During an interview with public radio host Terry Gross, Quentin Tarantino suggested that his new film about American slavery, “Django Unchained,” is in the tradition of the spaghetti western, with a mix of stylized humor and the fantastic feats of a blaxploitation superhero.
While all that is perhaps true, Tarantino uniquely captured the essence of the “peculiar institution.” He may have engaged in historical revisionism, but he made a bold statement about a moral stain that Americans, white and black, cannot easily discuss and lack the moral gumption to reconcile.
Many prominent blacks, most notably writer/director Spike Lee, hate “Django” and are boycotting it.
Speaking with Gross, Tarantino explained how westerns from different decades reflect the concerns of their times: “One of the things that’s interesting about westerns in particular is (that) there’s no other genre that reflects the decade that they were made or the morals and the feelings of Americans during that decade (more) than westerns. Westerns are always a magnifying glass as far as that’s concerned.
“The westerns of the ’50s definitely have an Eisenhower, birth-of-suburbia and plentiful times aspect to them. America started, little by little, catching up with its racist past by the ’50s, at the very, very beginning of (that decade), and that started being reflected in westerns. Consequently, the late ’60s have a very Vietnam vibe to the westerns, leading into the ’70s. And by the mid ’70s, you know, most of the westerns literally could be called ‘Watergate westerns,’ because it was about disillusionment and tearing down the myths that we have spent so much time building up.”
Assuming that Tarantino is correct, which of our current “morals” and “feelings” has he put under a magnifying glass in “Django”?
This is the era of Barack Obama, America’s first black president. His presidency has affected white people’s thinking on race, but it has affected blacks even more profoundly. Obama’s ascendency has forced most black people to become more self-conscious, perhaps more introspective about a host of complex intra-racial issues that circumscribed our enlightenment and upward mobility or stopped them altogether.
Many complex problems in contemporary black culture are played out in “Django.”
The most obvious is the conflict between the Uncle Tom and the authentic black, represented by the Samuel L. Jackson character, Stephen, and the Jamie Foxx character, Django, our hero who becomes a freed man. Unlike Stephen – whose only power derives from being loyal to his white slave master – Django owns himself and becomes more powerful after striking out on his own.
Blacks continue to play the film’s game of who’s the Uncle Tom and who’s the authentic African-American, who’s worthy and who’s unworthy. Remember that when Obama was beginning his first run for the White House, he was accused of not being “black enough,” someone who, if elected, would not place high priority on black problems.
The film also describes the issue of class and status among blacks, manifested in the differences between house slaves and field slaves. Django himself, riding a horse, wearing white man’s attire and speaking near-proper English, brings it all into sharp relief.
Most blacks immediately recognize the enduring problem of “colorism” in “Django”: black-on-black discrimination based on the lightness or darkness of one’s complexion. Colorism became a deep-rooted reality with the first generation of slaves, after white masters had sexual relations with black female chattel to produce a class of mulattoes who lived and worked in the Big House. These fairer-skinned slaves became a distinct group, the genesis of today’s black middle class.
You see class distinction everywhere in “Django.” Of course, Broomhilda, the hero’s wife and the source of his quest, is the fair-skinned and attractive Kerry Washington. Tarantino knows that a dark-skinned Broomhilda won’t elicit as much sympathy. Our light-skinned Broomhilda even speaks German.
And then there is Stephen, the loyal servant of the plantation master. He is as black as coal, both in character and skin color. He is the epitome of evil, more terrifying than his white master, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Tarantino has produced a haunting piece of entertainment. One of his subtexts puts a magnifying glass to contemporary black culture, and a lot of us don’t like it.
Bill Maxwell is a Tampa Bay Times columnist. Email [email protected]