Ta-Nehisi Coates got his inevitable close-up in this week’s New York Observer and, as anyone who’s followed his work on- and off-line in The Atlantic will tell you, he deserves all the love he’s getting here. He has the grace to be embarrassed by these garlands – which of course only makes him worthier of them, especially when the one encomium that makes him cringe the most is being labeled “the best writer on the subject of race in America.”
While it’s true, as articles like this (from last fall) or this (more recent) make radiantly, abundantly clear, that Coates can slice through racial cant with this dude’s ruthless efficiency, even a casual tour of Coates’ blog site discloses his facility with such subjects as history, politics, sports, science and music. Cultural arbiters will insist that, however eclectic his interests, they are filtered through an African-American point-of-view. Well, yes. He’s a young African American and he has points-of-view that are informed by his life experiences. But what if he chose to write solely (and with comparable grace and precision) about, say, chess or music videos or physics or economics? Would his mastery of these subjects be recognized, much less lionized? Probably. We live, after all, in a world where black writers become famous on TV for being sports journalists and a film reviewer-of-color receives the Pulitzer Prize, just for being excellent and eclectic.
Still, African American writers remain the default setting for editors seeking that all-important-all-encompassing “black perspective.” And that’s by no means an inconsiderable, or unnecessary thing. There are things we know, feelings we have access to that white editors and writers don’t. We ask the questions that others may not. Our loyalty and devotion to our race confers a responsibility to enlighten our white country-persons if only to make sure they don’t assume, presume or otherwise say (or do) something stupid, insensitive or ill-informed to and/or about us. Still, why should Being Black be the one-and-only-thing about which we are always counted on to deliver an informed opinion?
Coates shouldn’t have to fall into a “spokesman-for-his-people” niche conferred by whatever passes for a post-millennial media establishment, though the risk is always there. That unofficial pedestal prevented my adolescent self from fully appreciating James Baldwin back in the 1960s when I too often thought he was speaking “for” me rather than “to” me. (It’s only as a much older adult that I’ve come to value Baldwin as the visionary essayist and undervalued novelist he was at his peak.) As master of the blogging art, in emceeing and in posting, Coates has more space than his predecessors did in trumping and deflating any attempt to make him The Black Spokesperson; it also helps that he’s been generous enough to give his peers some props, something too few of our predecessors did in a more competitive era.
But black writers shouldn’t always have to be the go-to source for writing about race. Indeed, some of the finest nonfiction on this topic has come from Caucasian writers as well. Larry L. King, whose recent obituary saw fit to highlight his collaboration on a successful little musical about Texas hookers, wrote a brave, candid essay, “Confessions of a White Racist,” that was expanded to an even better memoir. And I’m now in the midst of re-reading Joan Didion’s “Sentimental Journeys,” her exhaustive and masterly 1990 report about the hysteria surrounding the 1989 rape and near-murder of a white woman jogging in Central Park. Having seen Ken and Sarah Burns’ recently-released, award-winning cinematic j’accuse, Central Park Five, I now find Didion’s epic dissection of the crime and the subsequent police investigation, arrests, convictions and warring points-of-view to be one of the most cogent examinations of how race, class, politics and hype conspire against simple justice – and, given how things turned out with those five convictions, Didion also proved how steely and forbiddingly prescient an observer she is. Could any other writer, black or white, have shown as much composure at a time when emotions about the case, for and against the original convictions, were still strident and raw? I can usually imagine almost anything I want, but I’m having trouble with that one.
Sometimes, I think everything you write about when you write about America is about race – except when it isn’t. (And when it isn’t, I’m tempted to think the writer’s trying to hide something.) But as Coates as written, it’s in the particular rather than in the general that a writer can find her true voice on this volatile topic. When the voice reaches too far, too hard and too broadly, bad things tend to happen. I shall let the Best Writer on The Subject of Race have the last words:
“No one who wants to write beautifully should ever — in their entire life — write an essay about ‘the subject of race.’ You can write beautifully about the reaction to LeBron James and ‘The Decision.’ You can write beautifully about integrating your local high school. You can write gorgeously about the Underground Railroad. But you can never write beautifully about the fact of race, anymore than you can write beautifully about the fact of hillsides. All you’ll end up with is a lot of words, and a comment section filled with internet skinheads and people who have nothing better to do with their time then to argue internet skinheads.”
NOTE: I’ve also written a piece for CNN.com covering most of the same ground here. If you want to compare or contrast, click here.
