Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sitting on a Keg of Dynamite: Tarantino Discusses his New Slavery Revenge Fantasy Film "Django"

PLAYBOY: In the movie, slaves are raped and men fight against each other like pit bulls. When you made Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction, you were criticized for liberal use of the N word. There’s plenty of that here. Are you sitting on a powder keg? 
TARANTINO: Now I’m picturing myself sitting on a keg of TNT like a Looney Tunes cartoon. It remains to be seen, I guess. If we are, it’s not because I’m trying to be inflammatory. I’m just telling my story the way I’m telling it. I’m putting it in a spaghetti Western framework and highlighting the surreal qualities inherent in the material. I’m highlighting them mythically and operatically, and in terms of violence and gruesomeness, with pitch-black humor. That’s all part of the spaghetti Western genre, but I’m doing it about a section of history that couldn’t be more surreal, bizarre, cruel or perversely comedic when looked at from a certain view. They go hand in hand.
I am a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino's work. He is one of the most talented filmmakers of his--or any other--generation. In some ways, even more so than Pulp Fiction, I would argue that Kill Bill is a master work of pastiche and post-modern aesthetic conventions. In total, Tarantino's film opus is a love letter to cinema and geek culture. As a ghetto nerd, I hold him in the highest regards.

However, the more I learn about his newest "exploitation" revenge film Django, which is set in the antebellum South, the more I am concerned about his ability to match his genre sensibilities with the primordially difficult issues of race and representation that are embodied by popular culture's relationship to the Black Holocaust and chattel slavery.

As he shares in a recent interview with Playboy, Tarantino is playing with some combustible elements in Django:
PLAYBOY: But the idea of portraying these slave women as prostitutes—
TARANTINO: Well, they’re not 100 percent prostitutes. The Cleopatra Club in the film is not a brothel. It’s a gentlemen’s club, a bring-your-own-bottle kind of place. There it’s bring your own pony, and you can have dinner with her.
PLAYBOY: Pony is the term for an attractive slave woman?
PLAYBOY: And that really existed?
TARANTINO: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think it’s the cornerstone of slavery, or one of the things that made it work. Aside from the labor force, it was the sex on demand. The minute people own other people, we all know that’s definitely part of it. Did they do that back then? Yes. They do that right now—go to Bangkok. The thing about the Cleopatra Club is, if you like your slave girl you can take her there. You can have dinner. You can socialize. If you are a guy who wants to take your pony and just fuck her for a night on the town, okay, you can do that. But maybe you actually love your girl and she’s kind of your de facto wife. This is a way to take her out and show her a good time.
My principle worries about Django are centered on how audiences will receive and interpret the film. Every time I have seen the trailer in the theater there is an uncomfortable moment of awkward silence, then curiosity, obligatory laughter, and excitement.

People take away meaning from popular culture in their own ways.

Some will see Django as harmless fun and a signal that it is okay to laugh at a tale of slavery, rape, and one of history's great crimes which has still not been given a full accounting of. Others, will be offended not so much at the text itself, but that a white filmmaker dared to play with such a controversial and provocative subject. I imagine that many young viewers who are already socialized into a color blind lie will enjoy Django because slavery was "so long ago anyway" and why not have a good laugh at it?

The idea of black revenge is a source of great anxiety in American society. Historically, whites were terrified of black slaves rising up and unleashing a righteous and holy jihad against their oppressors. This was a reasonable fear given that slavery was an existential crime against the humanity of black people--one which African American bondsmen and free people revolted against at almost every opportunity.

Some blacks were terrified of "bad niggers" who would transgress the color line and make things more difficult for the "good" black folks who either because of realpolitik, choosing a strategy of small and quiet acts of resistance, or human fear, chose alternative means of navigating white terror and white oppression.

Fears of black revenge and demands of righteous justice still occupy a large part of the (white) American collective psyche. The conspiranoid fantasies about Barack Obama, talk of secession, and the Tea Party GOP entertainment complex's fantasies of white oppression are reactions to a deep fear that black folks, and people of color more generally, will seek justice against white people. The White Right's fears are paradoxical: they deny the existence of racism against people of color, except when there is some imagined act of "racism" against white folks, or their anxieties about being a "minority" in the United States are activated by a "threat" to white privilege and White Power.

My favorite recent moment of cinematic black revenge took place in Boardwalk Empire's first season when black political machine boss Chalky White tortured a KKK member in an act of singular revenge, and group punishment, for how white bigots killed his father. The scene was real because it was cathartic, dark, and therapeutic for those members of the public who can read themselves into Chalky White's character.

