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Django Unchained…According to Steven Barnes

Well Folks,

Django UnchainedI have finally seen this controversial movie. I say controversial because Spike Lee is boycotting this film & I have heard so many mixed opinions regarding this film AND it has an slave as it’s main character, Tarantino-style. I respect Spike Lee tremendously, but I’m in no way afraid of criticizing his criticism. It is absolutely unfounded and he hasn’t even seen the film! (According to recent news reports that I have seen) . Rather than give you all my probably long-winded diatribe of a review regarding “Django Unchained” I’m going to share with you the wonderful, erudite opinion of Steven Barnes. Steven Barnes (www.dangerwordfilm.com)  is the author of Lions’ Blood & the sequel, Zulu Heart. Ironically, Stevens’ novels’  answer the question, “What if black people enslaved white people?” to put it simply. I have gotten to know Steven Barnes via social media to a large degree & I have grown to, trust his opinions – very much. Here is his review of the film, “D’Jango Unchained”, which I happen to agree with!

From Steven Barnes:

This, the ninth film directed by Quentin Tarantino, and a doozy. In order to discuss this, I have to look at it from two different positions: as a movie separate from cultural context, and then, as a cultural artifact.

In a pure sense, Tarantino is a mash-up artist of humongous scholarship and skill. He doesn’t make movies about reality, he makes movies about the movies we love, making meta-commentary on the myths we devour and the images that shape our perceptions, especially of the shadow worlds of crime and violence. In PULP FICTION he demonstrated an ability to twist time lines to create moments of tension (remember Butch and his girlfriend on the motorcycle? I thought for sure Jules would jump out and “pop” them…but no, he’d already left the business, if you look at the sequence. Wow.) as well as pull all kinds of bizarre subtexts up to the text level, and give us maps of the inner worlds of these low-lifes that we’d never seen before. A stunning movie, that somehow created a context in which things I’d never imagine could be enjoyable became hysterically funny.   (Ving Rhames and the hillbilly. I’m just sayin’…)

While DEATH PROOF was nothing other than a C-movie romp, KILL BILL 1 and 2 had an emotional line and impact that I’d never seen coming, and made me start to think about him differently. But it was still about movies, not human reality. INGLORIOUS BASTERDS was fascinatingly misunderstood by many. It wasn’t a movie about WW2, but rather a movie about movies about WW2. A hybrid of an art-house film about a Jew seeking vengeance, and a bad WW2 “men on a mission” romp with terrible acting as part of the image system. And the two worlds slowly wound together, getting closer and closer until in one memorable scene, you actually watch Christopher Waltz and Brad Pitt engage in a Bad Acting Contest across a table, and I was in geek heaven. But over under and around the fun, there was something else going on, a righteous indignation that   cinematic sins   had never been addressed in the Tarantino fashion–bloody vengeance for payback of extraordinary evil.

I think he basically asked himself “If I were a Jew, what would I want to see in a movie?” And being the kinda guy he is, that meant watching Jews wreaking havoc on the Nazi High Command. And if it didn’t happen in the real world,   by God it was going to happen in his. Whatever one thinks of I.B. as a movie, it was audacious as hell, and not quite like anything else I’d seen.

We’ll get back to that. DJANGO UNCHAINED is a mash-up of several different genres or films, chief among them the Spaghetti “revenge” western, Blaxploitation, and the “slave plantation” film. Basically, Django is a slave   trained as a bounty hunter by a German dentist (you have to see it) who seeks to rescue his wife–who has been sold onto a Mississippi plantation. Pretty straight through-line, in some ways a story we’ve seen a thousand times before. It is played out with verve, beautiful cinematography, some hysterical comedy, and wonderful performances up and down the line (especially when you realize that these people are pieces of movies, not real people.) If I were an alien from another planet, watching film without any human tribal filters, and Django was slotted into the festival I’d consider it fun, bloody, and better by far than most of the movies it copies. I might put it in the top ten Spaghetti westerns I’ve ever seen, just on that count.

But there’s a bigger issue here. And that is that if you compare films about slavery from the slaves’ POV with films about, say, the civil war, or about slavery treating slaves as humans rather than animals, you’ll see the extraordinary level of avoidance of this most deeply poisonous aspect  of American history. Human history, really, but contrasted with our national myth, it is extraordinary. For an institution that lasted 250 years, followed by another 100 years of Jim Crow and segregation (which was still alive and well in my youth) to have been documented in dramatic form so infrequently (compare the 5 years of the Civil War. Compare films made about the Holocaust. Hell, compare films about Jewish oppression in Biblical times) suggests a level of avoidance, aversion, guilt and fear that distort the national discourse to this day. You don’t depict the rape, torture, and murder necessary to keep a people in bondage. You just don’t.

