written by Omali Yeshitela, Chairman of the African People’s Socialist Party
It has been a long time since a movie has sparked as much controversy as Django Unchained.
Written by Quentin Tarantino, the movie stars Jamie Foxx as Django, a vengeance-motivated cowboy “ex”-slave.
Also appearing are Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie, a notoriously sadistic plantation slave owner; Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Shultz, a German bounty hunter who purchases, befriends and accompanies Dgango on his odyssey; Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, the depraved “Uncle Tom” house negro; and Kerry Washington as Broomhilda, Django’s enslaved wife, whose sale and forced separation from Django is the basis of his quixotic blood hunt.
The movie has elicited a host of contradictory, though mostly positive, reviews.
Much of the surrounding controversy revolves around the ubiquitous use of the term “nigger.”
Symbolically buried and funeralized a few years ago in highly publicized events by such notables as the NAACP and the right Reverend Al Sharpton, the word has been banned from public usage in respectable company by respectable people.
This was one of the reasons given for the personal boycott of the movie by the filmmaker, Spike Lee, who reviewed the movie negatively without having even seen it.
Lee was also quoted as saying the movie was “disrespectful” to his ancestors for its portrayal of slavery.
This point by Lee may be related to another criticism of the movie by Africans who viewed the movie as comedic, making light of a serious and traumatic occurrence in African history.
Others complained about its historical inadequacies, such as the ability of Django, masquerading as a freed slave, to sit at the table with whites in Mississippi and enjoy other social amenities that would have been unheard of at the time—and which are problematic even today in the U.S.
The movie’s violence is another cause of controversy, especially in the wake of the December 2012 Newtown, Connecticut, massacre of whites by one of their own, which has caused a new uproar about guns in the hands of anyone not wielding State power.
Some reviews became personal and subjective; noted author, Ishmael Reed, claimed that Jackson played himself in the role of Stephen, the treacherous house slave.
Adding to this bit of verbal Mandingo mud wrestling, Dick Gregory criticized Lee for criticizing the movie, calling Lee a “little thug.”
Not to be left out of the fray, Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew said of Lee’s criticism, “Spike is upset because Samuel L. Jackson’s character in the movie is just like him: a conniving and scheming Uncle Tom.”
Clearly, everyone is not united in opposition to the Tarantino film.
The common appreciation for the film seems to revolve around what many see as the movie forcing a real discussion about slavery, a topic the film industry appears loath to deal with.
So, how should we understand the significance of this movie? Is it the product of a rabid, racist Tarantino, as some have claimed? Or, is it an attempt to start a “race war,” as Nation of Islam minister, Louis Farrakhan, would have us believe?
Notwithstanding the views of Lee and some of the other naysayers, the movie proved a big hit in the African community. Forty percent of the attendees in the first week of its showing were African, and more than 30 percent the following week.
We are not seriously concerned about most of the historical inadequacies of the movie, as it is possible to do a fictionalized historical period and still do justice to the period.
Mario Van Peeples’ 1995 movie, Panther, is an excellent example.
And, while Tarantino’s movie has stirred much passion among Africans and others, Pantherfrightened the industry and the capitalist colonialist State, causing theater owners to go to extraordinary lengths, demanding identification of African patrons, and having the police on hand at many venues.
So, absolute historical accuracy is not really the primary issue here. Otherwise we would have to start with torching most of the universities and banning the offerings of sundry professors claiming to address the history of Africans and Europeans while providing some of the most fictionalized accounts of human events possible.
Capitalizing off of slavery
The main problem with Django is its function as a cover for slavery and capitalism.
Indeed, the movie is really a metaphor for capitalism at work on a foundation of slavery.
That Django, the protagonist, is a killing machine who leaves a gory trail of dead white bodies throughout the movie will give a vicarious thrill to Africans worldwide.
However, while it mocks and criticizes individual slavers, the movie does not have the ability to really criticize slavery.
In many ways the movie is three hours of caricature.
Here is where the comedy functions as a disservice. This is where the false struggle against “racism,” the one beloved by liberals of all complexions, was clearly exposed as a cover for a struggle against real oppression and the system of oppression itself.
