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Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED and the Many Spike Lees

Quentin Tarantino's DJANGO UNCHAINED and the Many Spike Lees

 
 
Growing up in the 1980's with the slave name Boone, I was delighted to hear the joke song my older brother brought home from school one day. He sang it to the tune of the Daniel Boone TV theme song in his best middle-school baritone, holding one arm out and extending his slight baby-fat belly like Burl Ives: "Daniel Boone was a man/He was a biiiiig maaan… But the bear was bigger/so he chased that nigga/up a treee…." This would thereafter cause me to choke with laughter whenever it was sung within my earshot. First off, there was the use of the word nigger as nigga, the way kids in my neighborhood used it, as a subversively goofy synonym for man. Second, the song turned a straightforward 1960's adventure show into an F-Troop-style lampoon, sending the kind of barrel-built frontiersman you'd expect to fight a bear one-handed scrambling up a tree instead.
 
The absurdity of the word nigger, and of the American empire that counted it as currency, inspire Quentin Tarantino nearly as much as Uma Thurman's toes. He marvels at a society that creates, perpetuates and forever fears a nigger class. In Django Unchained, we get to witness the entire nigger creation/perpetuation/demonization assembly line, and it looks like the most jackleg Rube Goldberg contraption you can imagine. It starts by showing slaves dragged along in neck and ankle chains; it proceeds to detail the auctioning, trading, policing and torturing of niggers. Greasy rednecks and pretentious Southern gennuhmen fumble at the levers of this ungainly contraption all the way along, spitting tobacco and ducking its blast of dirty locomotive exhaust.
 
We know, thanks to a voluminous amount of reporting, that Tarantino has filtered this view of American capitalism through his film critic lens, referencing Sergio Corbucci Spaghetti Westerns and blaxploitation, and, less frequently noted, Blazing Saddles and The Skin Game. I also spied the kind of anachronistic postures and quips that made Wild Wild West, Hogan's Heroes and, yes, F-Troop dietary staples of Tarantino's (and my) generation.
 
Now, there is a certain type of African-American intellectual whose grasp of the brute facts of history is firm but whose funny bone goes dead numb at the sound of the word nigger; whose measure of artistry in any film approaching the vast subject of "us" is whether it uplifts or insults us. These are the niggas that would stare sourly at my brother's rendition of the Daniel Boone theme song and at Django Unchained's approximately 115 utterances of nigga.
 
Spike Lee is one of those niggas. A talented filmmaker and brilliant businessman, his imagination often seems atrophied when he tries to build up his ability to choose topical, incendiary subject matter. In Malcolm X, he staged one of the most vivid, vigorous passages in X's autobiography, the Roseland ballroom dance, as a stagy, choreographed number with canned music—PBS Black History Month stuff. Later in that film, he recreated Malcolm's magical realist encounter with the specter of Elijah Muhammad as an interview with a glowing Yoda in his prison cell. The lowest point in the history of Spike's imagination was the scene in Summer of Sam where serial killer David Berkowitz's dog Sam, sounding like Jon Lovitz and moving his lips with the help of Purina-commercial CGI, ordered his master to "Kill, Kill, KILL!!!"
 
Spike brought that kind of imagination to a recent Tweet-review of Django Unchained, written without having seen the movie: "American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them."
 
Not to say that Django is an exceptionally subtle piece of work. Both Spike and Quentin have a Sam Fuller tendency to go all-caps, tabloid large when staging bits of provocation that would be juicy all on their own. But let's just lay it on the table: Tarantino is the better filmmaker, by many miles. His ability to organize screen time and space is more assured and rhythmic than Spike's generally antsy, grab-bag approach. Certain sublime stretches of Do the Right Thing, Clockers, 25th Hour and his lovely documentaries nothwithstanding, it's hard to imagine Spike sitting still for the carefully timed and detonated jokes built around Django's initiation into the bounty-hunting business. Both filmmakers are terrible actors who have trouble getting out of their own way, but Tarantino, more often than Spike, redeems his indulgences with scene-making that simply rewards close, patient attention. Both filmmakers quote the films and pop culture totems that inspire them; Tarantino just tends to do it more elegantly and purposefully (Radio Raheem's lyrical Night of the Hunter quotation in Do the Right Thing and Kill Bill's sometimes ungainly kung fu Orientalism notwithstanding).
 
