That could be a good thing, if we were talking about something serious. But we’re not. We’re talking about a movie of something serious. Black America been waiting a looonngg time to talk about slavery. White America? Not so much.
Slavery is America biggest curse, and its deepest scar. The daily reminder of America’s indictment in what many call, “the African Holocaust,” is the 40 million American born African descendants of those enslaved from as early as 1555 (though America claims it was 1619) to December, 1865 when slavery was legally abolished. Slavery, and the end of slavery, has been a point of racial consternation for the next 150 years. Freed blacks were left in a state of disrepair that has yet to be remediated. The reality about poverty is, if folk really want to be truthful, is that poverty is a direct vestige of the state blacks were released into after slavery ended—without compensation or reparation. Reparation for slavery is the most controversial policy ever proposed. Calls for reparations are unilaterally ignored by whites (and some blacks). Every minority that has suffered an inhumane treatment by the United States of America has received an apology and reparations except one, the American African. Everything is backwards when it comes to them, including their name (African Americans) and including their reparation. So, in the most sincere reality, there is nothing funny about America’s slavery legacy.
That being said, how is the story of American slavery ever told? America went through a cultural catharsis, in 1977, with the airing of Alex Haley’s miniseries, Roots. Straight, no chaser, Roots actually made America never want to talk about slavery again. And it hasn’t.
At least, not seriously.
But are we ready to joke about slavery? Are we that far removed that we can satirize the most painful period in the nation’s history. The only time this country ever fell out, was over slavery. More specifically, they didn’t fall out on whether to keep slavery. Lincoln (another current biopic broaching this serious subject) would have accepted the maintaining of slavery in the states where they existed. They fell out over the expansion of slavery. Slavery was serious enough to fight over. 150 years later, is it serious enough to laugh over. Enter Reginald Hudlin and Quentin Tarantino, two of America’s foremost filmmakers, and cultural satirists, decided to collaborate on America’s most serious subject, slavery. Tarantino claimed that Hudlin “planted the seed” in his desire to make a serious movie about slavery. The result? Django.
The criticism has been mixed. The positive has been encouraging. The negative has been scathing. Spike Lee, a satiric filmmaker and cultural critic in his own right, came out first and he came out hard against the film. The thing about Spike is, when he sees something that pricks the cultural sensibilities of black people, he says something about it—either in print or in film. Whether its She’s Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever or She Hate Me. He’s not often wrong. In truth, he’s not wrong about this either. Slavery can’t be trivialized, nor romanticized. A serious film needs to be made about slavery. This film, however, is just an action/romance film cut in the slavery period. A “period piece” if you will, which we’re not used to seeing. And there are some very real realities about the film worth noting.
First, it does not romanticize slavery. Slavery was a very vile and vicious period in American history. Black people were stripped of their freedom, liberty and dignity. Most people forget about the dignity part. This film brought out some very poignant aspects of slavery that we needed to see, like blacks walking everywhere because it was against the law to ride a horse. Fighting blacks for sport, or being fed to the dogs when they ran away and, of course, the concubinage aspects of slavery that produced millions of mixed race offspring without a name. There was also the intra-race conflict between blacks that was most poignant, and is still the biggest vestige of slavery in black society today. That aspect was not trivialized and everything that the master said and did, we said and did. Still do. But at least we know where it started.
Then, of course, there was the language of the period—a constant reminder of what blacks standing was in the society, and the term used to degrade and demean them, that some now use as a term of endearment. That fact that it was used a couple hundred times, in every vile way that it could be used, by black and white characters in the film, showed how entrenched in American lexicon and culture the term was (and is). There is something about watching white people muse at the use of the term so many times in the film that doesn’t sit well. It was almost like watching them release themselves vicariously through the characters in the film and the silent glances that communicate acceptance of its meaning and affirmation of its use, when necessary. There is a silent embracing of the term in our society and that’s the “sick gene” that’s been passed from generation to generation that allows the use of the term to persist.
It was hard to appreciate the satire with all this as a backdrop. I just couldn’t see a satire movie being made about the holocaust or any other period of mass human subjugation, or even a satiric “love story” made in the midst of such horrific circumstances. I guess that’s the “creative liberties” always taken with black people (and their history). Guess it doesn’t really matter.
We funny like that…
All that can be said, that is positive, is that if a black superhero has to be in a movie, I guess the antebellum slave period is as good as any. We’ve seen all of the other iterations of the “Super-Ni**er” genre in the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s. And in the 2012 version, like the earlier versions, the racial role reversal allows the good “black guy” superhero to get the girl and the white anti-hero sidekick gets killed while being “down for the cause.” And, of course, a bunch cussin’, m-fing, N-this, N-that.What’s original about that? The funniest part of the movie was the Klansman scene where the early hoods had eye-holes too small to ride horses and see at the same time. It was funny but factually inaccurate. The Klan was founded in 1866. Not 1858.
Otherwise, I don’t see how a movie like Django can be djustified (the “d” is silent) as something serious enough for us to even debate about. It was entertainment. Bullsh*t entertainment satirizing our most serious social infliction. But entertainment, none the less.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist and author of the book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21st Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com or on Twitter at @dranthonysamad.