All the “bad” white people in the movie are either exceptional for their hilarious stupidity or sadistically depraved. The audience is invited to hate these brutal, inbreeding-type cretins. Because they are obviously cruel and depraved beyond redemption, it is okay to kill them all.
They are bestial, uncivilized deviants from what would now be considered the “American way.”
In a word, they are “racists,” individuals who revel in obvious disdain for and sometimes visceral hatred of African people.
Such hatred is no longer publicly permissible in 2012.
Since slavery is officially over and the word “nigger” proscribed from public usage and convention, demanding a degree of civility by whites towards Africans, those Africans deprived of the “racist” white enemy are generally unable to find their political bearings.
The American way
None of the white slavers was cast in the all-American heroic mold of Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, two of the most revered African-owning individuals in the U.S.
Nor was a connection drawn by the moviemakers between what these southern “miscreants” were doing in the South and the role of banks, insurance companies, stock markets and most industry in the U.S. North and all of Europe.
The fact is that white supporters of slavery were not miscreants—they were the norm.
In reality the Civil War that would break out in 1860 resulted in draft riots by whites in New York, massive lynchings of Africans, and threats by New York to secede from the Union.
Anti-abolition riots occurred throughout the northern U.S., including Philadelphia and Illinois.
Tarantino’s whites are caricatures, foils used to cover for slavery as the system that gives birth to the capitalism that is equally appreciated by the white bounty hunter, Django and DiCaprio’s Candie.
In the movie, slavery provides the income for all the free people.
Certainly, slavery is the means of employment for the merchants and exploiters of captured African flesh, but it also establishes the context for enriching both the German bounty hunter and his new protégé, Django.
The bounty hunter, Shultz, purchases Django to use him to identify men to be killed for reward money.
At one point Shultz explains to Django the usefulness of Django’s enslaved condition, declaring that whether Shultz despises slavery or not, Django is in no position to refuse him, all the better for making slavery work to the bounty hunter’s benefit, adding (like a good liberal), “Still, I feel guilty.”
Tarantino and most spokespersons for the movie are themselves liberals and, like all liberals, they are good at criticizing symptoms but not good at criticizing the essence.
They are like the anti-war groups and personalities who condemn some imperialist wars but are unable to condemn imperialism itself.
History—even fictionalized history—is a subject that forces the historian to stand on the platform of the present to look back at the past.
Inevitably, this vantage point means that the product of the historian’s work will say as much about the historian and his/her current reality as it does about the subject being recorded.
What is it about today’s world that makes Django necessary as an instrument of liberal history-telling and social direction?
What is it that contextualizes the reality of Tarantino and the entire world?
First of all, the movie Django has a setting of southern U.S. slavery. Slavery is the foundation of world capitalism. This is why the German philosopher Karl Marx was forced to conclude, “Cause slavery to disappear and you will have wiped America off the map of nations.”
Though critical to the development of capitalism, slavery is only one of the factors that Marx characterized as having the significance to political economy as “original sin” in theology. Called” primitive accumulation” by Marx, this explanation of the beginning of capitalism included the theft of the lands of the indigenous peoples and the subjugation of most of the world by Europe and Europeans.
Today most of the peoples of the world are in struggle to take back their resources, sovereignty and history. Wars abound – in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The people of South America are also engaged in stripping the U.S. of its historical hegemonic role.
China and other countries that were once vassals of Europe are growing competitors of the U.S. and Europe for global preeminence. The demographics of the world are also fast changing with European women, except in Iceland, not having enough children to reproduce their white populations.
It is obvious to everyone that the system is broken beyond repair. The way of life that all whites have come to accept as their just due is severely threatened by the hordes at the gate.
What to do?
In the U.S., the center of the capitalist world, the latest strategy of the liberal elite to protect their system has been the elevation of the “exceptional” African, the “ex” slave as the savior of the system. In theory this negro has control of the deadliest and most prolific arsenal in the world and has used it to wreak havoc in the lives of those who would challenge the imperialist/capitalist status quo.
