Ishmael Reed: Django is Chained to White Supremacy - Another Racist Film About Black People for White Audiences

From [HERE] I had a pretty good idea of where “Django Unchained” was going from the first credit. It went to the Weinstein Company. The Weinstein Company once fought a legal battle (settled out of court) over the right to distribute “Precious,” which is, in my opinion, the worst film ever made about black life. The company’s name in the credits for “Django” also meant that the movie was aimed at a mainstream audience.

Though German, the bounty hunter character played by German-Austrian actor Christoph Waltz seemed to speak with a British accent, which is all the rage in the media, though I need subtitles to understand what Piers Morgan is saying half the time. The German dentist dazzles the screen with his eloquent talk and vocabulary and puts together constructions like “shan’t.” I would loved to have been present at the marketing meetings about this movie. The cynicism must have been as thick as cigar smoke. Jamie Foxx has been promoted as the star of “Django Unchained,” and has assumed the role as movie defender–the same role played by Viola Davis in the promotion of the equally offensive “The Help.” Foxx serves as a buffer between the producers and the wrath of blacks like those who attended a recent showing where the film’s writer and director Quentin Tarantino reportedly faced hostile questions from a black audience.

The real stars of “Django Unchained,” however, are Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio is master of a plantation where Django’s wife Broomhilda (seriously), is being held, and has apparently been passed around among the “Mandingos” who are trained to participate in slave fights for the entertainment of DiCaprio and his friends. The movie’s “star,” Foxx, is there for the audience that used to sit in the balcony at southern movie houses. He performs in a movie within a movie. A sort of “Harlem On The Prairie.” This was an ingenuous bit of marketing. “Django” was the talk among blacks during two Christmas parties that I attended, lured to the screen because Foxx was featured in the promotion. One woman said that she couldn’t wait to see the movie, which reminded me of a comment from a book called “When Time Ran Out: Coming of Age in the Third Reich” written by author and artist Frederic Zeller, who said that when he went to the movies in Germany, his being youthful and lacking consciousness led him to applaud the Aryans (he escaped the country in the 1930s and his parents died in a Nazi death camp).

The middle of  “Django” showcases Waltz and DiCaprio. They engage in a lengthy dialogue which includes references to Beethoven and phrenology, during which Foxx’s Django alternates between scowling and looking completely dumbfounded by the civilized talk. The DiCaprio character believes that there are wrinkles in the brain that cause blacks to be docile. Tarantino’s fictional blacks apparently lack that part of the brain that makes one compassionate. While some blacks are being brutalized other blacks go about their business. In one scene, a black woman is being whipped while nearby a black woman is enjoying herself on a swing.

Foxx’s role in the movie is confined to frowning and murdering lower class whites who, in this film, seem to be responsible for all of the brutality during slavery, while the planters stand by helpless and embarrassed by one of their number, the lone psychopathic, who, like the Nazi played by Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List,” revels in cruel misdeeds. In one scene after two blacks have engaged in a brutal fight leaving one dead, one of the fiendish slave master’s friends shows that he was really turned off by the exhibition and has to have a drink.

You really have to suspend disbelief for this movie. The German bounty hunter promises to free an armed slave (Foxx) and promises him one-third of the bounties and the two go about killing people. Foxx is allowed to wander around the South without interruption, and even sit at a dinner table with a slavemaster’s family. Yet, in real life, free Negroes were captured by slavers and returned to slavery. Somebody should have persuaded the writer to read about the experience of Solomon Northup, a Free Negro who was kidnapped by white slave catchers and returned to slavery (his story is being turned into a coming film).

At least the blacks who are assigned to play sidekicks to white stars have some autonomy. In the recent movie “Safe House,” which evokes the movie “The Defiant Ones,” Denzel Washington has no love interest and sacrifices himself for the safety of Ryan Reynolds, who is assigned to capture him! But unlike Washington, who was a real star, Foxx is dependent upon his German master for guidance and at one point dictates the role that Foxx is to play in an effort to deceive the DiCaprio character. In the eyes of the German bounty hunter, Django isn’t even one third of a human being but an “extension“ of himself; the German says that he is “responsible” for Django. I wasn’t surprised that Hillary Crosley of TheRoot “enjoyed” the movie even after describing a black audience’s hostile questions to its white Negro director Tarantino.

