OSCAR UNCHAINED: Django is More Nuanced than a B Movie, Kareem!

The blogosphere of Facebook, Twitter and sites like HuffPo have been amplifying an unsuspecting yet powerful  voice of reason, irony, and insight–the former championship basketball player from the Bucks and the Lakers, one of my favs, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as writer.

Captain Hook - the sky hook.
Captain Hook – the sky hook.

He’s been offering his critiques on popular media from the HBO series “Girls” to his most recent POV on the Best Picture nomination of director Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012).

In the early days of Abdul-Jabbar’s professional sports career, he like many other African-American athletes faced racism. In a recent interview that appeared in the Harvard Business Review (biz types love to explore links in unusual places these days), the former champion formerly known as Lew Alcindor was asked:

In the NCAA and the NBA you occasionally faced racism. How did you play through those distractions?

[Abdul-Jabbar]: If you let it distract you, you’re playing into their hands. Their whole purpose is to distract you and prevent you from succeeding. And for me, success was the goal. My success and the success of other black Americans was exactly what would silence people who indulged in racism. So it was “Keep your eyes on the prize.” That was one of the messages of the civil rights movement, and I tried to do it.

Since retirement, Adbul-Jabbar has shared is other loves with his followers including his love of the writing of Alexander Dumas (1802-1870), who actually identified himself as a mulatto, of African descent, in French society. Abdul-Jabbar offers on his official website:

Once when someone insulted [Dumas] about his racial background, he said, “It is true. My father was a mulatto, my grandmother was a negress, and my great-grandparents were monkeys. In short, sir, my pedigree begins where yours ends.”

I think Kareem identifies with someone like Dumas at this latter stage in life because he can find his successes off the court speaking to issues of race that matter to him whereever that may be. TV and film is a great place to find your voice as a critic of American culture. What’s noticeable about Kareem is that he loves irony not unlike the comment by Dumas. So why wouldn’t he love Tarantino’s film. What’s not to love!?!

His take on Django Unchained gives us an unexpected skyhook to the right that shows his love of things far beyond just basketball. I’ve enjoy reading his thoughts on popular culture while also observing how  readers respond since most times our society’s expectation of sports figures, especially black men, does not include listening to them think.

kareem-django-unchainedKareem’s review of Django appeared this week in Esquire magazine, distinguished as an early publisher of “New Journalism” and awarded often for its provocative pieces targeting men.  In the Esquire review Kareem wrote,

Basically, Django Unchained is a B movie. A damn fine B movie, but still a B movie. That’s not an insult. I’ve been in B movies, many of my favorite films are B movies, and B movies tend to make a lot more money than A movies.

Despite its slavery setting, Django Unchained isn’t an exploration of the subject. It offers no critical insights into the circumstances, no nuances exploring the political realities (as Lincoln does). In the end, slavery is a prop to excite audience emotion and motivate the action. With the exception of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Stephen, the characters are fairly stereotypical. Pro-slavery characters are grotesque cartoons and those against (mostly the slaves themselves) are admirable and inspiring. And that makes Django melodrama, not literature. It offers no insights, only the most familiar observations.


MY SKYHOOK (ON THE OPPOSITE END OF THE COURT)

Abdul-Jabbar is getting a few minutes “court-time” in the media for his take on Django, which I too loved at first glance. An appearance following the piece on Conan O’Brian’s show is making the rounds via a viral video but since I don’t have cable or watch late night shows online, I first learned of the piece on the Colorlines site under “Now in Racial Justice” section via Facebook.

While Kareem’s critique is likeable and definitely worth the read, I beg to differ with his comment Django offering “no critical insights into the circumstances [of slavery], no nuances exploring the political realities (as Lincoln does).”

A noted scholar, Dr. Jim Downs (Sick from Freedom: African American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction), mentioned at an Emancipation 150 event hosted by WNYC-FM at the Greene Space in January, that Django depicted the experience and terror of being a slave much more so than Spielberg’s Lincoln did at any level.

Downs said that of the 5 million slaves freed by Lincoln on January 1, 1863, 1 million died in the first year. A quarter of the population starved, froze to death, couldn’t subsistence farm or other. Whole families died in their newfound freedom.  In Django Unchained, one need only recall the scene using the dog to attack the runaway slave nearer to the end of the film (having taken us many places to get there emotionally). But there was also the scene soon thereafter of the lock box in the heat of the midday sun that Kerry Washington’s character “Broomhilda von Schaft” is removed from when Django (Jamie Foxx) arrives to save her. In that moment, we witness Django’s lack of freedom to scream her suffocation while we must suffer with him waiting for their moment of escape. We are slaves watching these scenes.