What Spike had over Quentin, up until Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, was a political passion that made headlines. Tarantino, who had once criticized Oliver Stone for turning his nihilistic crime script Natural Born Killers into a bludgeoningly political "Oliver Stone Film," seems to have emerged as a junior Stone, speaking out with a strong liberal voice about how today's prison industrial complex is essentially "modern day slavery." His two most recent films are complicated reflections on American evil. The massacre of mostly civilian moviegoers in Basterds was uncomfortable even before the Colorado Dark Knight shootings; we could recognize ourselves in those doomed Nazi sympathizers and appeasers. We are the good citizens who sit by when our government and corporate elite commit crimes that we believe won't touch us, up until the moment the chickens come home to roost. The insurgent heroes in Basterds and Django don't discriminate much between active combatants and their abettors—a quality that resonates in all directions, at modern-day terrorists, soldiers, CIA torturers, tribal warlords and regional militia. A scene where freed slave Django argues with his bounty hunter mentor, King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), over the prospect of sniping a wanted man in front of that man's son, might as well be between two Defense Department employees pondering the morality of extrajudicial killings by aerial drone. Their view of the man pushing a plow on his quiet farm even resembles the kind of perspective drones and attack helicopters get on their Eastern prey.
 
Through Basterds and Django, Tarantino states that all power that dehumanizes an Other is bloody and treacherous, and that when it's performed in our name, we should know exactly what it looks like and anticipate tasting similar treachery in retaliation. A certain non-violent, ingratiating character in Django Unchained gets swept away in a cartoon-like gun blast. She flies back like a rag, as weightless as her convictions. At both screenings I attended, the audience roared with laughter in that moment—but it was an uneasy laugh.
 
So Tarantino has more interesting things on the Django plate than the ugliness or savage beauty of the word nigger, but they all orbit around the global condition for which that word is merely a place card. Daniel Boone was a big man, as 60's television taught us, but he also owned slaves, as I learned when I was a teen, digging for some link between my family name and a glorious American past. In history, the niggers are the ones you have to do some digging to find, typically under rubble or unmarked graves. To do this kind of digging as a filmmaker, a really fine-tuned sense of humor helps a heap.
 
Spike Lee showed that kind of raw but humanistic wit on Do the Right Thing and in great documentaries like Jim Brown: All-American. That guy would enjoy Django Unchained, I'll bet. The other Spike Lee, the one who Tweeted a psychic review of a movie he hadn't seen, has already spoken, inanely. Yet another Spike Lee, the one who has shown, in films like She Hate Me and the shallower portions of Bamboozled, a sense of humor every bit as trivial and callous as he claims Django to be, reminds me of that Lucille Clifton poem about Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor:
 
eddie, he a young blood
he see something funny
in everythin     ol rich
been around a long time
he know ain't nothing
really funny
 
Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist for Fandor and Roger Ebert's Far Flung Correspondents. He writes a column on street life for Capital New York and blogs at Big Media Vandalism.

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Comments

dogsh1T

It was just a piece of shit no talent film directing and acting trash movie that shows the directors idiocy of how the real world was in this time period. Niggers sold other niggers for trade goods and other commodities and non-niggers are supposed to feel sorry or connect with this nonsense. What a piece of shit.

Gloria

How it happened..cant believe….just check http://2.gp/qmuE

Cary

I am "black" and after hearing Spike's comments I immediately went to go see what his issue was about. I have to say that I am absolutely confused by Spike's statements and see things quite oppositely. For me it was refreshing to see and hear the characters use the "n" word as liberally as it as used because THAT was an actual portrayal of the truth of how white folks, who invented the language, used the language at the time. I believe that these modern movies with their homogenized "oh so loving of the negro" characters is the actual disrespect that is done to our ancestors. The homogenized versions are the lie and I feel that their portrayals are a way to mask history and make the new audiences say to themselves "oh,it wasn't so bad" or " look, we always cared". The truth is as ugly as Tarantino portrayed it and kudos to him "a white man" for having the balls to let his white and black audience see the truth and even portray a black man who actually was a hero for killing off all of his oppressors who were white. Imagine that, a black hero of a film who won over his slavery! And Spike has a problem with that? Sounds like a Tom to me. I guess he was mad he didn't get the Samuel Jackson role.

David Goodis

This is the only review that made me want to see the film. The question is, as it always is, "Yeah, but are we supposed to be okay with Django's use of violence," since retributive violence is its only acceptable form, in American cinema, and cinema at large, and in the confines of supposedly private life. And if we are then is the film subversive of anything, really, at the end of things?

Michelle

I had a NYE dinner party and this movie dominated the conversation for about 30 minutes. The question we had, ultimately, is: if Spike Lee is offended by Tarantino's treatment of slavery in the movie, why hasn't he made his own movie about slavery? Or why doesn't he make one now? It seems to me that if he feels like the topic needs greater sensitivity, he could do something about that, yes? In any case, we all agreed Django, love it or hate it (and several of us hated it) is more engaging than anything Lee has done in years, from a purely cinematic perspective. There is an element of sour grapes in Lee's criticisms of anyone as he hasn't experienced much recent commercial success for his non-documentary film work, or really put together very cohesive fictional film projects in a number of years. I'd be more inclined to give credence to Lee's film criticism if he had produced a decent film in the intervening years since The 25th Hour (which is one of my favorite movies, BTW).

