Django Unchained & Tarantino’s Quest for the Nigger Pass

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The following is a two part series that examines Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Part 1 explores Tarantino’s approach to the film, while part 2 will explore the content. I’m writing these articles because media plays a pivotal role in cultural production. Django Unchained has real-world implications.

Both the racial representations in the film and the racialized audience receiving them are mutually constitutive. That is, audiences make active meaning of movies while movies are produced to engender what audiences desire and find relevant. Mathew Hughley “The White Savior Film and Reviewers’ Reception” 478

Legends are stories passed along and accepted as historical. Legends often serve as “myths” because in addition to being historical, these stories also function as a repository of cultural imaginings and practices.

A usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon- Webster

The cultural space of myth-making is a contested landscape. Historically, oppressive regimes have used violence to secure their power, and they like to tell their history as the myth of massacre and domination of powerless (read: inferior) foes. Even today, these same power interests work diligently to erase resistance practiced by marginalized groups, whether in the past or present. Through myths, revolutionary violence becomes an archetype of resistance alongside noncooperation and other nonviolent tactics. As with all archetypes, there is a spiritual significance in resistance myths. There is a sense of kinship and connection to the past as the myth informs marginalized people not just of who they were, but of who they are and who they may become. Each time these myths are told they not only erase the dominant narrative that marginalized people passively accepted subjugation, but the myth also arouses the contemporary revolutionary imagination, thus threatening existing power relations.

Unfortunately, I believe that Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” is a myth that does more harm than good. First, I want to make a few things clear. I have no problem with myths of revolutionary violence, and I don’t automatically object to White people telling and/or experimenting with those stories. In fact, I was very excited about Tarantino’s film until I saw the trailer this past summer.

Upon viewing the trailer, I came to believe that this was not going to be a slave’s revenge (as had been advertised), but was instead just another White savior narrative, this time told in US slavery’s context. I was disappointed. However, had I known Tarantino’s approach to this film (an excellent analysis by Zeba Blay), I would have been better prepared.

I want to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they’re genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it, and other countries don’t really deal with because they don’t feel they have the right to. But I can deal with it all right, and I’m the guy to do it. So maybe that’s the next mountain waiting for me. John Hiscock, “Quentin Tarantino: I’m Proud of My Flop”, The Telegraph

“Slavery and Stuff”

This quote, among a career-full of other examples, shows that Tarantino views the cultural history of marginalized people as a convenient creative landscape to play out his violent imaginings. He set out to tell a story about “slavery and stuff”; the subject doesn’t resonate with him. He wants to use black culture and history, but doesn’t feel the burden that comes with it. He just thinks he’s so great that he can be the one to do it “right”. A surface reading of the quote implies that he rejects “big issue movies” (which certainly have numerous flaws) out of a distaste for them cinematically.  However, I feel that upon closer reading, these words and others reveal that slavery itself isn’t a big issue for him personally, and he feels no motivation to treat it as such. I’ve wrestled my entire life to come to terms with slavery’s historical significance, as well as its residual impact on contemporary power structures. Yet, for so many, this film’s subject matter will be another holiday item to be mindlessly consumed and discarded, slavery and stuff.

I do not mean to suggest that Tarantino does not care, because he does. He cares about slavery’s representation, but it doesn’t feel like Tarantino is invested in slavery’s legacy itself. He’s excited about slavery as a genre of cinema, and is concerned about how that genre is treated in film.

I was always amazed so many Western films could get away with not dealing with slavery at all… Hollywood didn’t want to deal with it because it was too ugly and too messy. But how can you ignore such a huge part of American history when telling a story in that time period? It made no sense.  Allison Samuels, Quentin Tarantino on Django Unchained and the Problem with Roots, Newsweek.

In the same interview, Tarantino and his Black co-producer Reginald Hudlin lampoon Roots and its portrayal of slavery (a flim which is, of course, open for criticism).

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.” Allison Samuels, Quentin Tarantino on Django Unchained and the Problem with Roots, Newsweek.

It is perfectly plausible that the “powers that be”, namely the White male power structure that rules corporate media, didn’t want to send a message to Black people that promoted revenge. Additionally, Tarantino’s belief that Chicken George does not become a bigger man by refusing to exact revenge is a legitimate opinion, and is one that I’m sympathetic to. However, Tarantino overplays his hand when he says that a Black slave would “never” choose to forgo enacting physical revenge on a former master. This headstrong assertion could not be further from the truth. Anyone with a working knowledge of slavery’s history would know that violent vengeance was not the norm.

The Negroes who fought in the abolitionist movement in the North and who tried to influence the Negroes in the slave states ‘set the future pattern on which Negroes based their protest. The new pattern consisted of nonviolent legal activities in accord with the democratic principles of the American Creed and the Christian religion’. Ernest Williams, William Styron and His Ten Black Critics: A Belated Mediation 193

Black slave revenge is complex in its personal psychology and cultural context. What Tarantino fails to grasp is that Black slaves made choices, rightly or wrongly, about whether to violently resist. These choices were rooted in personal ideology, and more importantly, the structural limitations of US American slavery.