IMMEDIATE REACTION: If loving Django Unchained is wrong, then I don’t…well, let’s see. What is it exactly I don’t want to be? That is the question. One of many…
Let’s tip off with a question that may not have an immediate or easy answer: Which movie better empowers black audiences? An historic drama, more or less factually-based, in which white men argue over and eventually move towards ending slavery – if not racism? Or an historic fantasy, rife with vulgarity, anachronism and impropriety, in which a freed black slave lays waste to every white southerner impeding his reunion with his wife — and gets away with it?
I am not asking which is the better movie, Lincoln or Django Unchained. Both have their problems. But it’s possible, despite their flaws, to enjoy them both for what they are, while accepting what they are not. I did not expect Lincoln to be much different from any other Steven Spielberg movie (though, until the ending, it is) and I certainly didn’t expect Django to be anything other than a Quentin Tarantino movie (and it is, only more so, for better and worse.)
For whatever it’s worth, my issues with the movie have more to do with craft than substance. I think Django talks too much, even for a Tarantino movie; and I also think that many of its scenes go on for too long, almost as if the movie’s afraid to let go of whatever effect it thinks it’s making with those people in the dark. It occurs to me, as well, that Tarantino’s been ripping himself off too cavalierly. I watch the set-pieces of wholesale slaughter and think, if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear I was watching Kill Bill Vol. 1 and the Japanese have been turned into southern whites.
Still, I couldn’t help myself. I laughed at Don Johnson and his night-riding stooges throwing hissy fits over whether to keep their masks on. I was almost touched by the slave girl’s impromptu bon mot aimed at Django’s baby-blue fop’s outfit. “You’re free…and you want to dress like that?” I didn’t buy any of it. But I was into it. And part of me hates myself for it. But I’m not sorry I saw it.
All right, then. So what am I asking? Get comfortable. I’m going to digress.
Back in 2006, I reviewed Blood Diamond for Newsday, giving it the two stars I routinely doled out to generic Hollywood mediocrity. I acknowledged the importance of the movie’s theme, which was the exploitation and wholesale murder of black Africans for the sake of the pink diamond trade. But I found myself chafing over the way this movie, along with so many of its kind, depicted its dark-skinned characters “as wholesale cannon fodder, doomed-but-noble ciphers or sneering bloodthirsty sociopaths.” I also lamented how the always-exemplary Djimon Hounsou, cast as a fisherman from Sierra Leone searching for his captured son, was used mainly as a vehicle through which the morally indolent white mercenary played by Leonardo DiCaprio Finds His Humanity (or something like that). At one point, Hounsou’s character even wonders aloud whether his people’s black skin constitutes some sort of curse “and [that] we were better off when the white man ruled.” No one, certainly not DiCaprio’s character, bothers to engage, much less contradict, this query. And, of the movie’s critics, I recall only the Nation’s Stuart Klawans calling the movie on this odious hogwash.
This is how I ended my own review:
“I suppose we should be grateful that there have been so many commercial features in recent years (“Hotel Rwanda,” “The Constant Gardener” among them) that pay attention to Africa’s woes. But even the best of them seem to writhe from hopelessness to despair and back again. Maybe what the continent needs are some empowering pulp myths far beyond the hoary model of Tarzan. A good start would be to cast Hounsou as the lead in a movie about the Black Panther, Marvel Comics’ first superhero-of-color. An African king who’s both a world-class physicist and a supreme martial artist may not be plausible, but he could broaden moviegoers’ sense of what’s possible.” (ITALICS ADDED).
Some readers, at least those who got that far, seemed to have a problem with this notion. One used the word, “infantile (which over time I’ve accepted as a back-handed compliment). But what is so childish about African American audiences wanting their on-screen counterparts (or surrogates) to be more than merely victims? I believe even white audiences get excited when conventional expectations, especially in race and cultural matters, are upended, if not exactly transcended.
This is the excitement I hear from people after they’d just seen Django Unchained. I doubt whether any of these viewers bought their tickets with the expectation of seeing some historically faithful saga of antebellum life, and neither did I. They were buying a comic book. Many people have a grievance against the very notion of comic books, but I don’t. I understand that comic books as a medium are limited in what they offer their clientele. So are the movies, especially those who cruise the multiplexes for loose coin. Expect a movie or a comic book to explain everything about anything and all you earn is surplus sadness in your life that you don’t really need.
Even with the narrowest expectations about historical veracity, however, things get complicated when the subject matter is American slavery, European Holocaust or any number of similar assaults upon humanity. Hence the reaction to Django, after less than a month of swimming in the mainstream, ranges from sheer exhilaration to outright hostility, with the usual gradations in between.
