A couple weeks back, I started to write my next blog entry, which was to be a public excoriation of Quentin Tarantino. Like most film geeks of my generation, I loved Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction when they first arrived. But, unlike most of my peers, I think QT has become a silly, self-indulgent filmmaker whose early promise has been swallowed in a miasma of surface cool, cartoon camp and kitchsy stylistic flourishes bordering on self parody. I intended to build a fine case against QT, while also reviewing his newest ‘masterpiece’ Django Unchained, which I planned to see (because if I’m going to talk about a film, I need to see it) and anticipated hating (because I haven’t really liked a QT film since Pulp Fiction).
Something strange happened, though. First, I ended up sort of liking Django Unchained. Not loving it, mind you, but certainly finding myself more invested in its story than I have been in any Tarantino film since Pulp Fiction. A lot of this had to do with QT employing some self-control for once and telling a story that had more-or-less real, interesting characters at its heart, and eschewing his normal (and tiresome) penchant for shattering chronology and emphasizing bizarre little stylistic flourishes to no appreciable narrative end (remember the Pussy Wagon font introducing Hugo Stiglitz in Inglorious Basterds? Or, for that matter, the Bride’s tiresome attempts in Kill Bill to get her toe to wiggle in said Pussy Wagon? Snoooooore…). The other source of my enjoyment might have come from the subject matter, and QT’s handling of it. Django Unchained, for all its bombast, bent comedy and Spaghetti western silliness, is an earnest and brutal indictment of American chattel slavery, an unequivocal condemnation of slavery’s depredations, and an uncompromising damnation of anyone, anywhere, who thinks they can justify, brush aside, or dilute the poisonous legacy of slavery and the institutionalized racism that it supported. While I have my issues with the movie as a movie, I think Tarantino’s intent in this regard is commendable. What I find puzzling is the intensity of the reaction from the peanut gallery.
On one hand, you’ve got black filmgoers tweeting about slaughtering white folks in some long-overdue retribution for slavery’s terrors—which is silly, because it’s not like the terrors of slavery are breaking news.
On the other hand, you’ve got Spike Lee publicly refusing to watch the film, accusing it of making light of slavery and its effect on his ancestors—which is ridiculous, because while the movie is occasionally silly, I don’t think anyone who’s seen it could accuse it of making light of slavery itself. So, Spike, you ponderous blowhard, you, I’m actually going to recommend you remove your head from your ass, posthaste, and try to make yourself relevant again by other means.
And finally, you’ve got a certain portion of the white audience that sees something pernicious and troubling in Django Unchained—positing either a cynical manipulation of black sympathies by a white filmmaker in the interest of selling more movie tickets, or a dumb dilettante stirring up trouble over old news, the cinematic equivalent of daring mass hysteria and injury by crying ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.
So, as Michael Caine once said, “What’s it all about, Alfie?” Why all this flap over a single film of dubious merit by an oft-lauded but ultimately goofy filmmaker? The answer, I think, lies in this simple fact: we think we’ve dealt with the legacy of slavery in this country, but we haven’t. As a matter of fact, I would argue that a great many cultural factors in this country—from the persistent presence of southern apologists and slavery-softeners (“It wasn’t so bad! The slaves were well cared-for, as good livestock should be!”) to the economic and social systems we embrace—perpetuate slavery’s pernicious socio-economic influence instead of exorcising it.
So, once more, for those in the cheap seats: slavery was bad. It is the original sin of this nation, because while we were “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” our founding fathers thought they could still prevaricate and only extend said liberty to people of a certain color; could only interpret the transcendent, glorious idea that “all men… are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights… among these… Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” to men only, and to white men of European extraction at that. If the blight of slavery seems to stain the red, white and blue more deeply and garishly than all the thousands of cultures down through the ages that also practiced varying forms of involuntary servitude, it is simply for that reason: this nation, unlike any other in history, was born of the idea that all human beings are free, a radical idea for its time. And yet, from the start, we failed to free every human being who called the United States of America home. We were born of one of the greatest ideas in human history, yet we tainted that great idea with a vile and malignant hypocrisy.
The Civil War provided this country the opportunity to settle the issue of slavery and to set itself on a path toward true equality before the law for everyone that called America home. Unfortunately, the cavaliers of the ‘gallant South’ proved to be piss-poor losers, and the Federal Administrations that ran this nation in the Civil War’s aftermath proved to be lazy and indolent victors. Embittered southerners—whiny little curs that they were—responded to a fair-and-square loss with localized insurgencies against occupying Federal troops and reigns of terror aimed at recently-freed slaves and any northerners who dared to try and undo the social and psychological damage that slavery had wrought upon an entire class of human beings. Southern apologists of that age (and the present one) want to cast this open rebellion and terrorism (along with the war that preceded it) as some sort of brave stand of a proud agrarian people against the oppressive hand of tyrannical federalism, as a matter of freedom and states’ rights, that had little or nothing to do with slavery. But the fact is, the terrors and depredations of the Ku Klux Klan and their sheet-wearing ilk in this era were neither proud, nor libertarian: they were the cowardly and despicable acts of cowardly and despicable people neither smart enough nor brave enough to see the error of their ways, admit they were wrong, and try to embrace change.
