Saturday, December 29, 2012

Reflections on My Conflicted Cinematic Soul


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.


  1. Fantastic editorial! Your link on the Lamb Forums piqued our interest and we were very intrigued by this take on Django (and, in a way, The Help). Thank you for your honest reflection on this topic, it's quite refreshing to read!

  2. Thanks for your comments. I hope these issues will continue to be pondered and discussed.

  3. This is a very thoughtful take on Django. I agree with you on the fact that Tarantino had ability to cross the line regarding the use of the N-word and the depiction of Broomhilda during her stay at CandyLand. I'm curious about your thoughts and the scene that played out with Big Daddy when they first approached his plantation in search of the 3 brothers employed as overseers. Did you think the slave girl calling Big Daddy Big Daddy comical or offensive?

  4. Thanks for your comment, Yomi. I thought that whole scene leading up to the killing of the three brothers was for comedic effect. I couldn't take Big Daddy too seriously because it was Don Johnson dressed like Colonel Sanders. And that whole conversation on how to treat Django was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. (He may me free, but he ain't quite like us.) What was more problematic in that scene was the slave woman who was on a swing as another was about to be whipped. Too me that was totally bizarre and not funny or clever at all.

  5. I think there is just alot of sensitivity around race and film and as black people we are prone to it. I actually had the same feelings on "The Help" at first; I refused to read it. I initially refused to see it when the movie came out but eventually did for those same reasons. However, I did, and I loved it.

    I have had many conversations with friends regarding the whole "white people have to help the poor black people" argument. While I agree that sometimes that is an issue, I have come to the conclusion that sometimes it's important for the story and fits into the context of the story. In "The Help", after seeing it, I don't even see it as the white chick saved the black people; she more acted as an avenue for them to tell their story when there were limited opportunities for them to do so. I just don't view that as them being saved.

    I have more issues with movies like "Freedom Writers", set more in present day, where the saintly white teacher swoops in to save the unruly black students and how those are characterized.

    In regards to "Django", this was slave times where unless some white sympathizer freed you; you most like where going to have to live out your days as a slave (few ran away successfully). There are limited ways for your to free yourself. So in those contexts, something like that is necessary in order to move the story along.

    You bring up that you didn't feel like Waltz's character treated Django like an equal. I think that was more about him getting over on him (i.e. trying to retain his money) than any commentary on his view of Django's humanity. I think Tarantino gave a sly wink to this with the characters' banter at the table in one scene where Waltz's character admits to Django being in debted to him and those will use that to his advantage to make money.

    As a whole, while I do think there are some issues concerning race in Hollywood, we have to understand that there are certain situations that do exists and should exists in movies. Black people (like other people) are not always saints, heroes, or in positions of power; the good and the bad should be portrayed.

    I also think there is sometimes too much focus on the race issue on switching out one race for another in movies (i.e. Ben Affleck for an hispanic actor). For one, there are times where one of the top black actors (Smith, Washington, etc) are put in for characters initially written white. Also, there are alot of cofounding factors to the issue - politics in Hollywood, how bankable actors are, who the creative team is - that may not have anything to do necessary with racism. Is it balant racism sometimes though? Yes.

  6. Thanks for reading and commenting, Shala. As you can tell this is a constant struggle for me and something I circle back to again and again. I still think the best thing is to have more movies featuring people of color in all types of situations and story lines. We need critical mass more than anything. In that sense, I think indie filmmakers will lead the charge more so than Hollywood.


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