by Dr. Boyce Watkins
After reading this week about the objections that director Spike Lee had about the new film “Django Unchained,” I was both curious and concerned. I wanted to see the film myself in order to determine if Spike actually had a point in his critique. I also hoped that Spike would explain himself a bit more, instead of making brief, even cryptic, remarks about the project on his Twitter feed. I love Spike and his films, but the nature of his criticism didn’t make much sense to me, given that he’d never seen the film in the first place. I’ve seen several Quentin Tarantino films in the past, and I honestly find the man to be brilliant, creative and extremely weird. I wondered if Spike had a point.
But after seeing the film, I have to say that I think the great Spike Lee might have been wrong on this one. By the end of the movie, nearly everyone in the theater was clapping, the story was powerful and the cinematography was stunning. Tarantino hit the nail on the head, and he’s probably going to win a few well-deserved awards. If you want to understand this film, imagine a mainstream version of the John Singleton film, “Rosewood,” with a lot more action. To be honest, only a white guy could have made this movie and convinced so many white people to pay money to see it.
I had my own reasons for loving “Django Unchained,” and here they are:
1) There was a legitimate African American hero: Django, played by Jamie Foxx, is one of the few serious black heroes ever produced by Hollywood, a place that tends to put black people in a really degrading box. Django wasn’t just a sidekick or comedic buffoon. He didn’t have some ridiculous set of character flaws like Will Smith’s conflicted hero in the movie “Hancock.” He didn’t need a white man to save him, like most other fictional or non-fictional accounts we see on screen. Instead, Django was simply a strong, brave, highly-skilled black man who loved his wife enough to put his life on the line to save her. In fact, I dare say he was downright inspirational, which is more than you can say about the black men in “T’he Color Purple.”
2) It had a beautiful portrayal of black love: Far too many Hollywood films enjoy highlighting the incessant conflict between black men and women. We live in a world where love and marriage are consistently replaced by abuse, addiction and baby mama drama (just watch nearly any VH1 show or listen to the radio to see at least 25 examples of what I’m talking about). Django’s’ deep love for his wife and desire to save her from her slave masters struck a cord with anyone who has had a first hand experience with meaningful love. It was awesome to watch a black man show bravery in order to protect his family.
3) An in-your-face portrayal of slavery: Most of us are given the polite story about slavery when we’re in school. It’s as if the period of bondage was but a moment in history, followed by Abraham Lincoln giving us our freedom, and Martin Luther King giving us a speech…..oh, then we got a black president. This film, to the extent that it is historically accurate, probably mortified many of the people in the audience by showing the depths of dehumanization that took place during the greatest holocaust in American history. Unfortunately, this film will be the best education on slavery that many of the audience members will ever receive, but it’s certainly better than nothing.
The bottom line is that “Django Unchained” was a great film, and I think Spike’s criticism might have been unwarranted. I don’t think that every depiction of slavery has to be a purely educational endeavor which turns the movie theater into a history class. It’s OK to laugh, fight, love, live and learn, all at the same time. Even Quentin’s liberal use of the n-word in the film didn’t seem in the least bit out of context (you can’t say the same about his n-word rant during “Pulp Fiction”). I argue that he went out of his way to be respectful.
No matter how we feel about “Django Unchained,” we should be sure to remember that the best way to have our stories told is to tell them ourselves. Gaining the ability to finance our own projects creates both the opportunity and the responsibility to make films that present a more accurate representation of black humanity and the black experience. Life does imitate art, and if we want to put an end to some of the shucking, jiving and buck dancing many of us still see in our communities, then managing the imagery of ourselves in both film and music might be a great place to start. I would personally rather see young black men become inspired by brave men like Django than by the rapper 2Chainz…..Django was willing to go to the ends of the earth to protect and preserve his family….2Chainz could only appreciate Kerry Washington if she were a “big booty hoe;” those are two very different interpretations of black masculinity.
I congratulate Quentin, Jamie, Kerry, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson for an extraordinary film. ”Django Unchained” was a classic for the ages.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a professor at Syracuse University and author of the book, “Commercialized Hip-Hop: The Gospel o Self Destruction.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.