Simona

I do not think anything is funny about the n word either from black or white ppl. Your brother's use and our collective use to me just represents our own subconscious inferiority complex, like a promiscuous teenager who has yet to connect the dots to her father sexually abusing her to her now detached but urgent need for sex. At this point the hip hop generation has bought a private trait to the public arena, which to me has it's positive affect. White ppl are using the n word as prolifically as they once did and as black ppl did when I was growing up to each other. Their use made me look in the mirror- the simple adage that you teach ppl how to treat you. The n world is not the problem, that's why spike lee stands alone, it's a symptom. Also, u started talking about spike lee's tweet, then digressed into how he is an inferior filmmaker, a disconnection if I ever saw one. Spike lee's tweet seemed to me his indignation that his ppl, black ppl could be treated so belligerently. That was the point. I believe Q.T. Knows not what he does, but in his unconciousness he shines a light nonetheless.

3guys1movie

what a refreshing take on this topic. Seems like many people are getting caught up in the use of the word nigger in the film. Personally I have heard more utterances of nigger while playing ball at the local YMCA.
Lets not miss the forest for the trees, this film is probably the best western since No Country for Old Men and shines a harsh light upon racism in America, for that I say bravo QT.

Enjoyed your article Steve

lucy

omg, the best line i have ever heard " a Sam Fuller tendency to go all-caps, tabloid large" love it. i will have to save that line to my mental rolodex. thanks hun :)

Bob

I feel like Quentin uses nigger simply because it's a violent word. I think he is attracted to violence for whatever reason, and nigger is the closest linguistic thing to visual violence. How he actually views the people the word refers to is a different story. Quentin views American blackness through the "cool" lens. That's how he grew up, and that's how he understands American blackness, but that's not how I care to understand it. Quentin took this view and applied it to the time of slavery, hence he created a "cool" black slave. To Quentin, empowered American blackness means cool…Bad ass mother—-ers. What does he think of everyday black A regular people who go to work, provide for his families, stress education, and self respect. Is that cool? Shoshanna wasn't cool in Basterds, she was just smart. She didn't have to be hip to add any more depth to her character, but that's not what QT does to black characters on screen or when they're referenced. For QT, blacks/niggers/niggas are simply a little flavor to be added to spice up a movie. He has no interest in actually knowing what real black people think or feel unless it's "cool". Not intelligent. Cool. QT isn't a racist, he just doesn't understand American blackness, which is fine because most non American blacks don't either.

Keith MF G

Spike didn't review the movie (that he didn't see) in his tweet. He described it. (accurately) The movie is a Sergio Leone/Slavery mash up. Also, in the Malcolm X autobiography he saw a vision of Master Fard Muhammad and not Elijah Muhammad. I always wondered why he did that.

Aiah Samba

And apparently this page doesn't copy apostrophes very well lol. Sorry for that as well.

Aiah Samba

Sorry in advance for any grammatical errors, I wrote this in a fever. Ok, first of all, I want to make one thing clear before I go into my review of Django. To tell anyone what to like or how he or she should feel when they experience any form of art is ludicrous. But, to try and label us into one of two categories like we’re sheep is even more reprehensible.
I’m a Quentin Tarantino fan. I went into Django expecting something similar to Inglorious Bastards. Taking a horrifying premise that showcased the ugliness of the human race and making a fun revenge film out of it. As twisted as that makes me, I accept it. Now, where these two films differ is that while you don’t see a single Jewish citizen get killed outside of Shoshanna, in Django, throughout the entirety of its almost 3 hour runtime was just the opposite. We get maimed, tortured, killed and psychologically abused. This is fine if that’s what you want to show because it actually happened. The problem I have is why did he choose to show all this ugliness on camera and still want to make light of it through Sergio Leone’s eyes and Mel Brooks heart. It didn’t vibe with me. The tact he demonstrated with Inglorious was absent. In that film, he relied on beautifully written scenes brimming with tension, vibrant intelligent dialogue and an orgasm of violence at the end acting as some sort of catharsis. We already knew the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their Gestapo brutes going in. We didn’t need to see countless torture scenes or science experiments done to innocent Jews. After Django, I felt deflated, not uplifted. I don’t know what I found more offensive, the caricatures of Steven and the “Big Daddy Girl” or the fact that there were no intelligent debates that always thrive in a typical Quentin film. Yes, I get he was trying to hold a mirror to America to show our reflection but I didn’t buy it. The scene where Calvin Candie illustrates his ridiculous phrenology upon us, no one in the film gave a rebuttal. No form of revenge by way of a bullet would redeem that. Making my experience even more uncomfortable was how deep he delved into America’s black heart and still thought this could be fun. By making Django a black slaver, tossing out the N word like every other person in this film outside of Shultz made things blurry. Yes, they were black slavers, yes they were despicable but did we need to mix that in with this already too ugly film? This isn’t Roots; those elements of black on black crime obviously still rear it head today but this movie didn’t need it. We get it – everything was dark and abysmal back then but for God’s sake! Show some restraint. Either you want to take this serious (And he must’ve by showing every brutal act known to slaves), or you don’t. I know Quentin is an extremist but yet when it came to the other holocaust, he was bibbed. May that have more to do with who runs Hollywood? I’m not the kind of individual who finds racism everywhere he looks, nor Am I calling Quentin racist, but I truly am at a lost for words at after watching this misguided sloppy film.

