eading from behind, sliding downhill, abusing all the talent previously shown in directing, in writing, in coaxing the best from actors—this is a serious charge. Yet that is what Quentin Tarantino has done in Django Unchained. The recent Oscar is simply further proof of Hollywood’s cult of superficial cool. With Django, Tarantino has slipped down behind himself into a shallow and bloodstained hip-hop turn that his own best work has well refuted. Often refuted.
Tarantino wrote and directed the finest Blaxploitation film ever made, 1997’s Jackie Brown. This film was an inventive and even courageous victory. Choosing not to sucker-punch the black audience through bad taste, or even to exploit it, the director/writer created something revolutionary, a well-made black action movie set in the criminal world.
We must understand what Blaxploitation was to fully comprehend Tarantino’s earlier success before the recent and resounding failure. Blaxploitation was a short-lived, highly superficial but commercially successful genre of the middle 1970s. The trend was well documented in Isaac Julien’s sobering and somewhat depressing documentary, BaadAsssss Cinema. As Julien’s documentary shows, the genre was actually something like a mayfly assigned to save Hollywood with large profits. Junk in the trunk, Blaxploitation introduced to the Dream Machine the salient fact of a black audience, and how easily it could be appealed to, with almost no effort at all. Just put chocolate on top, white down below—kicked, stomped, or shot down, if necessary. Writers, directors, and actors seemed to fall out of the trees. It became lucratively evident that every group has a taste for a Sylvester Stallone—wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. Once the sinking ship was safely afloat, things got back to segregated business as usual.
No genius need apply in order to explain that Blaxploitation began the backward road to pro-pimp, pro-street gangster chants, unmercifully exposed with due diligence in Byron Hurt’s almost astounding Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. Both documentaries are essential to a viewer who wants to understand how far removed from so-called rebellion Django Unchained actually is. Though true art never moves forward or backward, trends do.
In Jackie Brown, Tarantino ignored the single-minded and simplistic rules of Blaxploitation and he made a very important decision. He switched Elmore Leonard’s middle-aged but still attractive blonde, Jackie Burke, into the embodiment of pop black femininity, Pam Grier, the buxom queen of bargain-basement black movies. Then Tarantino went about sending his film in the direction of The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing, introducing the force of quality and a very rarely expressed subtlety of character development into the crime tale, especially the black cartoon version. This was very different from the way that Blaxploitation began and maintained itself. Tarantino’s dip into that popularized heart of darkness, however, was not a nostalgic reading of a flimsy trend that appealed to the black American version of sustained adolescence. Down the tubes went the stale garishness, nudity, violence, and the absurd plots in which these knock-off films focused on sleazy, pretentious cartoon rage, presenting themselves as a version of “militant” politics. There was little blood in the young filmmaker’s Blaxploitation script, but lots of well-drawn personalities.
Until Django Unchained, none of Tarantino’s narratives showed predictable black versions of hollow men and women, characters that always responded to life with guns, explosives, martial arts, and bloody special effects. The most enduring and easily misused American feeling is the sense that power must always be literally fought in order to make room for authentic vitality. Of course in the adolescent world of male childishness, there was always a rumble in the cinematic jungle; it showed its giant face in James Bond beating down a number of black criminals, and in the indie world, Nicholas Cage begins Wild at Heart by becoming so enraged that he beats the brains out of a black hit man with a switchblade, staining the stone floor of a movie theater’s lobby. Revenge is the teenage mindset. In Blaxploitation, this was given an ethnic spin, usually explosive. Black people—male and female—not only fought the white man, but were victorious every time.
Tarantino turned in another direction and built a cinematic world focused on a human agenda of rich complexity. He was much like Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, and Martin Scorsese in that regard, yet he brought a personal originality with blistering, comic, and resoundingly inventive character studies. In Jackie Brown, his character faces up to contemporary urban problems far better than loudmouth black professional protestors like the New Black Panthers, who profit from complaint and draw their styles from impotent saber rattlers.
Ethnic insights do not always weather storms, however, particularly if one, black or not, is too committed to common cloudbursts: they can slowly evolve into an aesthetic version of sleeping sickness. Tarantino surprises us again because his Django Unchained is one of the worst versions of Blaxploitation ever seen. It yields to convention in the most impotent ways. From controversy to commercial success, the troubles began with its star, Jamie Foxx, a third-rate actor whose shortcomings seem infinite. What was written for him was an insipid tale that Foxx, predictably cocksure, inhabits woodenly, missing the strike zone of an actual performance. The star, representative of pop culture at its most obvious, uses only about a half-dozen facial expressions, none mysterious or suggesting unmentioned depths. Foxx is given such a contrived and impossible task that he is forced to be a superhero to do even a bit of it. Obsessed by his wife whom he intends to rescue from slavery, Django does what he must do because they have such a touching and impassioned cup of thick home-brewed affection, though the two barely speak to each other on-screen, only dream or stare longingly, equal in dialogue to a pair of black sheep in a pasture.
