Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Did White People Really Make Shoes Out of the Skin of Black Slaves? "Django Unchained" is a Disney Movie Compared to "12 Years a Slave"

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 indication12 Years a Slave is not providing that out:
McQueen’s movie is, far and away, the most uncompromising depiction of slavery ever put to film. Cracking whips rip flesh off backs with rapacious license. Women are raped and mutilated. Men, women, and children are stripped naked and inspected like chattel, and later, lynched with impunity. But this is as it were, and the violence in the film is never fetishized, but rather serves as a stark reminder of what so many black men, women, and children endured in this country’s not-so-distant past. 
12 Years a Slave is based on the 1853 biography of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man and ace fiddler living with his wife and two children in Saratoga, N.Y. One day, two affable gentlemen convince him to accept a fiddling gig with a traveling circus in Washington D.C., for which he’ll be compensated handsomely. One night, the duo gets Solomon drunk, and when he awakes, he’s bound in chains. 
“You’re just a runaway nigger from Georgia… Are you a slave?” screams his captor. When Solomon pleads his innocence, he’s paddled and whipped until his shirt is in bloody tatters...
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?


Vic78 said...

I remember Goodbye Uncle Tom being pretty gruesome. If anything comes out worse than that, I don't know what to say about Hollywood. Why do we always have to be victims? Why can't we see a movie about Robert Williams? Nat Turner's story needs to be told. General Sherman's rampage could use a movie as well. There were people that didn't play that shit back in the day. If you're going to show the bad parts, the good parts could use some light. You could start Nat Turner's movie with Khalid Muhammad's South Africa speech if you like.

Wavenstein said...

I gotta agree with you somewhat Vic. while I do feel that these stories do need to be told as brutally honestly as possible,I am tired of seeing black actors only chance of getting a main role is if they are playing a slave, butler, maid etc. when is Marcus Garvey going to get a movie? A. Philip Randolph? Ida B. Wells?

blackterrorwhiteterror said...

If a movie is made about bad negroes (and that'll never happen because rich negroes want to receive a return on their investment) it'll make things hard for these greasy-lipped negroes who are now increasingly struggling to maintain the dwindling viability of the tiresome and impotent grievance market.

The pathetic turnout this past week in Washington was all the proof one ever needs of the writing on the wall for the pathetic and useless grievance market.

chauncey devega said...

You know my thoughts on that. Too dangerous; the black culture industry doesn't and won't allow for it.

chauncey devega said...

Those Mondo film's were amazingly powerful. The response was very divisive--some black cultural activist types embraced them, others just said they were slavery porn. The seasoning process, the children given as human gifts, and other assorted horrors were pretty accurate historically.

Miles_Ellison said...

The question is who would watch movies about those people? The same people watching Tyler Perry Movies? The same people who turned Steve Harvey's back-of-the-car-magazine romance advice into a cinematic blockbuster? The same people watching VH-1's cavalcade of blackface? The same people who turned The Help into a hit? The people ignored Devil in a Blue Dress and flocked to Waiting to Exhale? Don't hold your breath.

Wavenstein said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ci_6CQ5R558 and it's a shame

Vic78 said...

I believe the culture industry has outlived its usefulness. I won't say how I really feel about them.

Vic78 said...

It'll take a movie maker with the kind of vision Van Peebles had to make movies like that.

j.ottopohl said...

You need a movie about Kwame Nkrumah.

Michael Paul Goldenberg said...

I went to the link at the Jim Crow Museum about using human skin to make leather and found near the end of what is supposed to be an 1888 newspaper article that would seem to confirm this as a more than isolated practice the following sentence, "One of the dudest dudes in town carries a match-safe covered with a portion of the skin of a beautiful young woman who was found drowned in the Delaware river."

Would I be alone in doubting the authenticity of this piece based on the appearance of the word, "dudest"?

chauncey devega said...

Interesting question. I tend to agree that this practice occurred. Why not? Given the barbarism of a system where people were worked to death, bred by masters on some plantations, babies torn out of their mother's stomach and smashed on the ground during the seasoning process, and where aged, injured, and infirm slaves were sold to medical schools for live vivisection and experiments, human leather seems pretty probable.

Stephen Kearse said...

The alligator and human leather stories remind me of a joke I once wrote. (https://soundcloud.com/black_steve/black-is-wack?in=black_steve/sets/croissants-for-kanye-1)

But more relevant to the topic at hand, I agree that 12 Years a Slave is going to be pretty gritty, and not in a stylish way. McQueen also directed Hunger and that was pretty intense.

I think the banality of evil is a really interesting topic, especially when it's real evil. In the really awful Street Fighter live action movie from the 90s, Raul Julia's character is confronted by Chun-Li, who accosts him for killing her parents and destroying her village. He responds, "I know that that day meant everything for you, but to me, it was just a Tuesday." It's darkly funny in the context of the movie, but outside of that, it's so true. History's most terrible things are often very mundane.

And you're right, a movie won't get made. at least not by Hollywood (and even if it were, audiences would probably respond poorly). But I do think a tv series or comic book might be good mediums just because of their serial nature. Even when comics and tv series attempt to artificially amplify the everyday, there's still something lame about it. And I guess that's why sitcoms are so powerful. There's something uniquely evocative about seeing the same people in the same living room over and over again that you just can't get from just a scene.

Stephen Kearse said...

That sentence stood out to me too, but I saw it as a transcription error.

chauncey devega said...

We will, if it has not already been done, get our first real tv series post roots about the centuries of slavery in the West from the BBC.

rikyrah said...

I am looking forward to 12 Years a Slave.

I would love movies about Nat Turner and Toussaint L'Overture.

Lewis Orne said...

Dude is an old term, recognized by multiple generations although potentially with slightly different meanings.[2] From the 1870s to the 1960s, dude primarily meant a person who dressed in an extremely fashion-forward manner (a dandy) or a citified person who was visiting a rural location but stuck out (a city slicker). In the 1960s, dude evolved to mean companion, a meaning that slipped into mainstream American slang in the 1970s. Current slang retains at least some use of all three of these common meanings.