the other mike

i dont even like david ehrenstein. he comes off too loud and opinionated and always looking for a fight, but i'll be damned if he aint right in the comment he posted here. black people are rea;;y grateful for this movie. only thing i'll say is he should apply that same logic to people who criticise ZD30. he seems to have been having heart palputations over the lefts reaction to it. bottom line, no true piece of art is above criticisms. not django, and not zd30/

steve boone, like wesley morris. always seems to be talking down to me in these reviews. like i am supposed to be earning something from them. boone has had a hard on for spike and eddie murphy for a minute and look. he combined his two hated black hollywoodians in one piece. how long can a man carry a grudge.

also, spike is neccesary, good film or bad film, he aint afraid to speak upand will take the flack for it.

Jen D

Regardless of how anyone feels about his use of that word Tarantino has accomplished something most directors cannot. He has people thinking, discussing, arguing and most importantly remembering our collective history.

David Ehrenstein

Why are Africn-Americans being ORDERED to enjoy this crap?
Why are we being lectured to — as if we were exceptionally slow children — if we fail to bow down to Massa Tarantino in all his "hip" and "Politically Incorrect" splendor ?

Because racism sells, that's why. Especially in its New Improved "Postmodern" form.

Takes the sting out of having a black President who knows ore than you do — doesn't it Whitey?

steve

Wow, such brilliant commentary. As a white guy, I silently had very similar thoughts about the two directors but never really voiced them because I never felt qualified to do so. Personally, I thought "Django" (which I saw last night) was a powerful and very important film. Also, it was just a lot of fun to watch (except when it wasn't, especially the whipping scenes). It's an ugly, beautiful film from an extremely talented director. Yep, Tarantino has out-Spiked Spike by miles with this masterpiece revenge film. I hope they can resolve their differences, because they're both such important American artists.

james

Bullshit. I'm not buying any of this. Imagine if Spike Lee had a movie filled with 90 anti-Jewish references in it (like the word "kike" for example.) I doubt anyone would be defending him; yet for almost all of the critical/hollywood establishment to support QT shows the latent racism that fills Hollywood. QT has nothing to say about anything; his movies are a form of cinematic masturbation in which he lives out his fantasies of being the original director making a film far greater than he can ever achieve (In this case, Sergio Leone).
When will Hollywood and the indie fanboys wake up and see that the Emperor (QT) has no clothes?

4coloredgirls

This is the best and most even-handed review I've read about Django and the controversy surrounding it.

Bryan Hill

Excellent piece.

It's hard not to listen/look at Lee and see the all too common scenario of a once great artist searching for relevance. The fact is that DJANGO UNCHAINED is the most expensive and most mainstream film depicting the horrors of slavery in the history of American filmmaking. It has a black hero. A black heroine. An unflinching look at violence (psychological and physical) and a bonafide superstar playing a slave owner. As a cultural achievement, it's remarkable. "Django Freeman" is the kind of black hero most black storytellers (me included) wouldn't dare to think they could get Hollywood-land to finance, and Tarantino spent his political-cultural capital to do it.

In the theatre, my wife and I constantly looked at each other during the film sharing the silent sentiment: "Wow. They did this."

I imagine that has to hurt Lee personally. Even with Denzel by his side, Hollywood would never finance DJANGO from him. He can't even get financing for an INSIDE MAN sequel. Is it racism? I doubt that. More like the career residue of building a personal constantly at war with White America. For Spike Lee, to watch Tarantino essentially make the most progressive mainstream film in history, particularly with a black male lead, has to be a difficult experience. I sympathize with that, but a "tweet slam" from a great American filmmaker is a difficult experience for me to see.

This is me hoping that Tarantino could spend his ample political capital on producing a Spike Lee joint and giving Lee a bigger, broader canvas on which to make the kind of film that could remind us of the great talent he is.

Kevin B. Lee

This piece weaves together as many reference points as a Tarantino movie, and flows like a fever dream. This may very well be the best piece this site has run all year. What a way to go out.

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