The XX Factor

Tarantino Takes on Slavery

It’s hard to know what to make of Quentin Tarantino’s newly announced movie , Django Unchained , but, for now, I’ll go with grudging gratitude. And pessimism.

In the movie, “Django is a freed slave, who, under the tutelage of a German bounty hunter (Christopher Waltz) becomes a bad-ass bounty hunter himself, and after assisting Waltz in taking down some bad guys for profit, is helped by Waltz in tracking down his slave wife and liberating her from an evil plantation owner. And that doesn’t even half begin to cover it! This film deals with racism as I’ve rarely seen it handled in a Hollywood film. While it’s 100 percent pure popcorn and revenge flick, it is pure genius in the way it takes on the evil slave owning south. Think of what he did with the Nazis in Inglorious and you’ll get a sense of what he’s doing with slave owners and slave overseers in this one.”

However over the top this fan’s poorly written gushing, it’s huge that a moviemaker of Tarantino’s stature will “go there” on race: The odds are not good that he’ll be following the successes of Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds with another Oscar winner. As uninterested as white folks are in movies ( or much of anything ) about nonwhites, they’re downright allergic to movies in which the nonwhites are making them look bad. Really, really bad. Slavery bad. No doubt Tarantino will throw in some Trail of Tears stuff just to seal the movie’s fate.

White America loves itself some Nazi-hating, Apartheid bemoaning, and Communist-bashing, but their Confederate forebears? Their slave-raping relatives? Their lynching great-great-grandfathers who bequeathed them land stolen from blacks? Not so much. I doubt that even Tarantino can pull this off (i.e., get enough white butts into theater seats for a success), but my hat’s off to him for trying. Also, I’m having fun writing dialogue for all the Tarantino devotees devising their excuses for skipping this one.

I’ve always admired Tarantino’s style, if not his movies. He was nobody from nowhere, and he’s made the whole world take him, and his art, seriously. I never thought much of that art (the Kill Bills made me want to kill Quentin), but I do now because only a true artist would follow his imagination into territory that implicates him in a crime the magnitude of slavery. It’s easy for a non-German to dog the Nazis but to dog yourself? That’s art because art spares no one, least of all its creator: You won’t see Spike Lee making any movies about those who informed on slave revolts, almost all of whom were black. (Spare me the “He’s Italian. We got here after slavery ended. I’m Irish: ’ We need not apply ’ excuse. You fought to get here and you couldn’t wait to help keep the niggers in their place. You risked everything to come to America so you could enjoy all the riches derived, in large part, from slavery and Jim Crow. You can’t claim George Washington without claiming Simon Legree.)

But I digress.

Tarantino knows what he’s up against: “I’d like to do a Western. But rather than set it in Texas, have it in slavery times. With that subject that everybody is afraid to deal with. Let’s shine that light on ourselves. You could do a ponderous history lesson of slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. Or, you could make a movie that would be exciting. Do it as an adventure. A spaghetti Western that takes place during that time. And I would call it ‘A Southern.’ I want to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they’re genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it, and other countries don’t really deal with because they don’t feel they have the right to.”

This is why despots kill the artists and intellectuals as well as the men with guns.

But I do worry that Tarantino will over rely on stock incidents of slavery porn: whippings, auction blocks, rapes. Slavery and white supremacism were so much more complicated than that. Why does the master holding Django’s wife have to be cruel? He’d have left her there if she’d been working only under Union rules and spent her evenings sipping mint juleps on the veranda in complete equality with Massa? Slavery wasn’t evil because some masters were. Slavery was evil because, however humane its conditions, it is a crime against humanity. Making the wife’s owner a beast … it worries me.

Among all the other things slavery was, it was absurd and it was cruel in ways that could transcend whips and chains. As an armchair slavery historian, those absurdities and bizarre cruelties floor me, and I long for a filmmaker to plumb those depths. I think of stories like these: A kitchen mammy was trying to use coded talk to signal to her son that she knew his sale imminent. But he was the young master’s personal valet. They were basically brothers and the slave loved his life, travelling, whoring, and gambling with his “charge.” He’d forgotten he was slave, but his mother never did. Finally, Mammy literally had to slap her son upside the head with a frying pan to snap him out of his delusions. I hated myself for laughing, but laugh I did.

When another cossetted slave, who’d grown up like a sister to her little Missy, fell in love, her owners spared no expense giving her a lavish, white lace wedding.  But when the bride tried to head off to her husband’s cabin for the wedding night, little Missy was confused, then hurt. The bride-slave spent that night, and every other one thereafter, sleeping on Little Missy’s floor as she’d always done.

When a slave was running for her life from her rapist master, she ran headlong down the street to a neighboring mistress (many slaves were urban). With horses’ hooves flying, people shouting, and a runaway slave cowering in her parlor, the white mistress made a snap decision to hide the girl in her cellar. But one of her own female slaves was ecstatic to have a real runaway to turn in. Bound and determined to go fetch the fugitive’s master, her owner had to bitch slap her own slave and threaten her with God knows what to ensure her silence.

I think of the slave who spent every free moment raising vegetables and eggs to sell to clothe and feed her children beyond the rags and gruel the master provided. Once a year, she managed to buy them new brogans, but when her son brought firewood in, his new shoes were so squeaky, Massa offhandedly made him take them off and toss them in the fire. She had to beat her children into learning to remove the shoes around Massa until they were broken in.

I guess Tarantino’s pretty well-known for his absurdism and lack of sentimentality, but making Mrs. Django’s owner evil makes my eyes go squinty. It’s too easy, and you can’t make up stuff like what really happened during slavery.