If you're a film enthusiast like me, and if you don't live under a rock, you've likely seen the trailer posted below for auteur savant Quentin Tarantino's new film, Django Unchained, due to be released this coming Christmas.  All the standard QT tropes seem present from what I can see: great soundtrack ("The Payback" by James Brown!); quirky dialogue ("Get it?  The D is silent. That shit kray it's so funny."); mirthful experiments with cinematic violence (cf. the blood spray on the cotton field); and a vapid, nihilistic engagement with real human experience that sends this movie-watcher into paroxysms of annoyance.

Having already erased the horror of the Holocaust with the preposterous revenge fantasy of Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino, it seems, has decided to offer a prequel of sorts, negating the reality of American slavery by running it through the meat-grinder of his imagination and peppering it with a little spice from the various cult movie genres he adores.  My annoyance, of course, is that Q's flippant approach to the real trauma of collective history dovetails too neatly with the ignorance of the uninformed half-wits who revere him as a great auteur.  (Two words for that dullard army, by the way: Federico Fellini.)  An anecdotal example of the Tarantino acolytes I excoriate here--  A friend told me that after witnessing the bombastic conclusion of IB in a theater at the time of its release, he heard a teenager behind him cry out, earnestly, "I didn't know that's how the war ended."  Yikes.

One time, years ago, when I was teaching Frederick Douglass's famous slave narrative of 1845 in an African American literature course, a student of mine remarked that he liked Douglass because "he was such a pimp."  (I think it's especially worth noting that the student was white, and offered the comment with an enthusiastic faux-gangsta swagger that I suppose he thought seemed relevant to the material.)  While I encouraged his admiration for Douglass, I spent some time in class talking about how the word "pimp" evoked a pretty limited range for black male heroism, and was likely dictated by the strictures of an uneasy popular culture that frequently situates its black men within the recognizable confines of, well, pimpdom.  Tarantino, then, seems to want to narrate his version of American slavery through the lens of that same popular culture, with--I need to say it--the same level of nuance as a 20 year old white undergrad making his initial way through the thorny path of American racial discourse.

Now, if Tarantino fails off to offer anything remotely resembling the reality of American slavery in the 19th century, I guess it's out of pure boneheadedness and not for lack of trying.  The film's African American star, Jamie Foxx, has been quoted as saying that QT tried to prepare him for the emotional intensity of the role by advising, "I'm worried that you can't get to that slave."  Tarantino, ever sensitive to the dehumanizing horror of the slave experience, insisted that Foxx work hard to step away from the egotism of 21st century celebrity life.  But lest you think Tarantino is too sensitive to the plight of the black slave, note too, how he also blathered on at Comic-Con last month about how he sees his creation Django as the distant ancestor of John Shaft, the protagonist of one of the ur-texts of the 1970s blaxploitation genre.  Lesson: even when QT is trying to be sensitive to the reality of African American collective history, he can't shake the framing lens of the films that groomed his relationship to black America--namely, those starring Richard Roundtree and Pam Grier.  (Also worth noting here that while I imagine many will perceive Tarantino's naming of his protagonist Django as an homage to the title character of a 1966 spaghetti Western starring Franco Nero, I can't help but think that it's also a sly nod to the outlaw played by Sid Haig in the 1972 Pam Grier exploitation vehicle, The Big Bird Cage.)

Finally, to draw this minor jeremiad to a close, I can't help wonder if in some perverse way, Tarantino didn't really just intend to make an action-film adaptation of The Narrative of Frederick Douglass.  Django, like Douglass, is physically violent when his humanity is most threatened (as with Douglass's famous altercation with the slave-breaker Covey in his narrative); Django, like Douglass, is literate, despite the common prohibition against teaching slaves to read (the silent-D joke is evidence of this); Django, like Douglass, depends on authentication from white men to secure his freedom in white supremacist America (though Douglass's chief authenticator, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was not so adept with a pistol as the character played by Christoph Waltz here.)

Viewing the film in this way, as a loose adaptation, makes me want to try to predict what future projects Tarantino might take on.  An anime version of Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's Hiroshima in the Morning perhaps?  Steven Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo as a horror collaboration with Eli Roth: the Bosnian genocide as gleeful, isn't-Eastern-Europe-spooky? Hostel-like splatterfest?

The mind boggles.

3 Responses to 'Notes on Popular Culture: Quentin Tarantino and the Ghost of Frederick Douglass'

  1. http://michaelborshuk.blogspot.com/2012/08/notes-on-popular-culture-quentin.html?showComment=1343953912552#c4327491237722703755'> 5:31 PM

    A brilliant takedown of a deserved target. "Get him, boys!"


  2. Kevin Richard John Smart said...
    http://michaelborshuk.blogspot.com/2012/08/notes-on-popular-culture-quentin.html?showComment=1343985303511#c1766321710008903574'> 2:15 AM

    "If you scratch a compact disk it may play but only once" - Kat Dander


  3. Anonymous said...
    http://michaelborshuk.blogspot.com/2012/08/notes-on-popular-culture-quentin.html?showComment=1363339709649#c7776349090708599782'> 2:28 AM

    Well he won an Academy Award for best original screenplay, so I guess the film industry doesn't quite agree with your magnificent standards of filmmaking.


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MICHAEL BORSHUK is Associate Professor of African American Literature at Texas Tech University. He is the author of SWINGING THE VERNACULAR: JAZZ AND AFRICAN AMERICAN MODERNIST LITERATURE (Routledge, 2006), and numerous essays, reviews, and encyclopedia entries on African American literature, American modernism, and music. For ten years, from 1999 to 2009, he wrote on jazz regularly for CODA MAGAZINE. His fiction has appeared in ANTIGONISH REVIEW, DALHOUSIE REVIEW, ELYSIAN FIELDS QUARTERLY, SHORT STORY, and 34TH PARALLEL.

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