Not to press the point too hard, but for those who’ve seen Django Unchained and still wonder, or even care, about its relative closeness to historical authenticity, there is this much about which they can be reasonably assured: Most white folks were as serious as cancer about not letting black people ride horses. Didn’t matter if they were free or not. After all, if slaves see other colored people on horses, they may start getting…ideas. Livestock wasn’t supposed to have ideas. And livestock wasn’t supposed to be riding on top of other livestock either. Silliest damned thing a southern planter with any wits about him could bear to imagine. Like having a goddam goat riding a pig! Now don’t that sound wrong as hell?
Livestock: Let’s be emphatic, shall we, as we “observe” yet another Black History Month. It didn’t matter way back when whether the black people looked like Kerry Washington or Oprah Winfrey, like Jamie Foxx or LeBron James, like the incumbent president of the United States or his stunning wife or their two lovely daughters. If they were in the American South before 1863, they were all livestock and not even papers claiming their freedom could ensure that they wouldn’t be arbitrarily tossed into a corral, roped, branded, chained and treated only a feather or two better than the chickens.
If you’re livestock and leave the corral, they’ll put you in a cage. And you don’t ride anywhere unless the cage somehow rides with you – or you walk behind any white man on a horse, even if that white man is stupider than you, or his horse.
A movie, I say with mild embarrassment, first placed this gross disparity before my callow sight line. The Scalphunters, released in 1968, was the third feature film directed by Sydney Pollack, a name I’d recognized from some quirky television work as well as a feature he’d directed three years before, The Slender Thread with Sidney Poitier and Telly Savalas as psychiatric caseworkers trying to save Anne Bancroft from suicide. This particular movie was a western with another intriguing interracial star pairing: Burt Lancaster as a fur trapper and Ossie Davis as an educated fugitive slave he’s forced to acquire as compensation for the pelts he loses to a group of cagey, sybaritic Kiowa.
The trapper, Joe Bass, rides off after the tribe while making the slave, Joseph Lee, stumble along the trail after him, mostly on foot. Joe is, after all, a man of his times and those times dictate that he should eventually sell off Joseph Lee to whomever offers the best price. To his credit. Joe does let Joseph Lee ride the horse just long enough for the latter to attempt a getaway. One whistle from Joe and the horse tosses the disconcerted slave from the saddle. (Bass: “You seem to have an uncommon prejudice against service to the white-skinned race.” Joseph Lee: “I don’t mean to be narrow in my attitude.”)
When they catch up with the Kiowa, they’ve pretty much emptied Joe’s whiskey supply. “You ever fight twelve drunk Indians?” Joe Bass asks Joseph Lee. “No, sir,” the latter replies, “but I’d like to see it done.” But before that show can start, it’s pre-empted by marauders roaring and slaughtering and relieving the tribesmen of their scalps and of Joe’s purloined furs. Joe Bass considers the genus of outlaw making money off dead Indians’ hair to be “the wickedest, crookedest trade to ever turn a dollar.” Joseph Lee, who intimately knows an even more wicked way of making money, can only stare back in what seems to be incredulity. We’re not quite sure how long before the Civil War this tale is set. (I’ve read some accounts that place it in 1860.) But we know by this point that Joseph Lee’s smart enough to keep his counsel here.
Still, for the first part of the movie, you wonder how Ossie Davis maintains his own composure. At the time this movie was made, Davis had achieved international esteem as both an actor and a writer with a successful play, Purlie Victorious, in his resume. He’d also established considerable credibility as an activist and was the principal eulogist at Malcolm X’s funeral in 1965. One was used to seeing Davis by the late 1960s, in varied roles on-screen – save for a leading one, despite his magnetism and warmth. But even though he shared top billing with Lancaster, a man of greater intelligence and deeper liberal conviction than Joe Bass, Davis must have thought at least a little harder than usual about the idea of playing in an antebellum comedy-western in which the only role available to him would be that of a runaway slave, albeit one who spent most of the movie choking down rage and humiliation with foxy erudition and oneupmanship.