The federal government compounded the issue by failing on the follow-through; or, in modern parlance, by having no exit strategy. Sure, President Grant signed the Civil Rights Act of 1871 into law, allowing the Federal Government to intervene directly to suppress state disorders and, if necessary, suspend the right of habeas corpus—but it wasn’t enough. Within ten years of the Civil War’s end, racist southern democrats were back in political power, the Federal government had withdrawn troops from the south and sought to wash their hands of the whole affair, and freed slaves were once more systematically disenfranchised and turned into second-class citizens by the slow passage of the legal code that would come to be known as Jim Crow. Thus, because of poor planning and lack of conviction on the part of the Federal Government, the Civil War that was won on the battlefield was lost in the streets (not unlike our nation’s many armed adventures abroad, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan). It would take almost another century, and the work of several generations of civil rights activists and progressive politicians before the oppressive legacy of slavery and the Old South would finally be broken. Given these facts—a rebellion to preserve a vile socio-economic institution followed by armed terrorism and a century of home-grown American Apartheid—I find the fact that anyone can still proudly put a Confederate flag bumper sticker on their car, refer to the Civil War as the ‘War of Northern Aggression’ with a straight face, or apologize for the abominable feudal system that the Old South embodied absolutely dumbfounding.
But they’re out there: seemingly reasonable, intelligent people—the children of the modern south—who still don’t understand why any American, black or white, could be so upset by stuff that happened so long ago.
Well, befuddled white folks and southern apologists, perhaps the key lies in this simple fact: the legacy of slavery is still with us, played out every day in this country in the subtle socio-economic lessons that we teach our children and inculcate in ourselves. That lesson is basically this: people with money and power are valuable, people without it are not. It’s true that the United States is, at the best of times, seen as founded on principles of self-reliance and economic mobility—the notions that anyone willing to work hard, live frugally, and employ a little ingenuity can ultimately become a member of the privileged upper class by virtue of merit, and not (as it was in the Old World) by accident of birth. But the fact remains that most people who become rich are born into rich families (or, at least, well-to-do ones); that wealth and economic stability pass through generations, and that true mobility, while possible and often apparent, is still the exception and not the norm. Thus, people born into unfortunate circumstances—be they black, white, or otherwise—spend their lives toiling away, in the blind hope of ‘buying their freedom’ with strategic promotions, the invention of a better lightbulb, or a winning lottery ticket. Meanwhile, those born well-to-do get to live a risk free existence where career-making unpaid internships are easily supported by trust funds, any number of brash start-ups can collapse because the family always provides a safety net, as do investments, and career opportunities grow like weeds out of educational opportunities that include private schools, Ivy League colleges, expensive tutors, and armies of family attorneys to wipe away chemically-driven missteps and run-ins with the law.
No, we are not slaves in modern America. We have some choices—usually, choices dictated by the accidents of our birth. But anyone who thinks that we are a land of truly equal and unfettered opportunity, where the human virtues of hard work and earned merit win out over the elemental forces of money and power is deluded.
Therein lies the legacy of slavery: we say we are a color-blind, money-blind meritocracy, but we are, in fact, still clinging to the ‘natural order’ embraced by our European forebears—an order that says the wealthy are entitled to all they can horde and more, while the middle and lower classes deserve nothing more than what they can snatch with their hands or shove in their shallow pockets. Many of the black folk who see Django live this reality on a daily basis, and know well how the institution of slavery continues to affect their opportunities for education, for employment, for wealth, and for a sense of self-worth, even though slavery itself is over a century in its grave. This is also the reason that someone like me—a white kid from the ‘post-racial’ South—can watch Django Unchained and tap its font of rage and revenge. I’ve never been a slave; my forebears never wore chains; but I am from a world where a fortunate minority seem born to privilege and power, while the lion’s share of the population seem destined for no more than toil and dashed dreams. Boiled down to its essence, Django Unchained is a story about an underdog standing up to a despicable bully, exacting bloody revenge. Anyone who was ever picked on in a school yard should be able to understand the politics of the powerful lording over the powerless, and the rush that the powerless get when they finally stand up for themselves.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the big deal. That’s why black folk are tweeting about killing white folk; why Spike Lee is enraged by QT’s apparent disrespect for the plight of his ancestors; and why some white folk see Django Unchained as dangerous propaganda while others see it as a rootin’, tootin’, hot-blooded revenge fantasy that even they—pale and freckled though they may be—can understand and embrace. Django Unchained is about the war of the common man against entrenched tyranny—be it racial or socio-economic—and that’s a war still being waged.