No, you suddenly haven’t time-traveled back to 2012. Steve McQueen‘s acclaimed “12 Years Of A Slave” is bowling over critics and brutalizing audiences so it is hardly a shock that last year’s slavery flick, the decidedly more pulpy “Django Unchained,” would be brought back into the conversation. Quentin Tarantino‘s movie wasn’t exactly historically accurate, but he made clear at the time his disdain for what is one of the most celebrated depictions on slavery in any media, the 1970s PBS mini-series “Roots.”
“When you look at ‘Roots,’ nothing about it rings true in the storytelling, and none of the performances ring true for me either,” he told Newsweek last year. “I didn’t see it when it first came on, but when I did I couldn’t get over how oversimplified they made everything about that time. It didn’t move me because it claimed to be something it wasn’t.” But one man isn’t taking that criticism lightly.
LeVar Burton—the man who taught us the joy of books with “Reading Rainbow,” rules as La Forge and of course, led “Roots” as Kunta Kinte—had some harsh words for Tarantino recently. “ ‘Django Unchained’ is a fantasy, let’s be clear,” Burton told New York magazine. “And when Quentin Tarantino says that ‘Django’ is more real than ‘Roots,’ I call bullshit. I got nothing against him, but don’t go there, okay? Don’t go there, Quentin. Too many people who look like me bled and died for you to have the opportunity to satirize the slave narrative. There’s a place for satire in culture. Taken at face value, as a piece of satire, I went and enjoyed it. It was fun. Let’s just not get it twisted. ‘Django’ was not real.”
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Tough but fair, we’d reckon. As for Steven McQueen’s film? “… there’s a lot of resistance to revisiting this issue. I’ve heard disquieting chatter on both sides of the color line. Why do we have to revisit this again? Well, we have to revisit this again because all of us have forgotten!” Burton said, adding: “Steve McQueen is a brilliant storyteller, and he’s taken a very difficult subject and told it in a very accessible, however difficult, way. Now, I wish more people were going to see it. It’s going to play really well in New York and L.A. and some other cities, and I hope that it plays incredibly well overseas as well. It’ll be interesting if anybody is bothered to book a theater in certain locales—certain territories, as they say.”
And this view—that slavery is a story that must continue to be told—extends to Burton’s feelings on the remake of “Roots,” which he admits he was hesitant about at first. “At the screening of ’12 Years a Slave,’ no less a personage than Russell Simmons told me that ‘Roots’ was being remade. And my initial reaction was, Why? But, look, the bottom line for me is if one soul is moved irrevocably toward the side of humanity, then it’s worth it,” he said. “Human beings are the laziest creatures in the history of creation. We would rather not do anything if we could avoid it. But social justice requires rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty. And I think moments like ‘Roots’ and ’12 Years a Slave are opportunities for art as a cultural force to step forward and lead the way. What we do with it is up to us.”
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