And dear God, you don’t even imply that there is an unpaid debt in blood. At the end of “Roots,” you had the absurd sight of Chicken George refusing to whip the overseer who had tormented his family for decades, a “that would make us no better than him” absurdity on the level of Batman refusing to kill the Joker, even though everyone knows Joker will simply escape Arkham Asylum and kill again. Period. We all know that’s an artifact of the Comics Code, and the need to preserve a neat-o villain, but has nothing to do with the real world.

And we all understood that Chicken George’s action was pure Hollywood Don’t Scare The White Folks stuff. Black people aren’t like us, the image said. They wouldn’t want the kind of revenge we ourselves would seek out.

The problem is that we’re not different. And therein lies a real, real problem. No payback. No vengeance against the perpetrators. Oh, that’s great for the spiritually minded, but a quick glance at world cinema suggests that vengeance is understood just fine by a large enough percentage of the human race to make the omission glaring. That is what happens when one group can control the images used to depict another group. There is no humanity. You don’t get the “full spectrum” of human response. You have very low level thugs and sacrificial “buddies” (any Dirty Harry film), and extraordinarily high level (Morgan Freeman can play God), but not the simple arc of growing up, becoming an adult, finding and satisfying sexual needs with honor, falling in love, raising AND PROTECTING family, growing old. The precise arc of human life which is most common, most often presented in film all over the world…the “what will my life be, Daddy?” question, the “how do I become an adult?” question that all world literature answers for its people…

This simply doesn’t exist in mainstream cinema. I’ve often commented about the lack of simple human sexuality in successful films with black protagonists (zero percent compared to about 22% for white protagonists in films that earn over 100 million domestic–the basic standard of “success”), but there are other gaps, and among them the lack of payback, something so deeply held as a part of American mythology that in such movies as “The Gunfight At O.K. Corral” (which I was just watching last night) it was totally understood that clean-cut Burt Lancaster would throw his lifetime of legal service out the window to avenge a family slight. “He killed my brother.” And that motivation–you mess with my family, I’ll mess with yours–is understood as more than the Code of the West. It is part of every world culture you can find, anywhere.

And blacks in America…well, they kinda got messed with. And I think Tarantino, watching Westerns, realized that black cowboys weren’t represented at 1% of their actual statistical existence. They were barely represented in Civil War movies–except in a film like “Glory” where they got vengeance, but had to die at the end for the “sin” of daring to demand to be treated like men. And the cinema audiences bought it, and the Academy rewarded the performances…it was as close to a moment of pure humanity as we could get, in that sense. Other films about slavery and its after-effects tip-toed around the horror, from “Amistad” (which was about people on their WAY to slavery), “Beloved” (about people already freed from slavery), “Lincoln” (slaves off stage), “Gone With The Wind” (the most powerful image creator in the entire sub-genre, in which slaves apparently just loved being slaves), “Mandingo” (in which slaves were exotic animals) and so forth.

Oddly, one of the very best major films on the subject was the comedy “Skin Game” with James Garner and Lou Gossett (about two con artists, one white and one black)…and it is no mistake that almost half of “Django” deals with a deadly con game. But the basic question at the core of “Django” is a geek cinephiles’s question: what would have happened if John Shaft, or Superfly, or Dolomite, or John Slaughter had been born a slave? And what if he had awakened to his true nature? In other words, what if the Avenging Hero as we understand him: the Rambos, James Bonds, Dirty Harrys, Martin Riggs–the human being who, armed with righteous rage and purpose can (in Shane Black’s phrase) “Touch the myth” and become that irresistible force of nature necessary to bring balance to the universe?

And who would be crazy enough to make such a film? A mash-up of “Skin Game,” “Mandingo,” “Gone With The Wind,” “Shaft,” and the titular “Django.”  Gee, I wonder.

Tarantino has done something here that just makes me shake my head. I can barely believe it exists, and man oh man, is it in your face. Django starts as a slave, and ends as a mythic hero, the kind we’ve seen countless thousands of times on the screen. Except…we haven’t. We’ve barely seen anything like this on screen, ever. At least for a generation. Remember: when “Shaft” was remade, they neutered him. We get angelic too-perfect Denzel and Will and Morgan, but no simple testosterone-driven male “thinking animals.” You can say all you want about whether these images are important, but I can promise you the audience thinks they are. In fact, I don’t think you can point to a single week in the history of cinema where where wasn’t at least one such image playing in theaters. I submit to you that there is a hunger for them that is incalculably large, and consistent throughout all eras and most cultures–in fact ANY culture that has successfully survived contact with other, aggressive cultures. Don’t have that energy? You get wiped the @#$$ out.