Much of the resentment seems aimed exclusively towards Tarantino himself; a visceral dislike which I think has a lot to do with Spike Lee’s outright refusal to see the movie, tossing grenades at it all the way. Ishmael Reed, writing in the Wall Street Journal, believes Tarantino shows willful, if not willed ignorance of history, both American and cinematic. He writes: “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 the racist licks of his other movies.” Reed aimed this laser shot at the Oscar-nominated actor who plays the treacherous “house slave”: “Samuel L. Jackson…plays himself.”
I doubt Jackson felt the blow. He has, in fact, further provoked the movie’s antagonists by running straight at an interviewer asking about the movie’s prolific use of the “N-word,” refusing to answer the question unless the reporter, who is white, actually says the dread epithet aloud. (He didn’t.)
Though I disagree with Reed’s conclusions, I think everyone who saw Django should read his piece for its flying shrapnel of loose insight and, most important, its disclosure of what has always been a relevant source of disquiet: The debate over whether white artists have the right to tell any part of the black American story – which, as Reed writes, is as old as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
It is also as recent as 1967 when the white southern novelist William Styron published The Confessions of Nat Turner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel told in the first-person voice of the brilliant-but-doomed leader of an 1831 slave rebellion. The outcry from African American novelists was so intense that a collection of essays, William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond was published a year later. When I was a credulous, anxious-to-please teenager, I was so in thrall to the authority exerted by those black writers that for decades afterwards, I refused to even go near Styron’s book.
I still haven’t read it. But I plan to, because I now believe that James Baldwin, a friend of Styron who was one of the few African American authors speaking out on the book’s behalf, had the right take from the beginning: “I will not tell another writer what to write. If you don’t like their alternative, write yours.”
It’s still sound advice – and in the intervening years, black authors have taken it. Indeed, if anyone’s earned the right to rail at Django, it’s Ishmael Reed since, unlike Spike Lee, he’s actually created his own antebellum thriller that’s as funny, provocative and calculatedly anachronistic as Tarantino’s. I can almost hear Reed erupting with outrage over the sheer notion of my comparing Django with his 1976 book, Flight to Canada. But as I insisted to friends and fellow readers at the time (and continue to do so), even with all its musical-comedy interludes, burlesque elements and television cameras, Reed’s shrewd take on the slave-narrative genre had more trenchant, telling and useful things to say about the Peculiar Institution than Alex Haley’s Roots, which was ascending, that same year, to the rare stature of pop-cultural phenomenon. When Haley’s book became a television mini-series, it affected America’s racial attitudes as nothing of its literary kind since…Uncle Tom’s Cabin. No one’s bothered to do anything with cinematic Flight to Canada. Or, for that matter, with Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage, two other antebellum satiric adventures written by an award-winning black author.
In 1987, there was Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which did get adapted for the big screen eleven years later by Jonathan Demme. But even with Oprah Winfrey’s imprimatur as producer and co-star, the movie earned about $26,000,000, roughly half of its $50,000,000 budget. And while all I have is anecdotal evidence, I remember many of my African American relatives and friends who told me they were not going to see Beloved, no matter how good it was or who was in it, because they simply did not want to watch a movie about slavery, or its legacy.
This reluctance to engage with the subject of slavery is duly noted in Jelani Cobb’s ruminative take on Django:
“In my sixteen years of teaching African-American history, one sadly common theme has been the number of black students who shy away from courses dealing with slavery out of shame that slaves never fought back. It seems almost pedantic to point out that slavery was nothing like this. The slaveholding class existed in a state of constant paranoia about slave rebellions, escapes, and a litany of more subtle attempts to undermine the institution. Nearly two hundred thousand black men, most of them former slaves, enlisted in the Union Army in order to accomplish en masse precisely what Django attempts to do alone: risk death in order to free those whom they loved. Tarantino’s attempt to craft a hero who stands apart from the other men—black and white—of his time is not a riff on history, it’s a riff on the mythology we’ve mistaken for history. Were the film aware of that distinction, Django would be far less troubling—but it would also be far less resonant. The alternate history is found not in the story of vengeful ex-slave but in the idea that he could be the only one.”
Cobb’s ambivalence approaches my own point-of-view, even though I still liked the movie better than he did. As with other critics, he laments Django’s lapse into revenge-movie mode. I lament the fact that almost EVERY big-studio film is built for revenge, even romantic comedies. (What, after all, is Skyfall but the mother-of-all-revenge-fantasies with different agendas for vengeance overlapping and colliding into each other like a freeway pile-up?) No matter. If Django Unchained did nothing else but arouse re-examination of “the mythology we’ve mistaken for history,” then all the trouble and fuss it’s caused will have been worth it.