To admit, however, that slave revolts were relatively infrequent is hardly to say that slaves quietly accepted slavery. And if the actual uprisings were not unremitting, without doubt the fear of them by whites must have been so… A number of factors discouraged constant or organized revolts. The slaves in the United States, unlike the slaves in the West Indies, were not especially numerous, compared to the white population. Slaveholders deliberately separated slaves from other members of their families and from other members of their tribes, thus weakening their unity and solidarity. In the United States, there were no independent colonies of runaway slaves as there were in the West Indies. Finally, slaves were controlled by the awesome power of the military and state militias. Being faced with these and many other factors which were not favorable to revolt, slaves sensibly turned more frequently to other means of protest – from deliberate minor inefficiencies to destroying crops, abusing livestock, and especially, running away. Ernest Williams, William Styron and His Ten Black Critics: A Belated Mediation 191

When did you first find out about slavery? I was four. I came home from school talking about how “we” came to the United States as Pilgrims. My Mom had to tell me that I didn’t come here on the Mayflower. First, I felt sad because the historical reality of slavery separated me from my White peers. Then, I felt shame because in this country different means inferior. Later, I felt embarrassed because whenever we “learned” about slavery in school the White kids would turn and look at me. After that, I got angry because I realized that the racist things that some of my White peers said and did to me came out of that same spirit of White entitlement and ownership that was slavery’s lifeblood. At 18, I learned about slavery, its nuance and contradictions, for the first time. Lied to at every turn within the school system, I had to wait 14 years to begin to find out the truth about myself and my history. Tarantino wants to say nigger, tell nigger stories, and get a nigger pass, but not take any of the burden.

I don’t find it wrong that people could find slavery entertaining, or that storytellers make creative reinterpretations of slavery (Boondocks). What I cannot accept is Tarantino’s approach to the material; an approach that strikes me as largely disinterested in slavery’s content (both emotional and structural), and more intrigued by slavery as a setting and topic of conversation.  To me, it’s clear from the interviews that Tarantino really has no clue about what makes Black slaves tick. As a result, I have grave doubts about his ability to fictionalize a character he doesn’t understand.

Myths as Contested Cultural Space

Dominant power structures often try to define the scope of acceptable resistance so as to render it predictable and ineffective, thus they seek to control the way that violent myths are told. Danny Glover has been trying to get a film made about Toussaint L’Ouverture, the inspiration for the Haitian revolution, a Black-led struggle against slavery and colonialism that sent shockwaves throughout the Colonial world. Yet, he couldn’t get it funded because the film lacked white heroes (h/t Son of Baldwin). Django Unchained is so much more problematic because these White-led fictions about slavery are often told at the expense of nonwhite stories of resistance.

Django Unchained is not the first time that a White man has written a slave rebellion myth. William Styron’s “Confessions of Nat Turner” was based on “Nat Turner’s Rebellion”, also known as the “Southampton Rebellion”. It has been described as the “one of the bloodiest and most effective” rebellions in US American history.  The following is a description of the events as told by a White Virginia newspaper at the time of the rebellion.

The oldest inhabitants of our county have never experienced such a distressing time, as we have had since Sunday night last. The negroes, about fifteen miles from this place, have massacred from 50 to 75 women and children, and some 8 or 10 men. Every house, room and corner in this place is full of women and children, driven from home, who had to take the woods, until they could get to this place. We are worn out with fatigue. A fanatic preacher by the name of Nat Turner (Gen. Nat Turner) who had been taught to read and write, and permitted to go about preaching in the country, was at the bottom of this infernal brigandage. He was artful, impudent and vindicative, without any cause or provocation, that could be assigned.-He was the slave of Mr. Travis. He and another slave of Mr. T. a young fellow, by the name of Moore, were two of the leaders. Three or four others were first concerned and most active.– They had 15 others to join them. And by importunity or threats they prevailed upon about 20 others to cooperate in the scheme of massacre. We cannot say how long they were organizing themselves-but they turned out on last Monday early (the 22d) upon their nefarious expedition…. They were mounted to the number of 40 or 50; and with knives and axes-knocking on the head, or cutting the throats of their victims. 1831 Richmond Gazette

Styron’s novel tells a fictionalized, and extremely controversial, account of Turner’s rebellion that (rightly or wrongly) explored Nat Turner’s psyche and motivation. James Baldwin, among a limited number of other Black thinkers, defended Styron’s Pulitzer Prize novel. While a lot may be said about the novel, and even about Styron himself, it is clear that he cared about slavery and felt deeply invested in it.

In other words, the existential anguish becomes undone; through moments of aesthetic and spiritual fulfillment we find the very reason for existence. The creative act in art often approaches this, but it can work on humbler levels as well . . . I think I tried to render this quality of revelation—’epiphany’ in a part of ‘Nat Turner.’  William Styron, 1972 letter to his daughter

Styron, for all his flaws, saw himself, the grandson of a slave owner, as involved and indicted in the story of US American slavery. From what I’ve read of his approach to Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino does not feel a similar sense of investment. White people need to talk about slavery, and rebellion is one part of that dialogue. Can White people successfully tell stories of slave resistance? I’m conflicted and unsure. However, I do know that dominant power structures often try to impose their pejorative gaze onto the “other”, as well as attempt to define acceptable resistance as practiced by marginalized people. So it seems likely that, consciously or unconsciously, White authors may end up strengthening White supremacy as they tell antiracist resistance myths.

 

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RobtheIdealist
RobtheIdealist
Went to Bolivia, learned about leftism. Went to Occupy Wall Street to practice it. I like talking about race, culture, and radicalism.
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