Throughout the movie,Tarantino reminds us that the Foxx character is unique. Comic book white racists, when reacting to Django, say things like “I ain’t never seen a n—– like you.”Or “I ain’t never seen a n—– on horseback.” In case you didn’t get the message it’s said twice in the movie that Django is “one in ten thousand” blacks. It might have been “Django” producer Reginald Hudlin who introduced Tarantino to the “Talented Tenth” concept originated by W.E.B DuBois. I wish that Hudlin had written the movie. As it stands, Foxx is chained to this stupid screenplay.


Carla Blank

Acclaimed author Ishmael Reed in Beijing.

Tarantino, despite the history of black resistance, apparently believes that progress for blacks has been guided by an elite, which doesn’t explain the hundreds of revolts throughout this hemisphere which weren’t guided by German bounty hunters nor Abraham Lincoln, nor a Talented Tenth Negro. Judging from his letters, the revolt in Haiti scared the blank out of Thomas Jefferson and his friends. Arna Bontemps wrote about the revolt led by the slave Gabriel in “Black Thunder,” but this novel like most fiction written by black males, won’t reach the screen nor will Margaret Walker’s great “Jubilee.” And if these classics did they wouldn’t receive the kind of promotion this movie has received nor did Spike Lee’s movie about the heroic efforts of black soldiers who fought in Italy in World War 11, “Miracle at St. Anna.” It only played at one Oakland theater at a single 10:30 p.m. showing.Those who objected to a black soldier having an Italian girlfriend will probably “enjoy” the role played by Kerry Washington. Scant isn’t the word. Her lines total about two paragraphs and she wanders through the film either grimacing in pain,weeping or modeling a yellow dress in Django’s fantasy. A waste of talent.

Also in this movie, we have black slavers, who are even lower than house slaves according to writer Tarantino. I don’t know where Tarantino gets his information, but some of the great orators who argued on behalf of emancipation of their fellow slaves were from the house. They had their own ways of dealing with cruel slave managers in the house. Often they used poison.

I saw the film in Berkeley where the audience was about 95% white. They really had a good time. A row of white women sitting in front of me broke into applause as Django blew away the white mistress of the plantation who was sort of silly frivolous set up like some of the blacks in the movie.

Samuel L. Jackson, who starred in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” plays himself. To compare this movie to a spaghetti western and a blaxploitation film is an insult to both genres. It’s a Tarantino home movie with all of the racist licks that appear in his other movies.

The debate about who should tell the black story is an old one.

Benjamin Drew collected the stories of ex-slaves who had fled to Canada in an 1855 anthology. One section is entitled “As Told By Themselves.”  Black leaders have protested the films “Birth of a Nation,” “Gone With The Wind,” and the musical “Porgy and Bess,” all of which, like “Precious,” and this movie, have been praised by mainstream critics. W.E.B. DuBois once discouraged a white writer from writing about blacks.

In a 1863 letter to Frederick Douglass, novelist and soldier Martin Delaney accuses Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” of plagiarism for lifting Josiah Henson’s autobiography and the work of several other black writers. He writes, ”She Cannot Tell Our Story.”

I think that some whites do very well when writing non fiction about slavery and have found the works of Litwack, Lowen, and Foner to be useful. Tarantino isn’t one of those, but the business people who put this abomination together don’t care what I think or about the opinions of the audience members who gave Tarantino a hard time during that recent q.and a.

Earlier this week, the movie tracking site Box Office Mojo reported that “Django” was No. 2 at the box office on Christmas Day, earning just over $15 million dollars.

Ishmael Reed’s latest book is “Going Too Far.” He is currently visiting scholar at The California College of the Arts.