Slavery, Django Action Figures, & Why Tavis Smiley is Wrong

So there’s a “Django” action figure being sold now; and, of course, some of my cousins are upset about it — yep, yet another reason yo hate this movie for some. The action figure isn’t actually a stocking stuffer, but I hope it doesn’t have a Kung Fu grip like G.I. Joe. Nope, no need to get Spike Lee any angrier about the movie than he already is at this point. Seriously, how much more disrespectful can they get with this thing? Oh well, it could have been worse. Yes, somebody could have had the bright idea to start selling a crack head action figure after the movie Do The Right Thing.

Oh, and speaking of “angry black men who hate white men with the audacity to make movies that illustrates what it was like for black folk back in 1853”. Did you hear what Tavis Smiley had to say about Tarantino and the movie Django Unchained? Well, like Spike Lee, he too hasn’t seen the movie nor intends to “pay to see it,” like he said in a recent interview featured on The Daily Beast. Like Lee, he too takes issue with a white movie director using his craft to bring to the big screen a film that revels in the painful but often avoided legacy of slavery. Responding to a question about his first reaction to the film, Smiley opens up the interview with the following:

I refuse to see it. I’m not going to pay to see it. But I’ve read the screenplay, and I have 25 family members and friends who have seen it, and have had thousands of conversations about this movie, so I can tell you frame by frame what happens. 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. (read more)

django-tavis-smileyNow when you digest what Smiley says above, you get the impression that Django Unchained depicted slavery as a day at an amusement park for then slaves. Yes, you get the impression from Smiley — or the 25 relatives of his who saw the film — that there wasn’t an ounce of suffering in the movie. If you haven’t seen the movie you’d think that Martin Luther King Jr. makes a cameo set in a strip club owned and operated by Harriet Tubman, that was patronized by evil white men who raucously sang the hooks to songs by Luke Skywalker & The 2 Live Crew. Of course if this were true, then yes, I would have to agree that the film made a mockery of slavery. But the truth is that the movie did no such thing.

Okay, so there were a few jokes or successful attempts at humor, but I get it. Sure this may seem offensive to some; but, it takes a certain writing genius to bring to life the tragicomic. You know, sort of like the very genius that brought Clayton Bigsby to life on the Chappelle Show. Now as ridiculous as that character and sketch may have seemed, it was hilarious. And it’s like I’ve always said: If you’re not laughing, it’s likely you haven’t been paying attention. Maybe it’s just my sick sense of humor as interpreted by some. But, bring able to push the envelope on a subject that America is afraid to discuss, even if just slightly, has to be appreciated by anyone who professes to be an advocate for social justice.

But of course, not everyone agrees, as Leonce Gaither shows:

Quentin Tarantino’s film, Django Unchained has as much to do with the history and culture of American descendants of African slaves as Dumbo has to do with the plight of Weimar Jewry. Spike Lee says that it disrespected his ancestors. It does not. It has nothing to do with them. It has everything to do with one white man’s fevered, second-hand vision of what it would be like to be something he probably can’t conceive. It’s like me attempting to write an intimate account of the pains of childbirth. I may have held a baby and changed a diaper, but one would doubt my authority on the subject.

Tarantino obviously knows black people, but only a white man in America could believe that this provides him with the authority to speak on the black American experience. Like 99.9999 percent of the white population, he has minimal intimacy with the culture of the descendants of American slaves. That culture, imbibed from birth by American blacks raised in black American households, involves an intimate, often subconscious acknowledgment of history, of a unique place in the American hierarchy, of a struggle against mainstream paradigms of who and what we are. These are intimacies of which whites are necessarily ignorant — they’re white. Just as I, as a male, have no intimate knowledge of birthing pains, whites have no knowledge of being black. They can gain an abstract conception, but that’s it.

Um, excuse me, I know Tarantino is white and all, but I sincerely doubt whether anyone alive today — including black folks — are able to have more than an abstract conception of what slavery was like. Yes, though many of its scars still run deep throughout the diaspora, to suggest that by virtue of one being charged with melanin comes with a certain esoteric knowledge of slavery even if we’re fifty years removed from Jim Crow. Which is funny because it’s as though being able to endure “the struggle” was woven into our cultural and biological DNA — it’s as if unlike any other race, we’re predisposed to endure any struggle. And thus, we’re exceptional or something.

Of course, Tarantino has every right to make a film on any subject he chooses, and he knows his audience well. The film has become the white literati’s preferred lens into the forbidden territory of black rage (a sort of reverse Uncle Tom’s Cabin). But when blacks discuss it as if this product of white Hollywood is a legitimate expression of our culture or our rage, we do ourselves a gross injustice; we follow the pattern of outsourcing our history and self-image to the majority; we marry ourselves into the grotesque self-images that their history has tried to stamp upon us.

Django Unchained is nothing more than one white Hollywood director’s fantasy of what black revenge would look like. It would be no more to us than another big screen cartoon if we dealt honestly and independently with our own history — a history white studios or directors would never touch. Such history puts the lie to the frames and simplifications with which Americans maintain our halo of historical innocence on matters related to race.

If we lavished similar imagination upon the history of the blacks who fought for the British during the American revolution to escape slavery, the German Coast uprising, the Prosser and Vesey rebellions, the ‘Crazy as St. Paul’ Nat Turner rebellion, the Black Seminole rebellion of 1835, the innumerable anecdotal tales of black resistance against slave-owners, perhaps we wouldn’t glom onto the work of a white director who (with his infantile insistence on his right to fling the word “nigger”) seems frightfully similar to the clueless character in Lou Reed’s infamous, “I Wanna be Black.” If we taught ourselves to regard the Civil War as “a failed war to protect and extend slavery,” and not “a war to free the slaves,” we would be less seduced by the siren song of second-hand revenge fantasy. If we debated among ourselves the virtues and vices of real old-west outlaws like the notorious Rufus Buck Gang, Cherokee Bill and Isom Dart, perhaps one white man’s notion of blacks in the old west would be less noteworthy. If we knew that black freedman populated Indian Territory and that a black lawman named Bass Reeves served as a Deputy U.S. Marshall for “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker, we’d have a far richer, more complex view of our history than that promoted by the likes of Hollywood and Tarantino.

Yes, blacks are giving this film too much credence, but it’s our own fault. We have outsourced our history to the majority and failed to devise the means to teach our history to ourselves. In a country in which we have been historically subjugated and reviled, we accept instruction about our history and our place in it from those who subjugated and reviled us. That’s a bit insane. As long as we continue to do so, the likes of Django Unchained will rise from the level of mainstream curiosities from black-cultural dilettantes, to fake nipples mimicking the teat of cultural sustenance.

Listen: We can only imagine just what it must have been like for African slaves not just in America, but also those spread all throughout the new world; but even so, we have no earthly idea, despite the documented research, of just how bad it actually was. So what is the point to this post? That I can’t wait for Tarantino to do the sequel where Django and Madea try to bust John Brown the abolitionist, out of prison for killing white folks so everyone can be happy. Yep, let’s try to rescue a white man in the next one, since folk wanna act like he had Harriet Tubman giving lap dances in this one. as cathartic as this film isn’t for some, maybe my suggested sequel will be received with open arms only if a black guy produces, writes, and directs it. Because quite naturally, who else is there better to tell stories of the black struggle than black people, right? After all, last time I checked, black kids are still picking white dolls over black dolls; and, it ain’t like y’all Negroes supported Akeela And The Bee anyway.

So yeah, blame Tarantino for that too.