue as you, Hudlin and Tarantino might be indulging in a little Monday morning slave-quarterbacking on that one.  However, I do have to admit to having a visceral reaction to watching Chicken George and his clan knee-slapping, dancing and fiddling their way away from slavery in the last scene. I didn’t feel satisfied or hopeful. I just felt sad.

For some reason, our cinema is passionate about black folks taking the higher road – even if it is an imaginary road.  Even in Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna, a largely fictional story about four black American soldiers fighting Nazis in Italy during World War II, sure they were heroes, but they were heroes who died saving white people from other white people — oh, and in the midst of fighting over a white woman.  And that’s no shade to Lee. After all, he did give us the movie Malcolm X.  But while I am both well-aware and vocal about Hollywood’s misrepresentation of us in film and television, there is something to be said about the kinds of stories we tell ourselves, even when it is not financed by the system.

Over the summer, I showed the first two episodes of Black Panther, the animated series, to a number of neighborhood children at an event I was hosting through work. Basically, the cartoon, which is based off the Marvel comic of the same name, is about a fictional African king of some made up African country, who protects his people from imperialism, colonization and white supremacy. Despite the series being a few years old, this was the first time that any of the children had ever heard of the show – let alone the Black Panther comic strip. Even though the series featured some A-list black actors, the show only ran one season in Australia and was largely unavailable to American audiences. And despite co-producing it with Reginald Hudlin, BET even passed on airing the show for a few years, claiming that it was “too male.” However, watching how engrossed these children were at the series, as well as the collective moan, which occurred when the two episodes finished, I realized the importance of seeing defiant, self-motivated heroes.

It is a bit monotonous seeing ourselves as only victim or somebody else’s martyr. I’m tired of the black man being the first killed in horror films. I’m tired of watching films where the purpose of the black female character is to be the crying shoulder or literally cleaning up the mess of white women.  I’m tired of watching films where black men sacrifice themselves so that the white protagonist can then go on and save the world/share the story/be the hero. Black people have survival instincts too. And most importantly, I’m tired of our only purpose in films being to teach white folks how to love/be peaceful/gain some understanding and practice tolerance. F**k that Green Mile bulls**t. My life is not for the purpose of their self-discovery.

Black people had – and in lots of other ways still continue to have – a moral and political right to rebel. And throughout history, there are plenty of real stories in which we were willing and did resist. Like the 25 enslaved black men armed with guns and clubs, who burned houses and killed nine white folks in New York City; and Gabriel Prosser and his brother Martin, who recruited over a thousand enslaved blacks for a major rebellion in Virginia; and the 300 fugitive black slaves, who fought alongside Native Americans in a battle with U.S. Army troops in Florida; and the Maroons of Jamaica and Surinam; and all the untold stories of the ancestors who escaped through the underground railroad.  We need the younger generation, particularly those caught up in the frays of violence and poverty and dealing with self-esteem issues based around race, to know that in addition to fictional stories about being patriotic soldiers for America’s interest and surviving as the help, we were also were The Spook Who Sat by the Door.

One of the most poignant scenes in the film came actually in the first few minutes, when Dr. King Schultz, who is played by Christoph Waltz, comes upon white slave traders transporting Django as well as half a dozen other enslaved black men to the auction. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that there is a commotion, one of the traders dies and the other is trapped under a horse. After freeing Django, Dr. Schultz turns to the other enslaved black men and give them an option; you can either free the trader from under the horse and carry him back to the nearest town or you could kill him, bury him deep and escape to “one of the fairer parts of the country.”  I’m not going to tell you what the men decided to do, but let’s just say, Chicken George wouldn’t have been fiddling.

A bit of self-referential irony is that without Dr. Schultz’s intervention, Django would have been gone to the slave auction. And probably if it had been anybody else black directing the film, this movie probably would not have been made to begin with. And why is that? I know that there has been talk for a couple of years of a big budget action film based around the life of Toussaint L’ Ouverture, whose slave rebellion sparked the Haitian Revolution. Actor Danny Glover is producing the film, with a little (11 million dollars) assistance from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, and according to the film’s IMDb page, the film is slated for release in 2013. However, in a recent interview, Glover would not give a definite release date, and he admitted that the film, which had names like Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes and Mos Def attached, hasn’t even started shooting. I don’t know what the hold-up is, but when Glover gets that together, I too will be first in line, opening day, with my popcorn and Raisinets. And I’ll even splurge for extra butter.

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