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How Black Power Won the American West, and Why Tarantino Doesn't Get It

"Django Unchained" is more entertainment than meaningful history.

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Tarantino also doesn't seem to understand that gunslinging alone was not going to defeat the monstrosity of inhumanity that was slavery. Has the self-described film buff ever seen Sankofa, Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima's tale of resistance?

Sadly, the ultimate showdown in Django Unchained -- the Armageddon between Django and Samuel Jackson's Uncle Tom --  turns out to be not much of a climax at all. In the end, Uncle Tom is still a slave with largely truncated choices. A true Western outlaw would not treat the lackey as the ultimate villain. He would know the truest villains were the slavemasters and the laws that supported them. That's why he would be an outlaw. That's what makes the Western work. For white Americans, anyway.

The gore and violence of slavery in Django, it must be said, were actually pretty well-depicted and at least two of the whippings could have been taken directly out of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and other slave narratives. But even in the 19th century, some whites had begun treating the sexualized violence in these narratives as pornography. They were high on the masochism. Such is the case with Django, except we are all high on the violence, now. 

In a Daily Beast interview, Tarantino expresses amazement that Westerns "could get away with not dealing with slavery at all." Why the surprise? The American West is North America's grand mythological narrative and Tarantino is wondering why the genre never dealt with America's greatest contradiction and unresolved racial conflict? Is he unaware that when it comes to black Americans, in particular, and our right and responsibility to be either "the law" (as buffalo soldiers, American militia, the sheriff or President Obama as Commander-in-Chief) or "outlaws" of American injustice (as practitioners of civil disobedience from Martin Luther King Jr. to Fannie Lou Hamer, Deacons of Defense or the Black Panther Party), we have more often been what Walter Mosley calls, "Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned." Has he never heard of the Houston Race Riot of 1917? Or Tulsa, 1921? 

"Negroes with Guns" has always scared a particular set of Americans committed to maintaining the structural inequality from slavery. It's natural, then, that Hollywood would find it hard to promote a black outlaw with his/her "own set of rules." Indeed, black, radical political groups embracing Second Amendment rights to bear arms caused the U.S. government and then-governor Ronald Reagan (and Western movie star) to consider them America's "public enemy number one." Enter gun control laws, not Django.

But at least we are entertained. I love that Hollywood's vast historical inaccuracies are all being highlighted, simultaneously. The CIA is pissed at Zero Dark Thirty, American historian Eric Foner, has frowned upon the lack of facts in Lincoln (but still told people to "enjoy the movie, then read a book") and now we get Django, living as the only African in America who wanted to be free from chattel slavery and did something about it. I was certainly entertained. But an alternate history? Child, please. Hollywood isn't ready; but maybe Tarantino's efforts (and huge box office sales) will pave the way for something entirely new: a black hero with ancestral memory and community accountability who can be accepted by the mainstream. Now, that would be something. Yippie ki-yay.

Kimberly C. Ellis is an American and Africana Studies scholar and performing artist who created, “The Black West Film Fest.” Visit her Web site: http://drgoddess.com.