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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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Black abolitionists. Black outlaws. Black gunslingers of the west, south, east or north. These are the three groups of people that truly scare white Americans. And they rarely, if ever, appear on a Hollywood screen. They don't appear in Quenton Tarantino's Django Unchained, either.

So what do we get? A violently entertaining, rugged individualist and shallow "abolitionist" by the name of Django, a bounty hunter whose killing spree is sanctioned by the U.S. government. That would be the same government which, in 1858, maintains "the peculiar institution" of slavery as a legal entity in many states. The same government that in most circumstances would have considered Django as bounty to be captured, not the bounty hunter. But this is Tarantino's playground.

Watch Tarantino in interviews. He's rather cocky about the history he thinks he's relating to Americans (which is sad, actually), so while Django is not a documentary, it's not "just a movie," either. Unfortunately, much critical history is lost or completely skewed in Tarantino's telling, even when totally unnecessary. This is a major flaw in a film that is supposed to be about a black superhero turning the tables on history. The problem is, you have to know the history first. 

Let's start with the history of the way blacks have been stereotypically portrayed on the silver screen. In the film, Monsieur Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), the owner of the plantation Candyland tells Django that he is "one in 10,000." In his interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr. in The Root, Quentin Tarantino states, "The fact is, Django is an exceptional human being. That's why he is able to rise to this occasion."

This fascination with "the exceptional negro" is an old stereotype born of white supremacy. It's another form of what we might think of as the "model minority" -- the exception that proves the rule. It implies that most blacks are something very far from laudable.

There's also a problem of white characters "teaching" black characters about their own historical circumstances. Pondering slavery, Candie asks Django, "Why don't they rise up?"

It''s supremely offensive, as if African people had never seen, dreamt of or participated in killing a white slavemaster, overseer or other plantation worker. Perhaps Tarantino has forgotten the many enslaved people who mastered "accidents" involving the burning of crops, sheds and houses, and the house slaves who, among other things, poisoned "Big Daddy" and "Miss Ann" with their culinary marksmanship.

In the first scene, when a German dentist known as Dr. King Schultz (oh, come on) tells the others enslaved on Django's chain gang what their options are to get free, he points out the North Star for them. You've got to be kidding me. What slave, captive, runaway or free, would not know about the role of the North Star in African liberation? Ask Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, David Walker, Maria Stewart, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth or any of the Maroons who used the star to guide their way. Ask the Africans who fled amongst the Native Americans and the ones who escaped to Mexico and later fought in the Spanish-American War, on the Spanish side.

In Django Unchained, Tarantino suggests that whites led the way for blacks to free themselves. But black abolitionists spearheaded the movement for their own freedom. It's true that they were, thankfully, aided by conscientious whites who assisted them in various ways. But the violent revolts, the mutinies, the secret societies, the machete wielders, the forgers, the runaways, the spies, the fakers, the poseurs, the Underground Railroad leaders were overwhelming black. Let's not forget the hundreds of thousands of blacks who joined the Union Army to "live free or die" for themselves and their loved ones.

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.