Lincoln, Meet Django: Slavery’s Latest Films Are Controversial, But Not Why You Think

This December the Civil War Era got the Hollywood treatment as two tinseltown heavyweights (Stephen Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino) presented their drastically different takes on a period of American history very few like to visit.

Well, at least not in a critical way.

As U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2009, Americans are “cowards” when it comes to race. This includes in films about slavery and the Civil War it spawned.

From fantasies meant to justify fears and glorify terrorists like Birth of A Nation, to sob-inducing, torturous “We lost the battle, but won… in spirit or something… in the end” flicks like Glory andAmistad, Americans — and by Americans, I mean a lot of white people — tend to like their racial dramas in two ways. One is the classic mold of “White hero saves damned, downtrodden dark people from other white people who are racist jerks,” a la Cry Freedom or Mississippi Burning. The other is the almost always Oscar-worthy “Black people turn other cheek while foot is placed in ass over and over, but never raise a fist in retaliation because they’re good, magical Negroes meant to cure us of our erectile dysfunction and high golf handicap.”

The latter is still incredibly popular.

Surprisingly though, and possibly a sign of progress, Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained are neither of those things, while still being somewhat related to those types of films.

Although, not always in the way you’d expect.

Spielberg’s work regarding one of our most mythologized and celebrated presidents is technically fantastic, passionately acted and executed. It’s so perfect it is almost a parody of a Hollywood Oscar-bait — the method-obsessed Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, a screenplay by award-winningAngels in America scribe Tony Kushner, brought to you by the man who made both Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

It’s the definition of a prestige picture.

There’s just one problem…

Due to a glaring oversight, at moments, it falls into the “white savior” category of films.

Not because it’s inaccurate, to say. It’s more of a sin of omission. Former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, debated, befriended and challenged Abraham Lincoln to make the choices he made. At times Lincoln was reticent to “free” the slaves, wasn’t sure about “equality” in the traditional sense of the word and Douglass was there in varying capacities to and for Lincoln, as such to ignore his existence in my opinion is reprehensible.

But Douglass was a no-show in Lincoln, despite his looming importance in Lincoln’s presidency. This leaves the impression to those less informed about the Civil War period that it was Lincoln and Lincoln alone who “freed the slaves.” This ignores that blacks and whites worked together to right a wrong, an example to us all of what can be accomplished when two cultures work together.

And this wouldn’t be a “big deal” if it weren’t for that fact this is the reductionist vision most Americans have of Lincoln already thanks to the most basic of compulsory public school educations.

At least the film got the aspect of “white people dragged kicking and screaming to the right side of history” right.

Getting history “right” was less of a concern for the purposely cartoonish Django Unchained — Quentin Tarantino’s controversial, slavery-era Spaghetti Western.

In a recent interview with VIBE Magazine, director Spike Lee said he wouldn’t watch Djangobecause it “would be disrespectful to his (our) ancestors.” And even I, before seeing the film, wanted to agree with Lee. As I prepared to cut through Django with all the militant muster I could generate, a strange thing happened in the theater…

I loved the movie…

I really, really loved the movie.

Django is a ripe display of the pulpiest of fictions and uses 1858’s slavery-riddled American South as the backdrop for a violent and oft unsettlingly hilarious revenge flick.

There is no movie about slavery quite like it.

It’s a film that perverts a perversion by turning it into a cruel farce of those who thought there was nobility in owning (and treating) a man as if he were a horse.

While it recalls 1970s exploitation flicks Mandingo and Addio Zio Tom, it only references their most comically absurd and unsettling parts. And rather than become slavery-based torture porn, in Django every white person who is a slaver gets their comeuppance — “Antebellum Die Hard” style — with Jamie Foxx as Slave John McClane.

For example, there’s a scene in the miniseries Roots where Chicken George has a chance to whip a white man, but takes the high road.

In Django, Jamie Foxx — former slave turned John Shaft — beats his ass.

The cinematic equivalent of a Rick Ross album title — God Forgives, “Django” doesn’t.

The film is a well-acted, directed and a cinematic and aural feast, yet Tarantino’s Django remains hotly debated among black intellectuals. And when it comes to why this is such a lightning rod, I have a theory.