As bloody as Django Unleashed is the movie is no match for the violence being imposed on the world by Obama unleashed, also employed to kill the caricaturized bad guys without concern for their relationship to the existing capitalist social system. As uncomfortable as some whites were by this fictionalized gun-wielding, horseback riding Django, every liberal in the U.S. is able to rest comfortably with the knowledge that the black terror is on his side in the form of this tame negro who constitutes the new template of how all civilized Africans should act.
Like the slavery of the 1858 Django setting, the white power system of today is broken and the masses of dark hordes are on the rise, threatening to tear the whole system down.
Tarantino, good liberal that he is, keeps the masses of Africans out of the process of ending the system of oppression by unleashing a special negro, the “one in ten thousand” as Django is characterized. Indeed, Django is the Barack Hussein Obama solution transposed to 1858 U.S. history.
One must remember that 1858 was just two years before the beginning of the U.S. Civil War. It was a time of extreme tensions in the U.S. in general and the South in particular. In 1859 John Brown would lead the raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia in an unsuccessful attempt to initiate a rebellion by enslaved Africans.
Nor did Brown’s action happen in a political vacuum. The 1850s saw more than 1,000 slave escapes yearly and the period was wrought with southern white anxiety, northern anti-slavery agitation and growing restlessness among the captured African population. The fact that Django’s adventures were set in a U.S. just two years short of the Civil War clearly indicates that Tarantino intended to mark a historical turning point in the fortunes of “America.”
In many ways Tarantino’s task, looking backward, was the same as that of the liberal ruling class of today. In Django Tarantino creates the exceptional negro to fight all the bad, un-American Americans in order to protect the capitalist system of white power.
The evidence for this position can be found in the movie itself. Dr. King (coincidental?) Shultz explains his non-slavery capitalist enterprise to Django thusly: “The way the slave trade deals in human lives for cash, bounty hunting deals in corpses.” And in another place, “Like slavery, it’s a flesh for cash business.”
Other examples of Tarantino’s fidelity to capitalism, which clearly rests on a foundation of slavery, was King’s insistence on purchasing Django from a white slaver, securing a bill of sale, even after Django’s slaver had been wounded and was going to be killed. The same happened with Django’s wife, Broomhilda, for whom a bill of sale was taken from the dead body of King after Candie her cruel “master” had been killed and “Candie Land,” the “Big House” was in the process of being destroyed.
There was no attempt to help Django escape from slavery and the elaborate, dangerous; ruse to purchase Broomhilda from Candie was one hundred times more problematic than an escape attempt could have ever been. However, escaping would have been a serious breech of capitalist etiquette even as it applied to slavery. It would have been bad business. It would suggest the possibility of a Malcolm X “by any means necessary” solution, something the fictional bounty hunter Dr. King opposed no less than his Civil Rights namesake of the 1950s and 60s.
In fact, there were very few attempts to escape from slavery by the enslaved African masses in the movie. This was something that was also reserved for the exceptional negros, the “one in ten thousand” characterized by Django and Broomhilda. Even when escape was possible the enslaved Africans had to be prodded by Dr. King the beneficent to do so.
Of course Tarantino did much to expose the grotesque violent treatment of Africans under slavery and Django’s hunt for his wife is consistent with the historical record of many Africans who, once sold from their spouses, did every thing possible, braving death and torture to rescue them.
However, Tarantino had absolute control of this fictionalized history, set only two years before the Civil War and clearly had the ability to allow his characters to engage in self-motivated attempts to free themselves. Also, with the examples of Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and others, Tarantino had the ability to direct his characters to organize among themselves and strike out collectively for freedom and for power.
It was a liberal political choice by Tarantino to have Django function as an angry individual whose only interest was to free his wife and to exact revenge for wrongs done to her. This is because liberals fear the masses of the oppressed just as much as their contending, “conservative” counterparts.
Better to manufacture good, exceptional negros to act as their agents. This will protect them and the system from the pending certain black wrath that, left to itself, might otherwise destroy everyone, not just the “racists” and the entire rotten system.