Slavery, the film implies, was a sharp blade. It cut all the fat from romance and the lean meat left has only a deliciousness exclusive to Django and his Broomhilda, neither sharing the taste of it with the audience. And that is how it goes, their love running silent and never close to deep. Overlong scenes never bring off a masterpiece of formal creativity equal to the long basement scene of Inglourious Basterds, which, by the way, already stands with any compelling extended scene, tightened up with surprise, pace, humor, menace, and suspense. There Tarantino took up Altman’s anger at short scenes and swift cuts inspired by television commercials, where so many new directors get their start. Tarantino did not talk about it but he proved the durable aesthetic value of a cinematic section almost twenty minutes long. Things are very different in Django.
Foxx’s performance reveals him to be an amateur next to the masterful Samuel L. Jackson, who brought off a nuanced performance as the hired killer in Pulp Fiction, or the illegal gun dealer in Jackie Brown, an arms hustler who uses black nationalist rhetoric on his intended victims, talking of the white man trying to set “black against black.” Jackson delivers some of Tarantino’s most truly insightful writing. Though Jackson gives an exceptional performance as a house slave in Django, a man who is quite intelligent and given to jokingly running everything on the plantation, brutal or not, his character is never matched or counterpointed. The film has no comparably complicated black character, good or bad (or somewhere in between, like most people). It appears that more than one Negro character on a large plantation with plenty of slaves is too much for a thin postcard covered with dirty notes.
Tarantino’s career began with films that used ethnic diversity in a natural way, and he also made stinging fun of racism. In Pulp Fiction, he went to town with the idea that lynching could have hypnotic and confused homoerotic underpinnings, which could explain why these gory rituals so often built up to a peak of savage intensity when castrating the black man, as if exorcising a sexual demon by removing the testicles. Tarantino had taken the shock of violent racism to a new place in cinema. Examples of his thinking across ethnic lines arrive in casual allusions to Apaches in the basement’s parlor game played by the Nazis, which thematically connects to the nickname of Brad Pitt’s character, Aldo the Apache. The terrorist American officer intends to brutally horrify troops and Gestapo officers, alluding, through scalping, to the cutting off of Nazi ears in Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One. Only Tarantino would have the terrifying American officer played by Pitt bring up the Negro as a folk hero by asking whether the next exciting thing done by the German officer who has captured Pitt will be “Eliza on the ice,” a reference to the once well-known character in the stage version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin—perhaps the source of the clichéd sacrificial dark buddy of the melodramatic white hero who appears in far too many Hollywood action films.
The characters are conceived and performed with such charm, sophistication, humor, and personal mystery that they are much more frightening than the Halloween monsters of domestic war movies. Tarantino’s Nazis force us to see how enjoyable it is to be part of the chosen Aryan few. They carry themselves as if blessed by the invincibility of cosmic mercy—unlike those who are desperate, resourcefully undignified vermin; those who must be removed to better the world and keep the floors clean to a point of slippery glossiness. These elements allow the film, for all of the willed combinations that move outside of reality or history, to do something marvelous: ascend to a place right next to historically close encounters, such as Conspiracy and Downfall. This was due to its human insight.
Tarantino’s gifts as a writer were revealed early in his penetrating sense of the human labyrinth that transcends good and evil and confuses too many Americans. He confounded the audience’s preference for cartoon obviousness so inventively that it led to an international career of great commercial success. (Spike Lee has convinced himself this is about race instead of superior writing ability.) Then there is the younger director’s syncopated sense of narrative form in which the unexpected rhythm of purposefully disordered sequences appears, goes beyond befuddlement, and helps create worshipful international cults worldwide. That gift for the unexpected is only blunted if the filmmaker sees both the subject and its intended audience far, far too simply, deluding himself into believing that he understands it all much too quickly.
Tarantino does not address the shades of gray in the context of his largely parallel Southern characters in Django, those who benefit from slavery and make the most of the power it delivers. He claims to have itched to make a film set during slavery, needing substantial time and research and to do a great deal of reading on the subject. It came to no avail, not with any of the luminous ideas and images we think we should expect from him. In this film, we are given no sense of the tethered superiority felt by the so-called white trash required to do the most dangerous work. There was a simple reason: injury and mutilation of slaves cost the masters much more than any terrible accident had by poor whites; the lower rung of a superior species was always available and inexpensive.