Black people have a complicated and frustrating with popular cinema as stereotypes — the hallmark of lazy storytelling — are easy to market and produce. But we, as African Americans, are also guilty of drafting our own inflexible standards and mythology, choking out individualism and creative freedom in the name of “progress.”

Film is an art form. It is a form of expression. And it is a business. And I want my films about my culture to be honest. Not positive or negative, just honest. There are those who feel all slavery-era films should be of the same tone where a gospel choir plays in the background as the noble slave is whipped and defiantly refuses to cry… a story where the prospect of revenge would never enter his mind because he is chiseled and formed from the spirit of Mother Africa.

Well, that’s boring.

And doesn’t really reflect the much more complicated story of black slaves — from Harriet Tubman to Nat Turner to the anonymous slave just trying to make it another day in hell.

All these stories deserve telling. And they deserve to be told in many different ways. And there’s nothing wrong with one of those stories being about the slave who got angry, as there were most assuredly slaves who got angry.

That’s Django.

And in some ways it’s more honest than the raft of African American films that shine a light so brightly on our heroes it canonizes them to the degree that they are no longer real.

If Lee has any real challenge with the film it should be about how, due to virtue of Tarantino’s whiteness (plus his marquee reputation), it was easier for him to get the film he wanted made while Lee has had to fight for everything from Do the Right Thing to Red Hook Summer.

Prestige in the form of Malcolm X and the commercial success of Inside Man, hasn’t made it any easier for the auteur and that’s well worth getting upset over.

But Django is not.

No Black Panther Comic Movie?

In light of my growing up an avid comic book reader, I’ve come to enjoy the recent series of superhero films. I relish the moments in which a character delivers a signature phrase, such as “Hulk Smash,” or “I shall smite thee!” However, I was slightly saddened upon learning that when Captain America yells, “Avengers assemble” in the second Avengers film, Black Panther will not make the rendezvous.

The fact that Black Panther will not receive his own film is not as hard to digest as Marvel’s reason for not creating the project,
“It’s a little more difficult, maybe, creating [a world like Wakanda].”
– Louis D’Esposito, Marvel Studios co – President

Clearly this reasoning is bogus, not only has Marvel Studios been successful in creating Thor’s home world of Asgard, but other studios have been able to create more fantastic worlds such the planet OA in the recent Green Lantern film, or Lucas Films’ creation of several alien worlds in the Star Wars series. With that said, might there be a reason other than the proclaimed difficult task of building a jungle with a few high tech buildings and rare metal?

The insinuated question lies in his name, BLACK Panther. While others might imply the reason for not creating the film is solely based on the character being black, I will be optimistic and examine the existing social elements that precede the would be film star.

I don’t by any means accuse Marvel Studios of not wanting to produce a black superhero. After all, there have been others such as Hancock, Blankman, Meteorman, and so on. Though the issue with these characters is that they do not satisfy an audience on a moral level, their function(s) is to entertain via a series of silly situations; in other words, these characters do not stand as a symbol. Hancock had the typical superhuman abilities of amplified strength and flight, but he was bound by his drunken clumsiness and sassy attitude. Blankman was a nerd enabled with an ability to invent gadgets but he would also get beat up and scream like a little girl. Meteor Man? Well, he fought crime and had the ability to fly, but he was also afraid of heights. In acknowledgement of the type of black superhero characters that have already hit the screen, Marvel Studios would be faced with the task of shooting (no pun intended) the first Black superhero that didn’t rely on a sassy tongue, or his capability to stand strong in the face of a social ill.

Spike Lee admitted that upon announcing plans to create the Malcolm X film, he immediately began to receive feedback implying “you better not mess up Malcolm.” I believe Marvel shares a similar scenario in the sense that fans of the comic understand the sense of morality behind the character and what he represents as a symbol. In his interview with MTV, D’Espositio went on to say, “He has a lot of the same characteristics as Captain America: great character, good values.” With an understanding that the Black Panther shares a similar symbolic meaning with the first avenger, how would a film studio get an audience identify with this character?