How many black folks have a story of racial violence, lynching at the hands of persons unknown, or "moments of schooling" that have been seared into their group consciousness as the descendants of human property who made themselves free?

Chalky's tutelage of the Klan member in the science and art of pain also revealed that such acts of vengeance also take a great toll on he or she who is the inquisitor. Actions have consequences for all parties involved.

Apparently, Tarantino's Django had consequences for the extras in the film too:
TARANTINO: Sociologically one of the most interesting things went down when we were on the Don Johnson character’s plantation, Bennet Manor. He has cotton fields there, and he has cotton pickers—girls, men, children, old people. But he also has ponies, and he’s the one who sells pretty girls. That’s his big stock: He is a plantation pimp, and people come from far and wide to his plantation to buy one of his pretty girls. We had a bunch of extras from the community, St. John the Baptist Parish.  
It was cool, re-creating this history with black Southern extras whose families have lived there forever. They knew what went on back then. Then there was a social-dividing issue between the extras that mirrored the ones between their slave characters in the movie. 
The ponies were pretty, and they looked down on the extras playing cotton-picker slaves. They thought they were better than them. And the people playing the house servants looked down on the people playing the cotton pickers. And the cotton pickers thought the people playing the house servants and the ponies were stuck-up bitches. Then there was a fourth breakdown, between the darker skinned and the lighter skinned. Obviously not for everybody, and it wasn’t a gigantic problem, but it was something you noticed. They started mirroring the social situations of their characters, being on this plantation for a few weeks.
Tarantino's exploitation Jewish-Nazi revenge film Inglorious Basterds "worked" because it was a product of the many World War 2 movies, made over at least 7 decades, that preceded it. The audience knows what to expect from a World War 2 man on a mission adventure film. Consequently, a director can play with those genre rules and expectations.

Because films teach audiences how to react to them, the public instinctively knows how an action movie will play out; American audiences are very well trained to World War 2 movies because it was 1) the last "good war" and 2) as such, is a moment central to our cultural myth of American Exceptionalism.

By contrast, in the United States films about slavery do not constitute a genre. Americans have Roots. The blaxploitation film Mandingo remains popular. Few folks saw Sankofa or Quilombo. The Mondo Cane "classic" Goodbye Uncle Tom has been studied by cinema students, and is also popular among exploitation film aficionados (Tarantino will likely have many signals to it in Django). Blazing Saddles is an indictment of white racism. But few know that it was written by Richard Pryor and channels his singular wit and darkly comic sensibilities; moreover, it is even more likely that most audiences do not appreciate Blazing Saddles' deep mockery of white racism.

[Did anyone even see The Skin Game? How many of you have read Max Brooks' Recorded Attacks? The latter graphic novel has a story about a zombie outbreak on a slave ship during the Middle Passage that is worthy of Romero.]

Django's peril comes from the fact that the "slavery genre" of film is rather thin. The audience for this movie lacks the cinematic training and exposure to distinguish between historical fact and cinematic license and fantasy. In short, they may know some of the rules of race in America, but this same public has not internalized the rules of slavery in American film as an exercise in genre and tropes.

I do not believe that filmmakers have an obligation to educate. Their primary obligation is to entertain the viewing audience. Of course, many filmmakers transcended this most basic responsibility and have created socially relevant art. Such choices should not be taken as a litmus test for the value of popular culture.

In the trailer for Django, Leo Dicaprio asks "why don't the blacks just rise up and kill the whites?" Such a question is a fair one. Students of American history would likely know that slave resistance was commonplace. They would also be able to give an answer about the role of terrain, geography, and how the South was organized as a military state oriented around preventing just such mass uprisings from occurring. I wonder if the average viewer of Django could give such a ready answer--especially in the context of a culture and educational system which does a horrible job of teaching its citizens about the Black Freedom Struggle, the Middle Passage, and the long tradition of black resistance (both non-violent and through arms) to white supremacy in the United States.

Popular culture is a reflection of the socio-cultural moment which produced it. Django is not a film about 19th century America. It is a movie made by a white filmmaker in response to the post-civil rights moment and the Age of Obama. Tarantino's revenge narrative is channeling a sense of black folks' triumph over formal white supremacy and the final, symbolic death of Jim and Jane Crow at the hands of Barack Obama, and those who helped to elect him twice.

