Could a Black Director Have Made 'Django'?
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For two reasons, Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” was all but guaranteed to ignite a conversation about race in America.
First and foremost, the film dares to break a major taboo. Specifically, as the New York Times critic A.O. Scott put it, “Django” dares to show “regenerative violence visited by black against white instead of the reverse” — a narrative that “has been almost literally unthinkable” in American life, much less in big-budget pop culture productions.
Second, the film does that in the immediate aftermath of a racially charged election that saw a black man reelected to the White House with the most diverse (read: non-white) coalition in presidential history.
Because of the content and timing, then, Tarantino’s masterpiece can be seen as a metaphorical exclamation point at the end of an historic year — one that many Americans no doubt interpret as the political equivalent of Django’s triumph. Considering this, it’s hardly surprising that an American Right obsessed with promoting what I’ve called the White Victimization Narrative has utterly freaked out on the film. For different (and far more valid) reasons, it’s also not surprising that esteemed voices like director Spike Lee and University of Pennsylvania professor Salamishah Tillet have critiqued the film’s themes, raising important questions about its subtext.
This back and forth will likely continue, and whether you love or hate the film, that’s a good thing. In a nation that often ignores racism and asks too few questions, Tarantino has performed something of a civic service by using his considerable entertainment platform to effectively expose right-wing bigotry (as seen in conservatives’ ugly reaction) and also help force serious racial questions into the national debate (as seen in some African Americans’ substantive critique).
And yet, in all the foment, one issue that’s been little discussed is how the film reflects the way White Privilege works. That’s a particularly important topic right now, in light of the intense conservative backlash that now occurs after any mere mention of the concept.
Film critic Eric Deggans alluded to White Privilege in his terrific Salon piece on “Django Unchained” earlier this week. Noting that ”studios know white audiences will show up for (Tarantino’s) movies,” he concluded that Tarantino is “a white man who gets to do what black artists should also get to do” — but too often do not get the opportunity to do. Why not? Because of the way films by different directors are inevitably portrayed in the media and interpreted by White America.
The best way to illustrate this form of White Privilege is to imagine ”Django Unchained” being released as a production from an African American writer and director. Under those circumstances, in the media and among white audiences, the film most likely would be perceived not merely as a mass-audience entertainment product with some underlying social commentary by a single director, but as a niche political film allegedly from a whole community with an axe to grind. That is, it would probably be met in the media and among potential viewers not in the way it has been met, but instead as a divisive “black movie” — by, and allegedly only for, black people.
Studio executives know all of this. In Deggans’ terms, they “know white audiences will show up” for a white director’s film about race issues, but they fear white audiences will not show up for an African American director’s film about the same issues. Thus, when it comes to films dealing with racism, it’s probably harder for African American writers and directors than for their white counterparts to convince studios to finance their projects. That difference is the definition of White Privilege.
Noting all of this is not to assert that African American writers and directors have never found commercial success in films about bigotry, nor therefore to absolve film studios for any institutional racism. But it is to point out that White Privilege is not just about individual bigots and single industries. On the contrary, it operates on a mass level whereby America — whether consciously or unconsciously, whether overtly or subtly, whether in movie tastes or other consumer proclivities – often privilegeswhites over people of color.