A friend told me recently that I had a “thing” about race and film. This comment was based on a very adamant stance I had taken in refusing to see The Help and an expression of my disappointment that the role of Tony Mendez in Argo was not cast with a Hispanic actor (although I liked Argo very much). So I went to see Django Unchained recently and I really had to ask myself whether I was a hypocrite. If I had refused to see The Help, why did I go see Django? I have documented my struggle with what I have termed “quintessential negro” movies or movies where a superior/exceptional/special African-American living in a time of intense racism (slavery/Jim Crow) overcomes great odds with the help of his/her white benefactor. (You can read more about my thoughts on that here at my old Wordpress blog Mesoamused). (Also see my post about The Help on this blog here.) And my love of film and my existence as a black woman means I will always wrestle with the portrayal of black people and people of color in film.
[Here be spoilers, so you may want to read this after seeing Django Unchained.]
No doubt Django Unchained contains elements of the quintessential negro film. Django is rescued by a white man in the first five minutes. And a great deal of the first and second acts of the film has King Schultz taking Django under his wing and teaching him the trades of the bounty hunting game and hatching a plan to free Django’s wife. And while Schultz is benevolent and the two men are friends, Schultz never quite treats Django as an equal. Notice how he only offers Django one third of the money from their bounty hunting partnership. However, by the end of the film, Django is his own man and is the arbiter of his own destiny. And there was a certain satisfaction in watching Django blow Candyland to high heaven and watching him rescue his wife, a beautiful black woman. To me, that scenario was infinitely more gratifying than a maid in the Jim Crow South secretly serving her white employer a pie containing excrement. [And, in a way, a lot less crude.]
While both Django Unchained and The Help are both works of fiction, it helps that Django is more fantastical. The Help is a fictionalization of a real circumstance of African-American life and, for that reason, it hits a more tender spot in my consciousness. My soul is weary of seeing helpless black folk and so a hero in the vein of a Django is somewhat refreshing. It’s the same way we needed Shaft, Sweetback, and Cleopatra Jones in the seventies. And, I’m not going to lie, I like Tarantino films. I’ve been hooked since my college roommate and I watched a VHS copy of Reservoir Dogs that still had the run time codes on it. I also don’t have a problem with white filmmakers making films featuring black characters. (Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the best films of the year.) A good story is a good story. I do have a problem with the dearth of black experiences that are portrayed on the screen and for that reason I tire easily of narratives like The Help.
Also, while I understand Spike Lee’s comments about Django, I was not personally offended by the film. I certainly think Tarantino could have crossed a line, but I don’t think he did. The use of the n-word fit the characters and I don’t think it was unduly gratuitous. I will say I would have been through with Tarantino had the character Broomhilda been raped by a white slave owner; although that was a very common occurrence and historical fact. Such a depiction would have been a bridge too far for me. It is alluded that Broomhilda is passed around as a comfort woman among the Mandingo slaves, but there was no depiction of that and I was grateful. Perhaps this is also an indication of just how sensitive I am in the place where my race and gender intersect.
Yet, I don’t begrudge those who bypass seeing Django or are frustrated by Hollywood’s depictions of slavery or the like. I do encourage folks who are concerned about the portrayal of people of color in film to go see independent films by and about people of color. Make your voice heard with your retail dollars. Have you seen Middle of Nowhere written and directed by Ana DuVernay? This is the only way we will be able to expand the depictions of people of color from all walks of life so that the same old tired narratives don’t continue to dominate the multiplex.