Keep in mind, also, that the year this movie was released (the same week that Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis), Davis was in the vanguard of a wave of African American writers publicly chastising William Styron for writing what they believed to be a facile (at best) novel about Nat Turner and his 1831 slave revolt. At the time, many of these writers, including Davis, were asked why they hadn’t written a novel or play about slavery. Davis, I seem to recall, at least acknowledged that he hadn’t written his own work challenging Styron’s vision — though he would in 1969 appear in a movie, Slaves, memorable, if at all, for being Dionne Warwick’s first — and last — starring role in a motion picture.
Davis didn’t have to perform in that silly, overwrought movie or write his own play or book to contribute to the culture’s evolving view of American slavery. If he wanted to make his own response to Styron’s Nat Turner, either as correction or counter-text, his Joseph Lee was more than enough. Within minutes of his appearance on-screen, Davis lets you see his character’s cultivation, grace and instinctive ability to tame the savage white man. You also see his wit, dignity and, as noted, his slyness. The joke of a black slave being smarter than the he-man white hero made for a nice gimmick in the years when multi-racial casting in westerns was still a relative rarity; westerns themselves now being relative rarities. Indeed, the white male characters in Scalphunters, including the marauders’ bonehead ringleader Jim Howie (Savalas) are nowhere near as smart as Joseph Lee, the crafty Kiowa chief Two Crows (Armando Silvestre) and Howie’s sassy significant-other Kate (Shelley Winters, sultry and kittenish in what was likely her last sex-bomb role).
But there’s a point in the movie – a sharp, glistening point – when Davis emerges as much more than a clever plot device. It comes as Joseph Lee, having accidentally fallen into the marauders’ camp and then finagling his way into accompanying them to the Mexican border, goes back to where Joe Bass has been a one-man guerilla force in pursuit of his pelts. He greets Bass’ hostility with both a supplicating smile and a bottle of whiskey from Jim Howie’s private stock. “I thought,” Joseph Lee grins, “you could maybe use a drink about now.” Bass takes the bottle with contempt for the way Lee accommodated himself with the gang, not even bothering to acknowledge Lee’s facility for survival – or his urgent need to go to a country where there is no slavery All Joe can say of Joseph’s resourcefulness is: “Throw you in the pig pen, you’d come out vice-president of the hogs,” he spits. (See? Livestock…)
When Joseph then asks if he could have a sip, Bass snarls back, “If I was to give you a drink of this whiskey, it’d be like pourin’ it out in the sand. This is a man’s drink. And you aint no man. You aint no part of a man. You’re a mealy-mouthed shuffle-butt of a slave and you picked yourself a master. So don’t go askin’ to take a drink with a man.”
At that dreadful moment, all of Joseph Lee’s canny defense mechanisms vanish, exposing a bewildered, wounded and somewhat volatile visage. It’s as if Bass’s cruel words yanked away the slave’s shirt to expose the scars of several dozen lashings, not all of them physical. Davis makes his face register a host of warring emotions before it changes into something harder and tougher than what the audience, up to that point, had been accustomed to seeing. (As with the greatest actors, he does this before you’re even aware that it’s happened. And Davis, make no mistake, was one of our greatest actors.)
Joseph, recovering his voice, lowers it. He tells Joe Bass just how small and stupid he really is, without using either of those words. And then he says, “You know how long you’d last as a colored man? Ten seconds.” That single line does the work of several-hundred words of steamy, hopped-up rhetoric by Leonardo DiCaprio or Christoph Waltz in Django about the ingrained distortions of humanity that remain the principal legacy of America’s Original Sin. Before long, the two of them will end up slugging each other in a mud hole, only to ultimately be left behind yet again, with one horse, no furs and no passage to freedom. The difference is that, this time, they both wear brackish, grayish coatings of caked, wet dirt. With no color distinctions between them, they’re just another pair of wayward desert flotsam.
Back in 1968, there were some who likely believed such an ending rubbed the audience’s faces in social consciousness, so to speak. Yet I’m willing to bet if any contemporary Hollywood movie tried the same approach, some would say they were being too subtle. A movie like The Scalphunters could take its time, keep things light, make its points by stealth. Now some would wonder if it’s being too frivolous. As the many Joseph Lees in history who made up their beings as they went along would tell you, there are as many ways to be tough and resilient as they are to telling stories. This crafty little movie, which somehow got lost in an emergent wave of boundary-busting Hollywood films, deserves our attention for making that deceptively simple point.
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.