Django is also playing on a particular type of white fear, and a yearning to move past a real engagement (one that has not occurred in the United States to this day) with the institutional, cultural, and political legacy of centuries of black enslavement into the world of counter factuals, fantasy, and popcorn revenge flicks.

I want Tarantino to succeed with Django. But, if given a choice between a revenge flick that plays on B-movie sensibilities about black revenge against two-dimensional white slave owners and their house negro servants, and a solid drama that exposes the reality of American slavery with the care and concern that Spielberg, for example, has shown in regards to the Jewish Holocaust, I would take the latter. Ultimately, the American people need to learn some basic facts about the Maafa before they are ready to indulge in escapist fantasies.


Anonymous said...

No mention of the 1975 film "Mandingo"? I remember seeing it at a drive-in and thinking this would be a whole new genre. It didn't happen, probably because the money men in Hollywood weren't comfortable with the subject.

- Buddy H.

chaunceydevega said...

@buddy. obvious one that he will borrow from too.

Black Sage said...

“DJANGO”, simply put, is a 21st century Blaxploitation film trivializing a time period in this country that was essentially one of the greatest crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. To me, there is nothing humorous about Tarantino’s upcoming film. Additionally, I’m quite disappointed with Samuel L. Jackson and Jamie Foxx for participating in this bowel movement of a film.

Even further, you don’t see prominent (or not) Jewish actors participating in a comedic film depicting where those who were eventually incinerated in an oven. But prior to this happening, Yiddish speaking women secretly has a few rendezvous behind a barn at Auschwitz with one or two of Hitler’s many air-headed, racist factotums. CHEAP THEATRICS!

I guess this is the price we must pay as a people for wanting to integrate with a people as opposed to separating far away from a people. Damn,…. we as Black people cannot even tell our own stories without cheapening the facts, making a buffoonery of ourselves and thereby distorting history! Really sad!

Anonymous said...

@ Black Sage

Well said. Thank you.

Ben G

Razor said...

As much as I respect Samuel L. Jackson, I am very disappointed in him.

I'm with Black Sage on this one.

CD, you are being too kind to this 19th Century Pre-white status-conferred negro.

Bruto Alto said...

@ Black Sage

Can you name a good black movie that came out in the last 3 years? Now if you can find one was it a success? Blaxploitation can be done right (Black Dynamite) I'll wait and see it to judge the movie. PS Tarantino knows this is combustible and loves it. "No such thing as bad press thing"

40 said...

Salute to Black Sage...

My two copper pieces...

I've hated this from the get-go. My suspicions were confirmed when the main commentary of the first teaser clip was the amount of times "nigger" was used in the 5 minute clip.

I've always had an issue with Tarantino's use of the word nigger, and I don't hold him in the high esteem CDV does. This was evidenced to me in "Inglorious Basterds" with the Jesse Owens bar scene. Just knew it was coming the minute Jesse's name was mentioned. Where QT will go unchecked with this is that in his own mind he believes the actors that have signed on are his co-sign to just have free reign with this word.

But it goes beyond Quentin's nigger tendencies. I like to apply the law of averages here when it comes to slave based movies. I don't think the slim body of work that exists of historical slave narratives on film for it to be made a joke and parody of. When you average one "Nazi Payback Narrative" movie a year, to interject one that takes some what of a comedic arc does not compare against the dozens of movies that address the serious nature of the Holocaust. But when you apply the numbers against historical slavery movies? Um... Roots, Glory, Amistad, Django Unchained? Really? So we're that comfortable with this Dark Age of human history that we're at the comedic blockbuster cartoonish violence movie? I think not.

My other issue with this movie is of course there's no revolution on Django's part with out Mr. Charlie guiding his thought and process. As Dan "Turk" Freeman said "Why's there always gotta be someone behind us huh? What expertise is just a white man's trait?" This movie is just a failure all the way around. The sad thing is that it will go over with little protest, and they'll make Spike Lee (who's not with out his own faults) look like a bitter man because he's gonna speak out about it.

But hey man this is who we've allowed our collective pop-culture identity be. Can't blame "The Man" when the 10 percenters now have taken on a darker hue. Tarantino calls you nigger and never gets checked. I'll weather this storm with my archives of better and more intelligent times.

Anonymous said...

Only a white man would make a movie mocking us. And you know what? We're going to eat it up. Spielberg would never mock the Holocaust.

Unknown said...