“Django” intends to correct that. It is a big, messy, sprawling, indulgent, violent revenge fantasy that DARES you to disapprove of the target of its violence: slavers. Watch the reactions people have, and you’ll very clearly see who empathizes with slaves and abolitionists…and who empathizes with the owners and abusers. Oh my Gawd, the blogosphere has been buzzing with hate, fear, and hysterical joy. This movie plays with cultural images and forbidden archetypes in a way only the most successful filmmakers in the world could manage, or possibly get away with.

It is FAR from perfect. I could make a considerable list of things I wish he’d done differently, or better, and yeah, it could have been trimmed by at least ten minutes. But that it exists at all is astounding. A simple story of a man seeking to rescue his wife from monsters. We’ve seen it countless times. Except this man is black, and the monstrosity underpins the single most persistent and attractive mythology in American history, as measured by GWTW’s adjusted box office.

Viewed through this lens, it is hard to feel anything other than a kind of awe that this thing exists. There are maybe five filmmakers in the world who could have done it, and the other four didn’t want to. A black director would probably have been too close to the subject–he actually would have to have been BETTER than Tarantino to pull this off–all the technical skills, and the writing skills, but sufficiently disconnected to maintain emotional distance…but simultaneously channel a volcano of emotions.

Hard to find.

I don’t know how “good” DJANGO is. I think it is totally of a piece with the rest of Tarantino’s oeuvre, but in an odd way more personal than most of his output. The man obviously grew up around black people, and simultaneously has a slight…remove…from the typical flow of human emotions. Is a bit of an “outsider” enough that he sees the human experience through a lens, and therefore doesn’t fully associate with either side of this madness. That’s apparently what it took to wrap his head around four hundred years of bullshit and come up with something like this.

Flawed? You bet. Unique? You bet. Was I hypnotized? You bet. Will I see it again? Ya think?

One of the best films of 2012, easily. But boy oh boy, is it not for every taste. Violent as hell, but not a fraction as violent as the institution it deconstructs. As a simple revenge fable, a romance, western, a Tarantino mash-up or a revisionist history that will…ummm…appeal to certain quadrants of the population and utterly appall others, DJANGO UNCHAINED is simply smashing entertainment. Excessive, overlong, self-indulgent…and masterful. A B+ at dead minimum. And in the right mood, virtually singular.

Steven Barnes

www.diamondhour.com

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Posted by on December 29, 2012 in Featured Guest blogs, In The News, Pop Culture, Society

 

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Reparations: “Where’s My 40 Acres & A Mule America?

Reparations: “Where’s My 40 Acres & A Mule America?

“Well I think every black person should at least get $100,000.”

“What do you think that’s gonna do?”

“That won’t do nothing but make Cadillac the number-one dealership in the country!”

“Everywhere you look, there’s opportunity. You know what I mean?”

“Everybody here would love to get a handout.”

 “lf they handing it out, I won’t turn down nothing but my collar.”

“Not everybody think reparations is a good idea, It’s stupid.”

Conversation from Barbershop Part I

There is no dispute that Africans were sold and/or kidnapped,  brought to America via the Middle Passage and forced into slavery and because of this dark period in U.S. History, some black Americans believe that descendants of slaves deserve reparations of some kind for this forced, unpaid labor.  The debate has raged for years now and shows no signs of going away or slowing soon, so it should come as no surprise that this was the second highest question from black respondents to my survey.

When debating reparations, it is important to note that there are basically four sources from which proponents argue reparations should come – the federal government, big corporations built on slave labor, believe it or not – white people in general and any combination or all of these sources. As with other topics, even though I identify as a conservative ideologically, I like to speak with my liberal and moderate friends to get their perspectives to have some balance of insight. Yvette Carnell is a self-professed independent liberal blogger and editor at the African-American news site yourblackworld.net. She happens to support efforts for reparations and this is what she had to say when I asked her about the topic:

Reparations are really the only way to make amends for the enslavement and subsequent oppression of black Africans in this country. America recompensed the Japanese in this way, and Germany paid holocaust victims. But, for reasons I won’t dare speculate upon, conservatives recoil at the very idea of rendering compensation to the ancestors of black slaves who were forced to labor for free, against their will.

