Are Spike Lee, Tavis Smiley and others speaking of things they don’t understand when they criticize the film, “Django Unchained?” True or not, both men have gained reputations as being jealous egomaniacs who seek to monopolize dialogue about the black experience. Others say that they are righteous pundits who speak truth to power. In the case of Django, Kirsten West-Savali says that both men should probably see the film before they criticize it.
West-Savali gives Lee and Smiley credit for being important voices in the black community and doesn’t attack either one right off-hand.
It’s already haunting Tavis Smiley and Spike Lee, two respected black thinkers and cultural contributors who famously refuse to partake in the current Djangofascination. These two men, staunch and fearless advocates of justice and progress in black America, are not unjustified in their assessments of Hollywood and Quentin Tarantino; however, neither man can be taken seriously if their analyses of Django Unchained are defined only by bias and presumptions.
Let’s take Lee. “It’d be disrespectful to my ancestors to see that film. That’s the only thing I’m going to say. I can’t disrespect my ancestors,” the legendary director said in a Vibe interview approximately one week prior to the film’s Christmas Day release. But, of course this is just one blip in a long-standing beef between the auteurs.
Tavis Smiley, one of the films most recent and vocal detractors, also said in an interview with The Daily Beast that he didn’t have to see the film to form a valid opinion.
“I refuse to see it. I’m not going to pay to see it,” Smiley said. “But I’ve read the screenplay, and I have 25 family members and friends who have seen it, and have had thousands of conversations about this movie, so I can tell you frame by frame what happens,” he told the online news outlet.
West-Savali also points out that Smiley himself is consistent in criticizing the lack of options that African Americans are given in the way our images are portrayed on screen. She points to Smiley’s criticism of the lack of balance in Hollywood as a reason that African Americans should be disappointed when portrayals are one-dimensional in nature.
“The greater problem with Hollywood is that there’s no balance,” the media pundit complained. “One might have a stronger stomach for a movie like Django if there was a library of films I could go to that tells the authentic story of slavery and segregation. But since that library doesn’t exist, since there’s no balance in Hollywood when it comes to the complexities of black life in America, then it makes it harder to stomach a spoof.”
There is an abundance of layered criticism that could be levied against the bit of cinematic hoodoo that is Django. The film is so mired in racial tropes, excessive violence and uncensored racist depravities that each scene has the potential to be an emotional landmine. Still, to speak on Django with any authority, the film must be seen for oneself.
West-Savali states that Lee and Smiley’s assertion that the film makes a mockery out of slavery is ultimately incorrect. She also says that Tarantino’s use of the n-word was not irresponsible.
If they had seen the film, they would understand that their criticisms must delve deeper than the idea of it being a “spoof” and a knee-jerk reaction to the – subjectively — gratuitous use of the word ni**er.
Django by no means makes a mockery of slavery – see Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle,specifically the scene “Black Acting School,” if you’re looking for a plantation parody; in fact, Tarantino seems uncomfortable, unsure of his cultural footing as he pivots from vicious dog attacks and “Mandingo” fighting, to the malignant honor of being a house servant or master’s mistress. The scenes during which slaves are violent towards each other, or an unhinged Django is violent towards white people, are as revealing in their complete abandon as the slave punishment scenes are in their abruptness.
West-Savali doesn’t let Tarantino off the hook for the film. She says that his artistic brilliance doesn’t mean that his motives should be trusted. She notes that Tarantino has a fascination with African American culture that borders on psychotic. This shows itself in the manner by which African Americans are portrayed on screen. She also states that Tarantino’s view of slavery is not the right one. It’s just the way that director himself views slavery.
But that does not mean that his motivations should be trusted or respected. The eccentric filmmaker’s style can easily be described as “blackface in whiteface”: a man so in love with violence and hyper-masculinity that he fetishizes what he believes to be the pinnacle of both – Black Manhood. That he seeks entrée into the soul of blackness is irrefutable. What better way to do so than by co-opting the slave experience? It is much easier to tread on the hallowed ground of slavery once the boundary of acceptability has been shattered, and of course, in our culture that requires making it entertainment.
By positioning slavery as a plot mechanism in a spaghetti western, Tarantino reduces most of the blacks portrayed to peripheral chattel, while simultaneously under-girding the entire film with the strength of their story – his vision of our story. His views on the “peculiar institution” are cleverly embedded in dialogue spoken early in the film by Dr. Shultz, played by the talented Christopher Waltz, to Jamie Foxx’s brilliantly played Django.