Sexual pleasure for the white men is alluded to but never seen; nor do we find slave women who knew how to parley two heads on a pillow until they arrived at some kind of privilege. In Tarantino’s oddly simplified and inaccurate world, women are there more as set decoration or props, not living characters. All of the complicated life in the context of slavery has been well documented through personal testimony and astute observation, so ignorance is no excuse. There is too much artistic work from Faulkner, Ellison, and recent writers, not to mention the clearinghouse on the subject of slavery that academics have brought to American campuses of higher education, a pyramid reaching from a large base of mediocre data to a slim peak full of stoic and indispensable information.
Tarantino seems not to be meeting the most famous clichés with a strong sense of touchingly complex and confounding humanity that may have been pushed down but was hardly destroyed. Ralph Ellison and I once agreed that a grand irony of American culture is how something meant to deceive and hide another action can do its assignment but also turn against the obvious in the process. The context blooms with alternate energy, sometimes becoming a moving, even captivating, aesthetic force that cannot be shot down.
Some of the finest spirituals entertained and distracted the slave owners while runaways prepared to steal away from the plantation. John Ford varied this fundamental motif from American culture when the singing Indian woman in Stagecoach distracts and deceives the endangered passengers while their horses are stolen. What could be heard during slavery is the lyrical grandeur the black community spreads though “Deep River,” the great spiritual sung in The Sun Shines Bright. The recently freed slaves and their Negro preacher bring an unexcelled purity commonly found in the most gifted of the poor, the educated and uneducated, and the unrelenting buffoons known to all ethnic groups.
Ford’s continuing dismissal of social prejudice comes forward in this tale about a Southern town being held back from self-righteous homicidal anarchy. An older judge stands up to the mob; he is neither infected by the invisible blood poison of bigotry nor willing to sacrifice a young, innocent black man to yowling townspeople demanding a gurgling death and ready to tear down the jail to see it, though one of them is later discovered as the culprit, the actual rapist and killer of a girl.
Given his pride for being a so-called nerd who learned film by working in a video store and by reading so much criticism, Tarantino’s claim of hating Ford for both riding as a Klansman in The Birth of a Nation and killing off dehumanized Indians “like zombies” in his westerns, sounds like a self-righteous and fraudulent billboard of advertised condescension. It reminds me of William Knowland, who in 1964 ran with Barry Goldwater, attempting to score a debate point as he reminded Hubert Humphrey that Lyndon Johnson had been a voter for segregation in 1948. Humphrey smacked him down with a lightning response: “That’s what I like about Lyndon Johnson: he learns.”
The self-made bad boy seems not to have made much of Ford’s eventual rejection of his own aesthetic shortcomings and his decision to avoid reducing any group (white, red, or black) to a simplistic reading. He absorbed the lesson of William Faulkner, who in 1942 threw down the gauntlet in American fiction with Go Down, Moses, introducing an unmatched and layered complexity to race relations that has yet to be excelled. All normalized national shortcomings were howled at in Ford’s 1948 Fort Apache, which lifts the worm-filled can of internal bigotry until it is seen in Henry Fonda’s character, the Eastern man transferred to the Southwest, Lt. Colonel Owen Thursday. A supreme embodiment of alienated leadership, melancholy, class prejudice, bravery, defensive belittling, outrage at governmental corruption—but an even greater outrage at an underestimated Indian chief having the nerve to defy him, the military representative of the United States Government, which he will not tolerate. Thursday leads his men to their doom. Cementing the fate of his command, he dismisses all seasoned admonitions and flesh-and-blood advice, demurring that no “breech clouted savage” had learned the tragic art of battle “under Alexander the Great, or Bonaparte, at the least.” Fonda’s character is a fictionalized Custer, going down foolishly and being celebrated for his arrogance and glory hunting by every school boy for dying with his boots on.
In Sergeant Rutledge, bigoted assumptions compel the father of a murdered and raped girl to fire on a Negro before asking any questions. He is there, as is her naked body, so he must be guilty. The highly respected black cavalryman is pursued, brought to justice, and prosecuted by a man quite willing to rely on the sort of stereotypes that would have guaranteed victory in the terms of The Birth of a Nation. Things are so logically turned around by the facts, however, that Rutledge is acquitted at the film’s end. The guilty man confesses on the witness stand and it has become apparent that a stereotypic conclusion can be fatal, a tragedy.
One of Ford’s intentions was to tear the bark off many different kinds of bigotry, while arguing for the importance of diverse agreement, as he did through modern situations in The Last Hurrah, where he lampooned Nixon’s Checkers speech and warns the audience through the speaker’s success about the dangerous combination of the soppy love of pets and the tendency to be impressed by a gadget made attractive through electronic media. This astute level of understanding remains in vehicles up to and including his last western, in 1964, Cheyenne Autumn.
