Recently, I heard an interview Quentin Tarantino did with Terry Gross of NPR’s FRESH AIR. It wasn’t one of Terry’s best. She let Tarantino ramble on about his love of Blaxploitation films and other minutia. One of the tangents he went off on was critiquing famous American directors. Tarantino stated said he hated film director John Ford. You know, four-time, Oscar-winning director JOHN FORD. Yeah, that John Ford. Ford is best know, but not exclusively, for his westerns. Tarantino doubled down on his criticisms by saying “Ford was a racist!” I waited to hear Tarantino give an explanation why he considered Ford racist but outside of telling Terry that Ford had be been a stuntman on D.W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION, and therefore, appeared as a Klansman in some scenes, QT gave no other evidence.
Also, in the interview, QT told us of his racially diverse upbringing, his childhood growing up in a racially mixed community and the fact his mother dated Wilt Chamberlain. On the latter, I think it’s fair to say that according to Chamberlain’s own autobiography and how he described his relationships, what he and QT’s mother did was not considered “dating” by Chamberlain. But nevertheless, I get the fact that Tarantino sees himself as an honorary “soul brother.” This explains his comfortability with the term “nigger.” But I achieved a greater level of understanding after I saw DJANGO UNCHAINED. I now have a pretty good handle of Tarantino’s attitudes towards race, and film, who can use racially offensive images and words and who cannot.
I believe I know why he considers John Ford a racist.
Quentin Tarantino thinks Ford was a racist because he used racial fear of rape and savage abuse at the hands of an evil dark-skinned attacker in most of his westerns (including SERGEANT RUTLEDGE, a film featuring African-American actor Woody Strode in the title role). In all but one of his westerns, John Ford portrays the Indians as the villains. They are violent, ruthless and seek the flesh of white women to sully with their savage lust. They are two-dimensional. The best example from Ford’s western canon is THE SEARCHERS, a story of a 6-year quest to rescue a Debbie, a little white girl, from the abduction of a band of viscous Indians. The Indians have killed the girl’s family and raise her as an Indian child. Throughout the film violence is depicted as a tool of terror or of revenge. This is the same thing Tarantino did in his western. That gives us two films to look at from the same genre. Why don’t we see how different they are?
In these two films, the villains are of another race from the hero. For Tarantino they are white racists and for Ford they are Indian savages. In both cases they are two-dimensional, stereotypical characters shown doing horrendous and brutal acts on helpless victims (primarily women). In THE SEARCHERS, Scar, the lead Indian, rapes, kills and scalps innocent women and children. He even kidnaps Debbie and waits for her to mature before taking her one of “his squaw.” In DJANGO, Calvin Candie has a runaway slave torn apart by dogs, threatens to bash Broomhilda’s head in with a ball-peen hammer, and watches two slaves fight to the death for his amusement.
In both films, we have our emotions manipulated by director to hate the villains, sympathize with the victims and desire to see the hero enact appropriate vengeance. Yet, according to Mr. Tarantino, John Ford is the racist because he did this with Indians. Look, Ford might have been a racist, I don’t know. What I do know is there is no difference in how these filmmakers manipulate the audience into enjoying the revenge eventually paid to their respective villains. in THE SEARCHERS, we see John Wayne enact poetic justice by scalping Scar in retribution for his legacy of scalping. In DJANGO UNCHAINED, Calvin Candie and the others white racists are shot repeatedly or blown up. So how is what one filmmaker does any different than the other? How is Ford the one who carelessly manipulates racial fears and hatreds but Tarantino is not?
I want to be clear. Watching Django kill and whip a bunch of evil white racists was cathartic. I envisioned Rep. Joe “You Lie” Wilson from South Carolina getting whipped. In the final scene when evil, vindictive house nigger Stephen (played Samuel L. Jackson) is killed, I saw Clarence Thomas. I had the type of reaction Tarantino wanted me to have. But those reactions are emotionally immature and unsatisfying. The thing about using Blaxploitation films or Spaghetti Westerns or Revenge films as a model for your 21st Century film is that it doesn’t allow you to look at the world in a more complex manner. In real life, violence may be senseless (Newtown, CT) or accidental (a Chicago drive-by shooting) but it’s rarely satisfying. In the real world the satisfaction we think we will receive never comes because it’s rarely solves our bigger problem. Case in point, during his State of the Union address President Obama could have come down to the floor of Congress and bitch-slapped Joe Wilson on live TV. That would have been as satisfying as the revenge in DJANGO but it wouldn’t have solved anything other than diminishing his stature as President. Moreover, it wouldn’t have combatted the original statement.That’s why I think the film is a lame and dangerous throwback. It’s Tarantino’s love letter to Melvin Peeble’s SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAD ASS SONG. There may have been a time when black folks felt the need for films like that to make us feel empowered. But we live in 2013. Do we still need Blaxploitation films to satisfy our sense of racial pride and achievement?
During the early Blaxploitation period, filmmakers took advantage of the lack of black love stories or black heroes or black-themed films in general. These filmmakers created a product for an underserved market in order to make a profit. Also, just like DJANGO UNCHAINED, the majority of these earlier films were written, directed and produced by white men. So when Blaxploitation Queen Pam Greer was raped or beaten or had her blouse and bra torn off her IN EVERY FILM SHE STARRED IN, that was written by a white man to sexually arouse of the viewer. She was objectified. She was not a person, but rather an object. Likewise, when violence was used in a film like BLACK CAESAR or DRUM or MANDINGO, it was designed to play up white fears of black rage and sexual dominance as much as it was to elicit satisfaction in seeing black rage afflicted on worthy subjects. All of this was done at a time when civil rights were starting to show results, when self-determination for black men and women was a powerful and desired – but not completely realized – thing, and when opportunities to effect your own life in the way these heroes did in these films was next to impossible. So, the appeal of blaxploitation films makes more sense in the 1970s. But today, I live in a world where the President is a black man, where major corporations are run by black men and women, where major art forms and athletic fields of achievement have been dominated by blacks for decades, where one of the most powerful thought leaders in this country is Oprah Winfrey, a black woman. I don’t believe we need this fairy tale.
Moreover, DJANGO UNCHAINED is as much about American slavery as THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY is. This is one white man’s distorted and fictionalized presentation of a historical period he gets wrong from start to finish. His characters are two-dimensional, at best. Especially Broomhilda, the most important black female character in the plot, if not the story. Her fate is fairly simple. She is either terrorized or tortured. When she is not being assaulted in either of those ways, Broomhilda is an idealized vision that Django uses to motivate himself and justify the transformation he must go through to rescue her. She is not a three-dimensional character in any way. She is objectified romantically and violently. Unfortunately, DJANGO UNCHAINED is one of the few recent films to depicted a strong, passionate love between a black man and black woman, but what Tarantino gives us is empty because its so unimaginatively drawn. Primarily because Broomhilda does not act on her own. She’s never seen in any way displaying what makes her unique. We hear that she tried to run away but we don’t see her do so. We don’t see her devise a plan and execute it. So, once again, she’s just the prize that exist to be saved by her big, strong man.
So this is why I feel enjoyment of DJANGO UNCHAINED means a lack of maturity. Because, after all of those years of civil rights activism that has been done in this country, for all of the laws that have repealed or outlawed prejudicial practices, these acts have led to us living in a much different world than existed in the 1970s, I don’t need Quentin Tarantino claiming to tell my story for me or give me “my movie” (his words, not mine). I can do that just fine all by myself. To congratulate Tarantino for making “the best Blaxploitation film in 40 years” is a sad commentary of the achievements of American cinema and African Americans within it. Is that something to be applauded?