Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is on my list of movies to see along with Lincoln and Sky Fall. Others, such as Anna Karenina and Les Miserables have fallen off the list for one reason or another. Regardless, I won't being seeing any of these films in the movie theatre. I don't enjoy that particular experience: fighting to hear/concentrate over talking; the crink-crink-crinkling of candy wrappers; the tap-tap-tapping of candy boxes; and the inundating smell of popcorn.
Nevertheless, I'm going to see Dgango Unchained and can only imagine that I'm going to enjoy it, as I have his previous films. As an artist and storyteller, I'm a big fan of Quentin Tarantino's vision and he's inspired my writing. I met him years ago in Austin, Texas when the SXSW Festival was our best kept secret. We were standing in line at a Starbucks (where else?) and I was deciding whether or not to attend a particular lecture, the following party and the much-anticipated after party. He encouraged me to attend all three and I'm glad I did. It was a great opportunity to connect with other artists, to talk, debate and praise the work being showcased; and celebrate a long, hard week of work. Since then, I've had a special place in my heart of Mr. Tarantino.
Now, as I'm sure you've read, Django Unchained has met with a great deal of controversy, mainly anger over the overuse of the "N" word and a boycott by Spike Lee for its depiction of slavery.
As to the use of the "N" word, I'm not a fan of it; conditioned though I was for its use when called it numerous time during my formative years. It's an inflammatory word. From slavery times to now, its use is meant to humiliate, diminish, and threaten African Americans. I don't like hearing it ad nauseam from the mouths of artists in rap songs or in every day speech on the metro, on the bus, in the CVS, etc. I also didn't appreciate being told by a white D.C. theatre artist that he would use the "N" word if, when and wherever he wanted and no one could stop him. Yeah, that happened. So goes my life. Apparently, the word is used up to 110 times in the film. Perhaps Tarantino would've been better served by only using it 65 times. Then again, maybe it wouldn't have felt authentic to the characters or the world of the film.
As for the depiction of slavery, according to the Guardian, Tarantino defended this accusation when speaking to an audience of British Academy of Film and Arts (BAFTA) members and film critics after the first UK screening of Django Unchained:
"We all intellectually 'know' the brutality and inhumanity of slavery," he said. "But after you do the research it's no longer intellectual any more, no longer just historical record – you feel it in your bones. It makes you angry, and want to do something … I'm here to tell you, that however bad things get in the movie, a lot worse shit actually happened."
He goes on to say, "When slave narratives are done on film, they tend to be historical with a capital H, with an arms-length quality to them. I wanted to break that history-under-glass aspect, I wanted to throw a rock through that glass and shatter it for all times, and take you into it."
Perhaps if more Black artists were supported by the lions of the Hollywood film industry, one of "us" could have done this first. Alas, that hasn't happened and it's a damn shame. At the same time, Mr. Tarantino shouldn't have to wait to tell his story.
If I were leading a post show discussion after a screening of the Django Unchained, these are the social, cultural and historical issues I would address:
1. Black rage against White people - causes, consequences of justification/glorification
2. Sex slave trade in the U.S. - past and current
3. Depictions of Black women in the media - beauty, sex, love, exoticism and romance
4. Language of hate - the power and impact of words
5. Artistic Authority - Who has the right to tell the story of slavery in America?
As for the final point, I agree that it would've been difficult--if not impossible--for a Black filmmaker to get a film about black rage and violence against a white people made at this caliber in Hollywood. And that's really frustrating. It's just as frustrating as when Black playwrights aren't commissioned to write or adapt stories about black people and culture or when Black directors aren't asked to direct Black plays on Broadway. At the same time, I don't feel that the story of slavery belongs only to Black people. While Whites sold, owned and beat slaves, Blacks did as well. Free and enslaved Blacks lost their lives fighting for the freedom and independence of black slaves as did many White people. The story of slavery in America belongs to America. We all had our hand in it, forced or not, even those of us alive today, because the ramifications of slavery are still being felt, processed, legislated and debated.
No doubt, we will discuss this issue of Artistic Authority, who has the right to tell what stories, in depth for many years to come. In fact, I hope to facilitate that very discussion, because it's inherent to the issue of diversity and inclusion in the American Theatre. In fact, consider this my invitation. Please submit to your ideas for a feature here.
For now, I would like to share part of the discussion that has already happened. Back in October, I reached out to my friend and fellow playwright, Kia Corthron to see if she would contribute to my ongoing blog series about Diversity and Inclusion, which can be read here and here. She was excited about the series and wanted to share an article that she had written for the Dramatist Guild's The Dramatist magazine called, The Ethics of Ethnic, which brilliantly addresses the issue of artistic authority. In it, Kia asks colleagues to participate because she felt "there were as many different answers to my questions about artistic authority as there were playwrights." With permission from the amazing Kia Corthron, the generous featured playwrights, the encouraging and supportive Dramatist Guild, and the wonderful The Dramatist magazine, I'm going to share the article with you here as part of my Artistic Authority Series over the next few days. Please stay tuned!
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I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!