For the record, the movie had multiple writers. The story credit went to Andrew Bergman, who along with Pryor, Brooks, Al Uger, and Norm Steinberg get writing credit. From what I've found on-line, Pryor was originally supposed to play the sheriff, but the producers objected (issues of drug use and unreliability were raised).

Brooks used "nigger" pretty freely in BLAZING SADDLES, and that was something the studio wanted cut, but Brooks had final control and he was supported by both Pryor and Cleavon Little in his decision to retain it. There are simply perfect moments in the movie that couldn't have happened without it, particularly the one where the old woman apologizes for using it.

As for the new Tarantino movie, pardon me for wanting to wait until it comes out and I see it before weighing in. I'm so conservative that way.

chaunceydevega said...

@MPG. Pryor was the main writer as I understand it and Mooney who helped out and others have said. Yes, you are mighty conservative...very telling statement. I hear you on waiting to judge the film before seeing; but, art does not exist in a vacuum, there is a social, political, and historical context to Django which colors--pardon the phrase--its production and reception. Will be interesting to see what happens.

@diary. "we" make many movies mocking "us." See Tyler Perry et al.

@40. I like tarantino's dialogue. Some accuse him of having a "nigger" fetish. For my 2 cents that is how many folks talk and his characters have always resonated for me. Your other point is spot on, there simply are not enough good and dramatic movies on the subject to start playing games now. Even Glory and Amistad fall into the white savior trope. I would love to see a real biopic about Sister Tubman who freed slaves and then was a U.S. Army Scout.

Maybe a movie on Brother Colonel Tye? We will never see that one. Or a film about the Battle of the Crater or the maroons in Florida? Hell, we do have the new Kenn Williams aka Omar from the Wire in Twelves Years a Slave so that should be good.

@Bruto. Good "black movie." Hmmmm. For the record Black Dynamite was great. Does that African zombie movie The Dead count?

@BS. Sam Jackson in the movie is something to see. To be honest, if given the chance to play such a role I would take it just to be subversive in my own ironic way. But then again, I have my own issues. I wonder who the female overseer/slave catcher in the movie is? She is so bad that old girl hunts down the slaves. I bet you Tarantino swerves us and makes her an Asian kung fu goddess.

Anonymous said...

Many good comments here.

I'm wondering now if any of you have seen "Lincoln." I would appreciate your impressions of this film.

When it comes to potentially offensive material, I always find myself playing the "what if" game: What if it was a project mocking Jews, or the Holocaust?

Not to veer too far off topic, but I remember when Helen Thomas voiced her opinion on Israel, and was criticized for it. I remember Jon Stewart mocking her and showing a distinctly unflattering photo of her while doing so. I remember Bill Maher doing a segment on her, and he commented that many Lebanese folks like the name Thomas (like Danny Thomas, etc.) I couldn't help but wonder if he'd said how many Jewish folks love the name "Stewart" ... how that would have been received.

Quentin has a playful, dynamic talent, but I think he needs to think hard about history, and why some things are too brutal to make light of.

- Buddy H.

chaunceydevega said...

@Buddy. Saw Lincoln and found it tedious. Lewis is always awesome but a good hour could have been cut.

Plus, black people are robbed of agency and Douglass is not in the film except for a cameo. There is real history w. Lincoln and how black free people and slaves greeted him as a messiah--not in the film. The Thaddeus Stevens scene in bed with his black mistress is also over the top. Stephen Hahn had a great editorial in the Times on the film.

It could have also focused much more on his relationship with Mary Todd. The ending felt added as well because I bet many people do not know that Lincoln was killed by Boothe while watching a play...yes, our schools stink. I give it a solid B, with Lewis earning an A+.

nomad said...

Didn't see Lincoln but I saw Lincoln Vampire Hunter. Great film. Confederates vampires.

CBid13 said...

While I like Tarrantino's films a great deal, I have always found his use, or should I more accurately describe it as his overly frequent 'misplacement', of the derisive 'N-word' to be an almost juvenile attempt at being provocative for the sole sake of being provocative. It's certainly caused his otherwise brilliant dialogue to stumble over itself at times for the blatant inauthenticity of it.

There's, perhaps, only one line that contains the word that even comes close to being genuine, in my opinion, and its deadpan delivery in the wake of a nightmarishly surreal scene of rape and violence is more than convincing of dialogue's ring of 'truth'. So much so, that most people only remember the end of the line to which I'm referring, which goes something to the effect of: "...then, I'm going to find a couple of hard, pipe-hitting niggers to get medieval on his ass."

In all other instances that I can think of, Tarrantino's use of the 'N-word' simply sticks out as a sore thumb.

