January 2013, Week 2


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Tarantino Unchained and Live Call-in Discussion Jan. 12

by Jelani Cobb

January 2, 2013
The New Yorker


In early 2010, not long after the release of Quentin
Tarantino's Second World War revenge epic, "Inglourious
Basterds," I began teaching a course on American history at
Moscow State University. When a Russian friend asked me what I
thought of the film I told him I loved the way the director
created an alternate history in order to make a larger point
about the universal nature of heroism. My friend and, as I
later learned, lots of other Russians took issue with the film
for precisely that reason. "Is this," he asked, "how Americans
really perceive World War II?" In Russia, where the annual May
9th celebrations of the German surrender dwarf those of the
Fourth of July in this country, the sacrifices that were
crucial to defeating Hitler are a point of huge national
pride. The history department at the university features a
marble monument to hundreds of university students who died
defending the country. Because many Russians feel that the
world -  and particularly the United States -  has never
properly recognized the scale of their losses, they tend to
see "Inglourious Basterds" not as a revenge fantasy but as an
attempt to further whitewash their role in Hitler's demise.
The alternate history in "Inglourious Basterds" failed there
because the actual history had yet to be reconciled. The
movie's lines between fantasy and the actual myopic
perspectives on history were so hazy that the audience wasn't
asked to suspend disbelief, they were asked to suspend
conscience. With "Django Unchained," Tarantino's tale of
vengeful ex-slave, what happened in Russia is happening here.

The theme of revenge permeates Tarantino's work. If the
violence in his films seems gratuitous, it's also deployed as
a kind of spiritual redemption. And if this dynamic is
applicable anywhere in American history, it's on a slave
plantation. Frederick Douglass, in his slave narrative, traced
his freedom not to the moment when he escaped to the north but
the moment in which he first struck an overseer who attempted
to whip him. Quentin Tarantino is the only filmmaker who could
pack theatres with multiracial audiences eager to see a black
hero murder a dizzying array of white slaveholders and
overseers. (And, in all fairness, it's not likely that a black
director would've gotten a budget to even attempt such a

The most recent Hollywood attempt to grapple with slavery was
Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," a biopic that presents the final
four months of the President's life and his attempts to
shepherd the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress. Lincoln as
he appears in the film is a man fully formed and possessed of
a vast wellspring of indignation about slavery. But he also
appears as the moral vector of his age in ways that don't
square with history. In focussing so directly on Lincoln's
efforts, Spielberg's film slights abolitionists, radical
Republicans, and, crucially, the African- Americans -  slave
and free -  who pushed Lincoln to the positions he eventually

From its opening scene, "Django" inverts this scenario. Here
is the spaghetti Western about an ex-slave turned bounty
hunter who takes the bloody business of emancipation into his
own hands. This is not Tarantino's best film but it is
probably his most clever. He plays fast and loose with history
here, but there are risks implicit in doing this with a film
about slavery that aren't nearly as significant in toying with
the history of the West. The history of the West is settled in
ways that are not the case for the history of the American
South and slavery. The film's premise alone was enough to
spark controversy. Spike Lee -  a longtime critic of Tarantino
-  took the unwieldy position that he refused to see the film
but knew that it would be disrespectful to his ancestors.

There are moments where this convex history works brilliantly,
like when Tarantino depicts the K.K.K. a decade prior to its
actual formation in order to thoroughly ridicule its members'
(literally) veiled racism. But, as my Russian friend pointed
out about "Inglourious Basterds," "Django Unchained" makes it
apparent that not even an entertaining alternate history can
erase our actual conceptions of the past.

In "Django," the director creates an audacious black hero who
shoots white slavers with impunity and lives to tell about it.
In the Harlem theatre where I saw the film, the largely black
audience cheered each time an overseer met his end. There is a
noble undertaking at the heart of all this gunplay. Django,
played brilliantly by Jamie Foxx, and King Schultz, his white
bounty-hunter mentor -  played by an equally adroit Christoph
Waltz -  are on a mission to rescue Hildy (Kerry Washington),
the enslaved woman Django loves. The trade-off for an audience
indulging in that emotionally powerful and rarely depicted
brand of black heroism is overlooking aspects of the film that
were at least as troubling as the other parts were affirming.

Primary among these concerns is the frequency of with which
Tarantino deploys the n-word. If ever there were an instance
in which the term was historically fitting it would seem that
a Western set against the backdrop of slavery -  a Southern -
would be it. Yet the term appears with such numb frequency
that "Django" manages to raise the epithet to the level of a
pronoun. (I wonder whether the word "nigger" is spoken in the
film more frequently than the word "he" or "she.") Had the
word appeared any more often it would have required billing as
a co-star. At some point, it becomes difficult not to wonder
how much of this is about the film and how much is about the
filmmaker. Given the prominence of the word in "Pulp Fiction"
and "Jackie Brown" -  neither of which remotely touch on
slavery -  its usage in "Django" starts to seem like racial
ventriloquism, a kind of camouflage that allows Tarantino to
use the word without recrimination.

This is just the first path in the labyrinth of racial
concerns that "Django" constructs. Here, as in "Lincoln,"
black people -  with the exception of the protagonist and his
love interest -  are ciphers passively awaiting freedom.
Django's behavior is so unrepentantly badass as to make him an
enigma to both whites and blacks who encounter him. For his
part, Django never deigns to offer a civil word to any other
slave, save his love interest. In a climactic scene, Django
informs his happily enslaved nemesis that he is the one n-word
in ten thousand audacious enough to kill anyone standing in
the way of freedom.