Broomhilda’s history began as a German mythical character and Django was invented by Dr. King who bought, clothed, “Americanized” and gave him permission to kill white people. “Kill white people and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?” says Django when asked to become partners in the bounty hunting business with King.
Nevertheless, for almost half the movie Django worked under the liberal tutelage of the benevolent killer King. Explaining to Django why he was helping him find his wife, King states, “I’ve never given anybody their freedom before and now that I have I feel vaguely responsible for you.” A better description of the liberal rationale for his relationship to Africans would be hard to find.
A killer, yes, but Django remains the beneficiary of gentle white stewardship. A safe relationship for the liberal white ruling class that in the 1960s, a hundred years after Django, would fund and attempt to direct the Civil Rights movement, succeeding in determining its commitment of philosophical nonviolence as it tried to direct the revolution from above and behind the backs of the African activists.
King and Candie were the philosophers of the movie. Candie with his explanation of the submissive nature of Africans that made us natural slaves and King with his candid description of functioning as a hired killer in the capitalist world into which he was integrating Django, including the declaration while on a killing mission, “This is my world and in my world you got to get dirty and that’s what I’m doing. I’m getting dirty.”
Django would get dirty, too. But he would not enlist his captive brothers and sisters in the enterprise of ending slavery or their own enslavement. His was an individual enterprise designed primarily to free his enslaved wife who was also exceptional: “She ain’t no field nigger,” declares Django to King. “She pretty and she look good too.” And, indeed, she did. That was her role in the movie, something that should certainly offend the historical puritans.
Broomhilda’s role in the movie was to appear naked, look pretty, simper, faint and applaud the heroics of her husband in the end. This is not even an accurate caricaturization of the enslaved African woman; more like that of the idealized white southern belle.
Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen (Stepin Fetchit?) was so over the top that it served to help disguise or obscure the race traitors and neo-colonialists, most of whom walk among us without the obvious degenerate sneer and bootlicking persona. His character is a cover for the Obamas, Nutters, Outarras and Kabilas of the world who speak and dress “well” and cause more death and destruction for Africans in a day than an old “handkerchief head” Uncle Tom could do in a hundred years.
Tarantino is quite aware of a political mission with this work. He says as much while speaking to an audience of critics and others at the first UK screening of the movie:
“We all intellectually ‘know’ the brutality and inhumanity of slavery,” Tarantino 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.”
“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.”
Tarantino is an angry white liberal that is attempting to evoke a particular angry response from his audience. This is his motivation. Opposition to Tarantino’s message should express itself as opposition to liberalism and its perennial attempt to cover the real contradictions of capitalist-colonialism sometimes in the most violent way.
To dismiss the movie because of a presumption of racism on Tarantino’s part is to miss the point just as ignoring it because it is an “insult” to our ancestors. The real insult to our ancestors was slavery itself and the capitalist social system that it birthed. Our opposition must be directed at the system and in opposing the system we reject the liberal solution offered up by Tarantino because it obscures the real contradiction and functions to cover for and protect capitalist white power while offering up offensive white individuals for sacrifice.
We reject the movie because it minimizes the role of the organized masses in making and changing history, reducing us to political fodder for white liberals and their special one in ten thousand negros or “Talented Tenth.”
We reject the movie because so many Africans in colonial housing projects and oppressed communities throughout the world, experiencing the historical lash of slavery in the imperialist conditions forced upon us today, will share Tarantino’s anger and may accept his incorrect solution after viewing the movie.
We reject the movie for the same reason Tarantino and the liberals look to the solution within it to deal with a severe crisis of imperialism that requires sober reflection, historical materialists based African Internationalist analysis and the organized intervention of the masses of our people to destroy the entire capitalist colonialist social system.
Ironically the most cogent statement of the movie was yelled to Django by Jackson’s character, Stephen, as he lay dying in the Big House at Candie Land, the final victim of Django’s wrath:
“Cain’t no nigger gunfighter kill all the white folks in the world! They gon’ find yo black ass!”
Indeed. The task of the colonized is to kill the colonizer and the system of colonialism. The task of the slave is to kill the slave master and the system of slavery.