Just one glimpse of either scene (and there are others) that are far from the workings of what one might call a B movie. This film had the power to emotionally wrench me from this present moment back into the realities of slavery I have never witnessed being born just before the Civil Rights Act was even introduced.


EMANCIPATION: DJANGO vs. LINCOLN

There is no amount of “nuance” that could explore that reality effectively and neither Spielberg nor Daniel Day Lewis took me there in Lincoln. The genre of film, much more sophisticated than a B movie, that consummate filmmaker Tarantino is divining in, allows us to peer into a reality that historical writing or memory cannot capture at the level of social phenomenon today. Film is pivotal in this way and lest those of us how know better forget, too often our “top” filmmakers will not allow such depiction when it comes to African American subjects or subjects that not only put our eyes on the prize of freedom but call our minds to the injustices and exploitation of people of color or women and women of color. These films are still not made for public reception.

So I’ll take Django Unchained any day over Lincoln (which I enjoyed though a slow film for me). Yet I think it’s wrong to compare the two films. Just because they occupy the same historical reference point does not mean they are comparable films, films one should compare. They are not the same genre, the same space or the same race of film. Correlation in this case would be wrong in my view. They context of the 150th anniversary is really the only connection as far as films go.

And I want to remind myself and others that Django Unchained as a Oscar nominated film for Best Picture is not simply Tarantino’s film to claim. This film would not be what it has become without the cooperation of its black actors as well as its nonblack actors, all of whom contribute to its brilliant representation. One sorely needed, whose time finally came, among African Americans of all classes but, more so, among nonblacks of all classes–perhaps a more likely candidate of a post-racial Obama era than any.

This film belongs to its co-producers including Reggie Hudlin and even more so it belongs to us–the people. It’s the closest thing to a people’s history of slavery re-presented in a modern skin. It’s all about how we the people read Django Unchained as-text and the fact that so many people have been moved into public discourse around the film, into a discourse about slavery, film-making, genre, acting, irony, history and injustice, and more. All of that makes it an Oscar worthy contender.

I doubt it will win Best Picture. Why? Because of the subject matter, its treatment and the reaction of its black audience members who loved it too much for some fellow theatergoers. That kind of behavior “insubordination” during the Obama era can’t be allowed…at least that’s what people say.

I’m willing to be wrong.  Django did something no other film has done for me. It allowed me to have a fantasy of revenge IN PUBLIC, in mixed company. It freed my laughter that hides pain, my sorrow that hides decades of struggle to be free, it unchained people’s disbelief and made possible riding off into the sunset for once. All that made me feel free in a way that I never thought possible in public, in mixed company. It was liberating and OK.

The film also provided a kind of vindication for white guilt with which anyone whose taught racism courses or courses involved black culture must constantly contend. This was a depiction of a white man, the hero, who let his compassion lead him to sacrifice himself for those considered less human than other white men. Christoph Waltz’s portrayal of Dr. King Schultz does that for us, but let us not forget it was the writing and the film direction that allowed him to freely act that part, portray that possible reality.

So my vote Sunday night is for Django Unchained for Best Picture 2012 and much more. If it doesn’t win, I’ll be ok. The film will remain to save the day.


3 THINGS I NEVER KNEW ABOUT DJANGO

I hope you find this trivia as interesting as I did.

  1. Although the film is technically a part of the western genre, Quentin Tarantino preferred to refer to the film as a “southern” due to the films setting in America’s deep south.
  2. Leonardo DiCaprio, who portrays villain Calvin Candie in this film, was originally the first actor choice for the role of antagonist Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino‘s previous film Inglourious Basterds. However, Tarantino decided that a fluent German-speaking actor should portray the character, and the part went to Christoph Waltz, who portrays Dr. King Schultz in this film, marking Waltz’s second film collaboration with Tarantino. DiCaprio can however speak some German.
  3. Director Quentin Tarantino revealed at Comic-Con that Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington‘s characters are meant to be the great great great grandparents of the character John Shaft from the Shaft movies. An overt reference to this connection can be found in Kerry Washington’s character’s full name: Broomhilda Von Shaft.  (all from IMDb.com)
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