Film is a space for a society to work out its anxieties, fears, and worries. Film is also a space in which society is "talking to itself about itself".
The election of Barack Obama, the United States' first black president, was not supposed to happen. The history, law, traditions, a racialized founding where the Constitution is stained with the "birth defect" of black chattel slavery, and white supremacy as habit, law, and tradition in America, deemed Obama's election a system shock.
Thus, film is a site for this lived-impossibility made real to be negotiated and processed by America's collective subconscious. Movies such as The Butler, Lincoln, and Django Unchained are examples of this phenomenon. The upcoming movie 12 Years a Slave by Steve McQueen promises to be an even more direct and challenging depiction of the brutality of black slavery in the West.
As we discussed extensively here on We Are Respectable Negroes, white folks are the primary audience for Django Unchained. While I love the film and admire Tarantino's vision, by his own admission, Django Unchained is a fantastic tale, one that offers a sanitized version of the horrors inflicted on black people by the white slaveocracy in America.
In all, Django Unchained is a slave liberation fantasy filtered through a post civil rights era white racial frame: the white slavers and overseers are caricatures; Django is an extraordinary individual and black Superman; Dr. King Schultz is the "good" white character which white audiences could identify with in order to free themselves of any culpability with the events on screen; the movie itself is presented as speculative history, a move which makes it a safe space for exploring depictions of black revenge on white bodies.
The Jewish Holocaust has famously been described as an example of "the banality of evil". Chattel slavery in the West was the casual social institutionalization of day-to-day violence and cruelty in an effort to make black people into a group deemed "socially dead".
Unlike Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave is using a "true" story to depict the horrors visited upon Black Americans held as human property:
Django Unchained gave its audience an escape hatch: discomfort at seeing the violence perpetrated by whites against blacks on screen could be processed and compartmentalized by Tarantino's use of a counter-factual/speculative history narrative frame. If early reviews are any indication, 12 Years a Slave is not providing that out:
I wonder, at what point will the revival of (the relatively few at this point) movies about American slavery be met with hostility and fatigue by white and black audiences? Will the former become resentful? Will some among the latter feel that "accurate" depictions of the horror of American slavery and legalized violence against black folks on screen is somehow insulting and demeaning?
Yet, for all of the angst and shock and perhaps worry by some about how the violence against black humanity by the American slaveocracy is depicted on screen, as a medium, film can only offer a mediated experience. What we are seeing on screen (and excluding some documentaries...and even in that case, similar questions about "truth" remain) is not "real". We are watching images of actors and actresses on a sound stage, with digital enhancement and special effects, projected onto a screen by light.
Django Unchained is not real. 12 Years a Slave is not real. Roots was not real. However, in total, they create a type of truth for the audience.
I have mentioned the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University several times here on WARN. Its curator is doing great work. David Pilgrim has added a new section to the museum's website where he and his colleagues answer questions about America's slaveocracy, and its aftermath, in an effort to separate fiction from fact.
Did whites use "human leather" made from black slaves? Were black babies used as alligator bait?
Many of the answers there will not make it into any Hollywood movie, for the reality is just too horrible for the general public to accept.
What are the American people afraid of? And doesn't the truth set you free?