I asked Dangerfield Newby, dead some 160 years, his opinion of Quentin Tarantino’s homage to spaghetti Westerns, pulp and 70’s blaxploitation, “Django Unchained.” This was his reply.
He, in turn, asked me why I have refused to appear or opine on the flick, at the invitation of SiriusXM radio (not on my typical channel 126 spot), ABC’s Good Morning America (via DC), Huffington Post, my local Fox affliliate, Chinese CCTV America, Al Jazeera English and The Baltimore Sun (ancestral home of HL Mencken—wonder what he’d say?). Note I am a commentator for RT America, Russia’s DC-based news operation, and thankfully they did not ask. Neither did The Root, for it utilized no less than founder Henry Louis Gates himself query Tarantino! Skip appears to have a had great discussion with the director.
Still, aside from Christmas and New Years party and family banter, or playing troll on content provider’s comment section or on Facebook, Twitter, I never really punditized. Here are four reasons:
First, it’s a damn movie. I think it’s a good movie—from scripting to setting to character exposition to cinematography to acting and purpose (as homage). But it’s still a damn movie. It’s not Birth of a Nation or a snuff film from the 1980s. It’s not porn. Chill, people. Tarantino’s body of work has been as transformative in cinema storytelling, and even our cultural notions of cool, as any filmmaker past or present. If you want to argue about point, fine. If you want to contrast his impact with Spike Lee’s, fine. If you want to analogize it Judd Apatow transforming comedy, fine. If you like romantic comedies starring the latest cutsey conflicted white chick in love with a vacuous hunk, fine. If you like indie flicks versus Michael Bay, fine. But in the end, ITS ALL ABOUT DAMN MOVIES not life and death. Look, I can generate a list of dozens of name black actors (even excluding the ones in the film and other QT flicks), filmmakers, writers, screenwriters, anime and graphic novel creators, film professors, film students, producers and publishers who loved this movie. And, to their credit, even when someone jabs a mic in their face after offering honoraria, they keep their opinions to theirselves. I am in that tribe.
Second, I don’t see the need to enhance or maintain my brand by expounding on EVERYTHING “HOT” This is the gravamen of what educators/public intellectuals, pundits, commentators, columnists, digital essayists and even “traditional” journalists must do in this economy, in this media universe. Yes, Dr. Jelani Cobb’s piece in the New Yorker was as well crafted and common sense-meshed as I would expect from its author. Yes, Kelli Goff’s insights on the film were thoughtful. Yes, it was great to read Ishmael Reed’s take on the film in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal (cynosure of all things progressive and artistic and warm to people of color LOL). Yes, Marc Lamont Hill, always prepared and sharp on camera or online, presided over a neat discussion on HufPostLive. Yes, Spike Lee was provocative. But did we really need to hear this stuff or see or read it? Hell NO.
So why did all of these august glosses and annotated essay—and rants—spout like spring buds…or toadstools? The point is many of these folks live or die by commentary, exposure and access, and if they stop, there goes the brand. I am in that world, too, despite being osbcure enough, and relatively cocooned by academia. Jelani, and folk like Mike Dyson who’s at Georgetown with me (and who loved the movie) are also shielded in the academy, but unlike me, they are very much public intellectuals and must, well, stay public. They must feed the beast. So must Ishmael. Kelli is a pundit so she IS the beast. Some of these folks haven’t made the full Tavis Smiley Faustian bargain, or Melissa Harris Perry shy intellectual to political Nancy Grace-like presence metamorphosis, but many will. And this stuff is their bread. Their sustenance. As for Spike, his criticism clearly has backfired. He looks petulant and jealous, and, indeed—played. Not good for branding. Indeed, all of these folks has fallen to the beast: the content and hype machine which creates what’s “HOT” in the first place, out of dustballs and air molecules. It could be TMZ. It could be the New York Times. It could be CNN, it could be Fox. It could be Breitbart’s tonka toy media, it could be Slate, Salon or HuffPo. When they tang that triangle, ev’rone come a-runnin’ ta jawbone. Think about that when I get to point Four…
Third, as corollary to First and Second reasons, the analysis always seems to end up with some revealed polemic on the author/speaker etc. personal agenda or bias. I didn’t want to enter that hornet’s nest. For example, during the controversy about The Help, the legitimate, pertinent arguments about “magic negro” and plucky white girl tropes, or how black authors and filmmakers have little access or clout, quickly degenerated into screeds. And check out any Tweetfest or Facebook thread about Django and you see how quickly things get weird and how seemingly intelligent folks wax sanctimonious.