I read an interview with him once where he claimed that his frequent use of the 'N-word' was meant to render it powerless. But, I dont buy that for a second.

Problematic for me still was another interview a few years ago (and I can't remember which film he was talking about) when he was on a latenight talkshow describing how funny he thought it would be if he was to give free movie screening passes out in Crips and Bloods neighborhoods (complete with blue or red film jackets, caps, etc.) and have them all show up at the same theather to "screen" his film...

I think he uses it for the same reason too many people do: because they simply can.

CBid13 said...

Something else that merits mentioning is a scene from a film that Tarrantino wrote very early in his career, 'True Romance', which (like 'Natural Born Killers') was sold and directed by a better known director (the late Tony Scott) then released around the same time Tarrantino's first film, 'Reservior Dogs' was still in a handful of theaters...

The scene unfolds with a slick, Sicilian mobster named Vincent Coccotti (played by thespian and oddity extraordinaire, Christopher Walken) and his toadies confronting Clifford Worley (played by Dennis Hopper), concerning the whereabouts of his son (Christian Slater) and daughter-in-law, and money that was stolen ("your son, fuckhead that he was, left his drivers license at the scene") from a drug house obviously connected to the Sicilians. However, Clifford realizes that regardless of what he says to Walken's character he'll be killed, The elder Worley begins a long-winded insult in the form of a historically enlightening monologue which, needless to say, uses the 'N-word' to accomplish the put down:

Cliff: You know I read a lot. Especially things that have to do with history. I find that shit fascinating. In fact, I don't know if you know this or not, Sicilians were spawned by niggers.
Coccotti: Come again?
Cliff: It's a fact. Sicilians have nigger blood pumpin' through their hearts. If you don't believe me, look it up. You see, hundreds and hundreds of years ago the Moors conquered Sicily. And Moors are niggers. Way back then, Sicilians were like the wops in northern Italy. Blond hair, blue eyes. But, once the Moors moved in there, they changed the whole country. They did so much fuckin' with the Sicilian women, they changed the blood-line for ever, from blond hair and blue eyes to black hair and dark skin. I find it absolutely amazing to think that to this day, hundreds of years later, Sicilians still carry that nigger gene. I'm just quotin' history. It's a fact. It's written. Your ancestors were niggers. Your great, great, great, great, great-grandmother was fucked by a nigger, and had a half-nigger kid. That is a fact. Now tell me, am I lyin'? You're part eggplant...

Anonymous said...

After reading Tarantino's description of the "gentlemen's club" where enslaved women are raped, I don't think I'm seeing this movie. I thought Inglourious Basterds worked well partly because it was as Chauncy says, a parody of a well-known type of WWII movie - and partly because Shoshanna was such an amazing character. Django doesn't sound like it will feature that kind of woman.

Thom said...

Great article. And I have faith that Django will be very good. Exactly how it measures up to Basterds and Pulp remain to be seen. I'm really surprised there hasn't been much mention of the obvious inspiration for Django - that being the other very numerous Django movies. And since Sergio Corbucci never had a real copyright for his character, anyone with a camera could make a Django movie or make reference to him ("oh hey look here comes Django."). I think - really - that the race subtext (or not so sub- text) will be handled similarly to feminism in Kill Bill or Jewish feelings about the holocaust in IB. based on what I've seen only - could be wrong - Tarantino isn't so much drawing from movies like Roots and maybe not even as much as, say, Sweet Sweetback. There is a collective inhalation when he addresses a difficult topic like slavery but I think Tarantino assumes he doesn't need to say slavery was bad. I think that's why he dodges the reviewer's 'powder keg' question. There may be a worry that Tarantino has taken the tapestry of the west, race relations along too, and has made a paper airplane out of it. Basically that he views racism and slavery as one tool out of many he can draw from the 'exploitation' movies he loves. But I really do believe Tarantino realizes what he is doing with regards to his thematic material. And I'm basing that on the success of how he handled simar 'powder keg' themes in Kill Bill and IB. Also recall that Tarantino trailers tend to be miserable, with the notable exception of the Kill Bill 'bootleg' trailer attached to Woody Allen's Anything Else.

Anonymous said...

What kind of idiot do you need to be to think that tarantino is "mocking" black people in this? Further more, his use of nigger is entirely contextualized. When you see a slaver owner in a film saying nigger, that isnt somehow tarantino trying to hurt your feelings. That is tarantino depicting the way people used to talk.