The Black Panther has come a long way from his original creation. In his mid 60’s emergence, the character’s alter ego could have been Huey Newton himself. Where at one point he was an Afro bearing revolutionary rebel that was 100 percent pro-black (he was actually married to Storm), he has long since been transformed into a young king. The modern Black Panther has nothing to do with America, or the social state of African Americans. Similar to Thor, T’Challa (Black Panther) was next in line to the throne of Wakanda, a fictional technologically advanced African country containing a limited supply of vibranium, an indestructible alien metal. Upon his father’s death, T’Challa was obligated to take the throne which in turn meant becoming the Black Panther. His character is that of a cultured prince, educated around the world and raised to lead a nation with an equitable yet fierce hand. Thus, how would an audience react to a grammatically intact, strong willed black man taking on the spotlight in his own feature?

It wouldn’t be easy; America is definitely used seeing African Americans through a certain lens when it comes to film. Either they’re fighting a dangerous poverty stricken situation, trying to achieve a goal uncommon for blacks, undergoing a drastic change in character from vagrant to valor, or waxing up their chest to act as eye-candy for the ladies. Even if the situation has nothing to do with being black, the character will still rely on his or her attitude. Take Blade for example, this swords master cut through hundreds of vampires and saved the world from a vampiric apocalypse, yet the memorable parts of the film involve Snipes saying “I was born ready motherfucker,” or “Motherfucker you done lost your damn mind!?” Not to mention the film wouldn’t have worked without him bearing sunglasses in 75 percent of his scenes. My point is that the creation of this film would mean creating a character that carries himself with the composure of Denzel, while channeling the strength and spirit of a young Jim Brown (yes it’s a stretch, but who else is there?). In actuality, if those chosen to create the film were true students of film, the ethnicity of the character wouldn’t be an issue.

The Marvel universe is just that- a universe in which events happen. Any hero or villain is subject to run into another at any given time. With the universe being such a large canvas for storytelling, the hero’s origin and ethnic ticks can for the most part be overlooked. I for one wouldn’t want a superhero film involving mostly blacks or any other ethnicity for that matter. I honestly just want a good story in which I get to see a comic book hero use his skill set to overcome a greater evil.

One of the most exciting aspects of creating a story in the comic book genre is that anything is possible. Marvel’s animated Avenger movies, along with the recent Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cartoon have already created plots that highly involve Black Panther, yet don’t require him to operate in Wakanda, thus throwing out their vocalized excuse. As it pertains to creating a voice for the new character, D.C. has already knocked down this barrier with their animated characters of John Stewart, and Young Justice’s Aqualad. Both characters’ are those capable of taking on the role of leader, and don’t rely on cultural circumstance to function. The only real obstacle in Marvel’s way would be in creating an actual film that could support such a character. I’ll be the first to admit the task would prove quite difficult if done right, but I’m not falling for the old, “We can’t build the technologically advanced nation in the jungle” excuse.

There you go Marvel, I know it’s hard to discuss a topic as such, therefore causing D’Esposito to spit out the first excuse to come to mind, but don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.

Now I’m off to write individual blogs for the other 50 avengers that won’t be getting their own films.

The Walking Conundrum

I love AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”  At the moment it’s my favorite show on television.  I love the effects, the cinematography—virtually every aspect of the show.

But there’s one thing that gives me pause …

The black characters.

“The Walking Dead” isn’t the first show to have problematic black characters, but the light of disappointment shines so brightly here because I love the show so much.

It hurts. It hurts like having a child who is a math whiz, but smokes crack sometimes.

Back in season one when filmmaker Frank Darabont was still affiliated with the show, there was a moment where a father and son, both of whom are black, took in the character Rick Grimes, a sheriff before the zombie apocalypse began.

We learn that the father lost his wife to the apocalypse and that he is determined to keep his son safe as he is all that is left of the family. As a zombie horde approaches the father’s home, amongst the undead is his wife.  She comes to his house as we watch her through the scope of his rifle – trained on her head.

He wrestles with pulling the trigger.  He wrestles with the acceptance that his wife is now a zombie. But he cannot pull trigger, for to do so would not just kill the wife, but the hope that life can return to what it once was.

I love that scene.  I love that character.  Yes, he was black, but he was human even more so.  He was a father, a husband.  He was scared, vulnerable, uncertain and yet heroic.  He was something so rare in TV and film, a black person with real character development and a storyline.

But then, after that one, solitary episode, he and his son were never heard from again.

Since Darabont left the show, most of the black characters introduced in season one (and all the Hispanic characters – no matter how interesting) have remained incidental, non-existent or presumed dead. The only shining example of a well-rounded non-white character is the Asian American Glenn – who is also my favorite.