Those who don’t look and pay too much attention to the tomfoolery of a young braggart might miss Tarantino’s debt to the past master. Since Ford also shows a horse dancing at the end of The Sun Shines Bright, you might assume that Django’s conclusion is part of a muddled allusion to the work of his predecessor—if not an attempt to get away clean with a theft of no consequence. In Django Tarantino attempts to top himself by using the tale of Siegfried and Brunhilde, flipping over Ford’s meaning to say what would work perfectly for a contrived hip-hop hero. The townspeople of The Sun Shines Bright finish the 1953 film carrying a banner reading, “He saved us from ourselves.” Django saves the whites and the faithful slaves from themselves. The rebel angel, downy white feathers replaced by black coiffed naps, marches down the ice-cream-cold popsicle stick, destroys the Valhalla of the big house, and mass-murders “all ye faithful” with good old Dy-no-mite. Jimmy Walker would approve.
For a creator who has produced such complex female characters, perhaps the worst sin of Django is not its replacing drama with endless bloodletting, and romance with sensation, but the abuse of Kerry Washington’s talent. The filmmaker becomes an insider and expert on black culture in a very stilted way, nearly competing with Spike Lee for the barbershop crown so perfectly parodied by Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. Blackface sensibility makes almost any white man into a minstrel among the sables, imitating the kind of Negro many black women have been disgusted by because he will sell out to sexism rather than defend his African queens in the only way a real man would. Perhaps naively expecting the compromised bad boy to participate with outstanding originality in what could be seen in Kasi Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou, or Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, we got what we did not at all expect.
The Dream Machine’s indifference to female talent remains, with or without an ethnic twist. Eve’s Bayou introduced Jurnee Smollett in one of the most remarkable beginnings since Elizabeth Taylor in 1944’s National Velvet. She has since grown up to languish on the same heap with Angela Bassett and all of the black actresses who are victims of talent-blindness (this is a snow storm that always manages to freeze the careers of gifted performers, past and present, like Kim Stanley or Laura Dern). From the stunning Nothing but a Man to right now, enough well-written parts for black, brown, beige, and bone-colored women have been produced every so often for one to be startled by the shallowness of all the women in Django, black or white, but definitely the thinly conceived, inarticulate darkie girls.
Our most successful “postmodern” filmmaker was not up to the real revolution possible for black Americans. Some see the real deal and come on with it: total humanity, equal to all. The real change all over the world is the female demand for equality, not the submission to corn pone ideology, greasy junk food drowned in ketchup, as if fake blood will make it better for the duped customer. Humanity straight, no chaser, will always do the job. As with fans of the most corroding hip-hop, Tarantino has been taken in. He does not write strong silent types, male and female, and in the case of the prized slave woman, only a weak and silent type. There is another way to look at the problem and to do something revolutionary.
Tarantino is trapped by ideology. Just attempting to fashion a programmatic purpose can bring down the best of us. Low-hanging fruit poisons the person too anxious to pick and polish it. Talking about what he intended in Django, Tarantino sounds as doomed as LeRoi Jones did at the bottom of his “hate whitey” period, or as Spike Lee when he was referring to himself as “a black nationalist with a camera.” He makes himself into one of the white child extras in Bing Crosby’s The Birth of the Blues, rising from behind cotton bales and astonishing darkies overcome by his hot clarinet improvising. A perfect update would be the NAACP’s Image Awards; or Trick Daddy’s video, “I’m A Thug,” with white kids who are thrilled to be there and to watch this hip-hop slumgullion with gold teeth and braids eat take-out fried chicken at an expensive hotel restaurant in Los Angeles, scandalizing the white folks at every turn. Of course, of course.
These are not far-out ideas at all. While telling Howard Stern about the new film and his successful career, Tarantino pulled the covers off. Last December, the filmmaker described going to a party with Jamie Foxx and getting into a polluted one-night stand with an aggressive, unattractive woman because, of course, he wanted Foxx and his friends to see him as a cool guy who could get down with an unknown woman immediately. Down is what he got.
Quentin Tarantino can run around with or hang out among whomever he wants. A writer gets material or inspiration from everywhere, but it is shocking to hear a major voice in Hollywood say something this delusional: “I’ve always wanted to explore slavery, but I guess the reason that actually made me put pen to paper was to give black American males a western hero—give them a cool folkloric hero that could actually be empowering and pay back blood for blood.”
The depth of the long, soulful game played by Martin Luther King and his cohorts succeeded, all the while rejected by a lucrative version of Blaxploitation in the saber-rattling desert of giant faces, but simple minds do not know it. Minstrelsy came back, as James Brown said, talking loud but saying nothing. In short, Mr. Tarantino, you see there is nothing about skin tones and its pleasures or troubles to be learned from The Big Black Human Being in the middle of the room, not from Foxx and his friends. You already proved yourself with Jackie Brown. There it is.
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