And before you start in on how most African-Americans alive today were never actual slaves, just descendants of slaves, let me point out the obvious fact; it is not the fault of African-Americans that America has been so slow to do the right, moral, and just thing. The U.S. Senate didn’t apologize for slavery until 2009. It took our lawmakers that long to admit that the torture and revocation of freedom inflicted upon Africans once they crossed American shores was, in fact, an atrocity. That long to own up to the truth of what was done to our ancestors at the hands of those who valued money over morality. And, apparently, it’s taking that long to truly do the math on the monetary impact of having progenitors who came from nothing, not because they were lazy, but because they were enslaved and robbed. There’s a value to that, and it’s time that our government paid up. How can the “land of the free” not see the hypocrisy in refusing to compensate people for robbing them of all choice in how to work, love, and live. Reparations in the country are long overdue.” 

I also got the opinion of a moderate Democrat who said:

“In a perfect world, the best form of reparations would be a historical role reversal in which black people become the oppressors and white people the enslaved. White people would finally completely understand the pain, anguish and why black people cannot “just get over it” and how horrific the institution of slavery was. Pious black people on the other hand, would receive a harsh reality check, because they’d be no more or less brutal and inhumane than their white counterparts in such a scenario. Given reversed historical circumstances, blacks would not have behaved a whit better and whites would not have survived with any less wounds. I’d love to see both groups squirm when the shoe is on the other foot. There’s no such thing as a wound which takes less time to heal than it took to inflict. Slavery in the U.S. lasted about 250 years (the first slaves arrived in 1619), followed by Jim Crow and segregation. Counting by lost man-years (the average slave lived about 13 years less than his white masters) the loss of life was easily profound.

I have never, ever denied the importance of Jews remembering the Holocaust, the Japanese remembering interment during WWII or the discrimination suffered by Irish Catholics, but some whites have never stopped implying that blacks are inferior, deserved their slavery, deserved to be separated during segregation or that we should “get over it already”. I’ll forget slavery when southerners stop reenacting Civil War battles, and Conservatives stop thinking the descendants of slaves are the same as immigrants. With that said, I still don’t think that blacks should receive reparations because we are too far removed from it. The most appropriate timing would have been as close to harm inflicted as possible, so it’s not very practical to attempt to indemnify descendants of slaves from hundreds of years ago, now.”

Now this moderate Democrat is uniquely qualified to give an opinion on the matter because he is none other than New York Times bestselling author Steven Barnes of diamondhour.com.  Steven is the author of Lion’s Blood and the sequel Zulu Heart, which are alternative history novels set in the late 1800’s in which Africa colonized the Americas, enslaving Europeans, so he has taken the time to meticulously explore this view in the realm of fiction. I highly recommend that every American read his books because Steven is correct: human beings are very tribal but behaviorally, we are not much different from one another at all. For the record, although I can certainly empathize with Yvette’s point of view, I do agree with Steven, in that it’s not very practical at this point to issue reparations. Now that does not exonerate this country from blame or wrongdoing, after all, former President Bush called slavery “one of the greatest crimes of the century” in 2003 and in 2008 former president Bill Clinton expressed regret for slavery. In 2008 the US House of Representatives apologized for slavery and, in 2009, the US Senate made a formal apology for it. I have to agree with the last sentence of the writer here  who ended the article with: “An apology is a small step toward redemption. It will not improve anyone’s lot in life. But symbols do matter.”

However, reparations proponents believe it should not stop there. The federal government and corporations that have reaped the benefits of free slave labor (and all white people for some) should pay up; citing reparations paid to Japanese-Americans during WWII and Holocaust victims from the German government. The fact of the matter is that the 7,000 Japanese-Americans were paid reparations at that time and were very easily identified, as were Jewish Holocaust victims. At this point, no actual perpetrator of the wrongdoing would actually be forced to make amends. They are long gone and so are their immediate victims. According to Wikipedia:

“Since in almost all cases there are no living ex-slaves or living ex-slave owners these movements have gained little traction. In nearly all cases the judicial system has ruled that the statute of limitations on these possible claims has long since expired.”

Let me also state that I vehemently disagree with those who think that “all white people” should pay reparations because simply put, “all white people” – in fact most white people are not descendants of slave-owners to start with. The most recent and accurate estimates that I found state that only approximately 20% of  Americans share ancestry with a slave-owner and that estimate includes white, black and Native Americans who owned slaves (yes there were free blacks and native Americans who owned slaves also). I have not seenany movements to seek reparations from descendants of free blacks or Native Americans who owned slaves.

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Posted by on August 18, 2012 in Politics, Society, Uncategorized

 

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