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Sorry Mr. Tarantino, the War on Drugs is not the Same as the Enslavement of Black Americans

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"This whole thing of this 'war on drugs' and the mass incarcerations that have happened pretty much for the last 40 years has just decimated the black male population," the filmmaker said on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight. "It’s slavery, it is just, it’s just slavery through and through, and it’s just the same fear of the black male that existed back in the 1800s."
In addition, he says that the flesh-for-cash business of slavery mirrors that of the prison industrial complex.

"Especially having even directed a movie about slavery," he said, "and you know the scenes that we have in the slave town, the slave auction town, where they’re moving back and forth -- well, that looks like standing in the top tier of a prison system and watching the things go down. And between the private prisons and the public prisons, the way prisoners are traded back and forth."

Quentin Tarantino is an amazing filmmaker. He is one of the great talents of his generation. I will be watching his new slavery revenge flick on Christmas Eve. However, Quentin Tarantino, an autodidact film genius, is not John Hope Franklin. He is also not Michelle Alexander. Nor is Quentin Tarantino an authority on the "black experience" in America.

One of my primary concerns about Django is that a revenge flick about slavery, drawing on a history that few Americans really understand, and presented in the genre of historical fantasy, will simply confuse the public about the horrors of the Middle Passage and the United States' centuries long status as a country ruled by formal white supremacy.

My expectations and claims are precise: I do not expect popular culture to either responsibly teach or to be historically accurate.

The first obligation of popular culture is to pleasure and entertainment. However, the realm of the popular is invested with symbolic power. And in dealing with a topic, where the mass scale barbarisms and horrors have been quite literally white washed away, there is an almost unavoidable risk that Django will flatten history in the service of narrative convention, Tarantino's own predilections, and filmic vision.

In all, Django, despite the complaints and tender sensitivities of white conservatives and others, is a relatively benign depiction of white evil towards black personhood under the system of racial terrorism that was chattel slavery.

[If Tarantino dared to make an "accurate" movie about the Maafa it would be rated XXX or NC-17; Django most certainly would not be nominated for an Academy Award next year.]

Django is not "history written with lightning." One would be surprised by how audiences confuse history as presented by Hollywood with the actual facts of a given event. For many, across the colorline, Django, will not simply be an exercise in a mating of the exploitation and Spaghetti Western film genres. Rather, it will be a convenient and accessible "history" that will upset, anger, and titillate the audience while it makes millions of dollars.

In his effort to speak truth to power, Tarantino makes the error of conflating the injustices and racism of the prison industrial complex and the "War on Drugs" with chattel slavery. His heart was in the right place.

Nevertheless, sentimentality and emotion are not substitutes for empirical rigor or solid historiography.

Moreover, Tarantino's passionate concerns about "black oppression" are more suitable for some type of corner standing on a plastic milk crate posturing agitprop foolishness, or silly black radical prison house polemic, than as an accurate description of African American enslavement or the War on Drugs.

I always acknowledge the role of structures, and their impact on life chances. The poor, people of color, and those who do not have access to inter-generational wealth, have a very different set of life chances than those born to systems of privilege. In some neighborhoods, the "rational" choice is to join a gang and get involved in the drug game. Many of these young men and women will end up in prison and be forever marked as felons, limited in terms of citizenship and employment options.

Unlike human chattel in the Americas, those people had a choice. However constrained their agency, they chose to be corner boys, to hustle, or to "hold it down for their man" by keeping drugs on their person or in the home. There was no one-drop rule that deemed those who chose to participate in the drug economy human property, their children, and their children's children children chattel to be sold away in chains. There is no rule in the War on Drugs which is either constitutionally sanctioned or remotely equivalent to Dred Scott and its "popular" notion that the lowest white man is above the most accomplished black man, or that black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect.

The Black Freedom Struggle involved the marshaling of black dignity and self-respect, as well as a recurring struggle against unimaginable odds to maintain (and reconstruct) our families and communities. The politics of black respectability (a tradition that I was raised in) demanded that black people hold themselves to the highest standards, and to be the best that the race was capable of producing.

Historically, black Americans had to both take care of ourselves, while also demanding full inclusion as American citizens with all of the rights and liberties we have earned through blood sacrifice. The triumph of black people in America over formal white supremacy was based on systems of mutual aid, support, respect, resistance, and linked fate. At present, the War on Drugs is a "war" that is in many ways internecine and intraracial. There, black folks are destroying other black people in ways that are wholly distinct and separate from what occurred in the United States during chattel slavery.

Do not misunderstand my claim: the War on Drugs is racist. It disproportionately impacts people of color. Whites are more likely to use and have drugs in their possession and significantly less likely to be imprisoned. There are documented biases in sentencing and incarceration rates along the colorline. Blacks do not control the international flow of narcotics into America. Black and brown people do not profit from the school to prison pipeline and the prison industrial complex.

However, the War on Drugs is not the equivalent of chattel slavery because at some point an individual exercised the choice to place themselves at risk by participating in the drug economy. Black Americans did not choose to sell themselves into inter-generational chattel slavery, to have families destroyed, to be raped, tortured, dismembered, and murdered.

[Tarantino's false equivalency can also lead to some unexpected and problematic destinations. For example, were the black community leaders who lobbied for severe penalties for crack in the 1980s, because it unleashed an epidemic of destructive violence on inner city communities, "sell-outs" or "Uncle Toms?"]

The closest analogy--and even here I would suggest that it is a weak one--to the War on Drugs would be debt peonage and the racial class exploitation (and barbarism) of the work camps in the postbellum South as discussed in the essential documentary Slavery by Another Name.

Historians, social scientists, and others who study these matters would know that fact. Tarantino is playing with nitroglycerin inside of a hot oven on a summer's day with Django. He does not have to exaggerate, become an expert of race in America, or play an armchair historian in order to get folks to see his newest movie. He is a master filmmaker who should craft provocative art that entertains.

I hope that he is aware of that limitation. I also hope that he had some respected historians of the American South and slavery as consultants for Django...I really do, fingers crossed twice.

 

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