Is this how Americans actually perceive slavery? More often
than not, the answer to that question is answered in the
affirmative. It is precisely because of the extant mythology
of black subservience that these scenes pack such a cathartic
payload. The film's defenders are quick to point out that
"Django" is not about history. But that's almost like arguing
that fiction is not reality -  it isn't, but the entire appeal
of the former is its capacity to shed light on how we
understand the latter. In my sixteen years of teaching
African-American history, one sadly common theme has been the
number of black students who shy away from courses dealing
with slavery out of shame that slaves never fought back.

It seems almost pedantic to point out that slavery was nothing
like this. The slaveholding class existed in a state of
constant paranoia about slave rebellions, escapes, and a
litany of more subtle attempts to undermine the institution.
Nearly two hundred thousand black men, most of them former
slaves, enlisted in the Union Army in order to accomplish en
masse precisely what Django attempts to do alone: risk death
in order to free those whom they loved. Tarantino's attempt to
craft a hero who stands apart from the other men -  black and
white -  of his time is not a riff on history, it's a riff on
the mythology we've mistaken for history. Were the film aware
of that distinction, "Django" would be far less troubling -
but it would also be far less resonant. The alternate history
is found not in the story of vengeful ex-slave but in the idea
that he could be the only one.

Django's true nemesis is not the slaveholder who subjects
Hildy to cruel punishments but Stephen, the house slave
devoutly allied with the slaveholder. The central conflict is
not between an ex-slave and a slaver but between two
archetypes -  the militant and the sellout. But in creating
Stephen, Tarantino necessarily trafficked in the stereotypes
he was ostensibly responding to. Samuel L. Jackson plays
Stephen's overblown insouciance and anachronistic mf-bombs to
great comedic effect. There are moments, however, when ironies
cancel each other out, and we're left with a stark truth -  at
its most basic, this is an instance in which a white director
holds an obsequious black slave up for ridicule. The use of
this character as a comic foil seems essentially disrespectful
to the history of slavery. Oppression, almost by definition,
is a set of circumstances that bring out the worst in most
people. A response to slavery -  even a cowardly, dishonorable
one like what we witness with Stephen -  highlights the
depravity of the institution. We've come a long way racially,
but not so far that laughing at that character shouldn't be
deeply disturbing.

On the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation
Proclamation, it's worth recalling that slavery was made
unsustainable largely through the efforts of those who were
enslaved. The record is replete with enslaved blacks -  even
so-called house slaves -  who poisoned slaveholders, destroyed
crops, "accidentally" burned down buildings, and ran away in
such large numbers their lost labor crippled the Confederate
economy. The primary sin of "Django Unchained" is not the
desire to create an alternative history. It's in the idea that
an enslaved black man willing to kill in order to protect
those he loves could constitute one.

[William Jelani Cobb, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of
History at Spelman College. He specializes in post-Civil War
African American history, 20th century American politics and
the history of the Cold War. He served as a delegate and
historian for the 5th Congressional District at the 2008
Democratic National Convention. He is a recipient of
fellowships from the Fulbright and Ford Foundations. Dr. Cobb
is also the author of To The Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the
Hip Hop Aesthetic (NYU Press 2007) which was a finalist for
the National Award for Arts Writing. His collection The Devil
& Dave Chappelle and Other Essays (Thunder's Mouth Press) was
also published in 2007. He is editor of The Essential Harold
Cruse: A Reader, which was listed as a 2002 Notable Book of
The Year by Black Issues Book Review.

Born and raised in Queens, NY, he was educated at Jamaica High
School, Howard University in Washington, D.C. and Rutgers
University where he received his doctorate in American History
under the supervision of Dr. David Levering Lewis in May 2003.

Dr. Cobb has two forthcoming books: In Our Lifetimes: Barack
Obama and the New Black America and a scholarly monograph
titled Antidote to Revolution: African American Anticommunism
and the Struggle for Civil Rights, 1931-1957.

His articles and essays have appeared in The Washington Post,
Essence, Vibe, Emerge, The Progressive, The Washington City
Paper, ONE Magazine, Ebony and TheRoot.com. He has contributed
to a number of anthologies including In Defense of Mumia,
Testimony, Mending the World and Beats, Rhymes and Life. He
has also been a featured commentator on National Public Radio,
CNN, Al-Jazeera, CBS News and a number of other national
broadcast outlets. He resides in Atlanta, Ga.]


"Django Unchained":  Live Call-in Discussion, Saturday Jan. 12

Tune in to 'Freedom Now' on Pacifica radio station KPFK-Los
Angeles (kpfk.org) this coming Saturday 12 January from 2-3 PM
(Pacific) or 5 PM (Eastern) for a discussion featuring
audience participation re:  "Django Unchained."

The discussion will be led by program host, Dedon Kamathi, who
will be accompanied by Gerald Horne (author of 'Negro Comrades
of the Crown: African-Americans and the British Empire Fight
the US Before Emancipation, NYU Press, 2012; and 'The Counter-
Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the
United States of America', NYU Press, Fall 2013).



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