More importantly, however, the premises of the expositions and opinions on Django and Tarantino have been a bit silly when you pull back. Think about it: Whether people used the word “nigger” as much back then. Whether slavery is accurately depicted. Whether plantations really looked like that. Whether lower class whites enabled the system and why. Whether white patrons enabled black progress and why. Whether Mandingo fighting was real. Whether Tennessee and Mississippi really looked like Southern California or the Rocky Mountains. In that last missive you see my point—related to reason One. It’s a movie. A fantasy homage to a genre. It’s not supposed to be “real.” This isn’t Argo or, see below, Zero Dark Thirty, or Lincoln. We can’t set up a Glory vs. Red Tails vs. Miracle at St. Ana quality and verismilitude discussion. Nor is it conducive to expounding on a comparison or contrast with source material such as an original novel etc., as one could do with it’s competitor The Hobbit. No one’s gone batshit crazy on Twitter, or yapped on HuffPostLive on how Peter Jackson’s subverted the “glory in small things” theme of Tolkien into lurid swordplay. I guess that’s not “hot.” LOL
Fourth, there are more important things to cover, and they often get short shrift, or, more insidiously, are ignored or softpedaled for reasons of politics or cultural games by the very people who seem to lose their minds over things like, well, the word Nigger in a QT film. Clarence Page wrote an column on the Oxygen network’s (Rodan to TLC’s Godzilla) abomidable new reality show featuring the baby mamas of rapper Shawty Lo. That has contemporary relevance to a grinding problem and cultural dysfunction facing African Americans NOW. That’s relevant. Anti-Djangoists, take note as I hit you with further examples below…
Accordingly, Django seems to be sexier and meatier than desconstructing the scary meanings of the “fiscal cliff,” the broken words and vote wrangling, and the invidious manipulation of the debt ceiling situation from whence the cliff came…and will return in February. I guess no one wants to talk about those effects on black people. Or about continued carnage in Central Africa. Or pogroms against gays in Jamaica. Or murders on the South and West side of Chicago. Nor do public intellectuals and commentators question why Katt Williams, in all his derangement, gets a free pass in attacking Tarantino for the use of “Nigger.” Indeed, why is Django so worthy of navel gazing and exposition…yet the silence from commentators, activists, intellectuals is palpable and unpardonable when it comes to the glorification and showcasing of assorted dysfunctional behavior, twisted counterproductive co- and sub-culture, and choruses of the word “Nigger” on World Star Hip Hop? If you bill yourself as a cultural critic shouldn’t you have balls to act like one when your own people are clowning themselves? Or is that just reserved for Tarantino? Weirdly, inexplicably, when disgraced wingnut public “intellectual” Dinesh D’Souza released a laughable film about Obama, it was just me a few others who went on the offensive. The big names were largely quiet, and/or pursuing their own branding. Likewise, violence against women and girls of color by men or boys of color too often morphs into some bizarre and even spirited defense of Chris Brown and Rihanna Fenty’s “relationship,” rather than a hard painful look in the mirror.
In sum, reason Four is about distraction and hypocrisy. I will not lend my voice to either.
See the film. Tarantino’s certainly loving the box office attention. Or DON’T see it. Enjoy Les Miz. Or put your money where your mouth is and buy/rent Beasts of the Southern Wild. Refuse to get a Tyler Perry flick on Netflix, or rent nothing but TD Jakes-produced content. Its your choice, so who the hell cares what someone’s penned on Salon.com?
But then again…Come hit me back when Zero Dark Thirty hits screens, ‘cause I will have something to say about that. (smirking)