Now, I can already hear the rumblings of the producers of the show who may not be of color saying, “What is it going to take to make you happy? We have more black characters then virtually any show on TV that’s not on BET, TV One, or a network owned by Ted Turner!”

Good question.

I don’t want “black” characters.

I want “characters” who happen to be black.

So what’s my issue now since I loved that scene in season one?

Exhibit #1: T-Dogg or (T-Dawg)

I hated T-Dogg.  Much of it had to do with the fact that his name was “T-Dogg.”  Not Andre or Nathan, not even Lester, but T-Dogg.

T-Dogg always fell, he dropped the keys that lead to Merle cutting off his hand, he cut himself, was unusually adversarial, and he couldn’t fight.

Now, I’m aware that it’s a stereotype that all black men can fight. But in popular fiction, if your name has “Ice,” “MC,” “Lil,” or “Dogg” you must be able to fight.  It’s a television/film physics principle like gravity.

But T-Dogg couldn’t fight.  I never felt him lament the pre-zombie world.  No nightmares of a lost family, no longing for love, sex or power.  Just an incredible ability to fall at the most inopportune time.

But he did man up finally.  He gave a nice soliloquy … and then he died.

(I actually love that about the show.  Any time they dance, have a cookout or an incredibly nice moment, you can bet death by a zombie is a camera step away.)

But back to my issue.

T-Dogg’s gone.  But now we have Michonne!  And she’s a “bad ass.” It’s a term I loathe, as it harkens back to the O.G. days of “Shaft” or “Superfly.” She has an incredible understanding of zombie culture.  She can walk amongst them, keep them as pets and oh … how she can kill! As she stalks, skulks and sulks around to the point you half expect a narrator to shout: “She’s a bad Mofo!”  “She got a sword!”  “Say what?”  “Yo, mama! Gimme five!” “Get down wit yo bad self!” as she takes to the walkers like Bill the Butcher.

She doesn’t smile and ducks her head slightly like a pit bull ready to attack.

I’m cool with all of this.  Here’s my question.

When she and Andrea were captured by “The Governor,” Andrea quickly became the sexy vixen the Governor worked his Jim Jones Cult sexiness on. But Michonne? Nobody tried to hit it.  There was never even the threat of rape, as was the case later when Maggie was captured.

It’s almost as if Michonne wasn’t a “woman” in the classical sense of the word.  And in the world of “The Walking Dead,” she’s not a woman.

She’s a Bad Ass.

Bad Asses don’t have sex.  They don’t cry.  They don’t feel.  You know why?

They aren’t real.

They aren’t human.

They are cartoon characters.

They are colorful no doubt. They make great t-shirts, but they don’t advance the idea of what great characters of color can be.  Are they better than nothing?  Yes, perhaps, but I’m saying yes through grit teeth.

I still love the show, but it doesn’t escape me that curiously, they are in Atlanta, Ga., aka “Chocolate City,” but the zombie demographic isn’t very Negro. Maybe all of the black people are hiding out, fashionably dressed, building up a funk- hip-hop fusion band that knows karate and kills zombies while pop locking as they speak in rhyme.

Maybe they’ll show up one day and stake their claim in the zombie apocalypse.

That would be “Bad Ass.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild- A Must See

It’s rare to find cinematic dreams realized. It’s an elusive thing – finding that moment where you forget you’re even reading the book, watching the TV, watching the movie and you take it in on face value, like a dream, like the picture unfolded from your own mind seamlessly. It’s a minor miracle – a good film is. It makes your forget. It makes you live a life that’s not your own. It consumes you, then wakes you up to the tune of end credits. And that’s the kind of film director Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild is.

It’s reality, but it’s the fantasy version of reality. It’s child-like wonder. It’s dream-state. It’s where you get lost and when you find yourself at the end all you want is to be lost again.

Zeitlin’s Beasts, along with co-writer Lucy Alibar, create a film that redefines the fantasy genre. By construing the mental obstacles we face in life, along with the creation of a beyond exemplary live action fantasy based world, Zeitlin and Alibar have delivered the most effective fantasy film since Del Toro’s El Orphanato.

Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the story of six-year-old Hush Puppy, played by tenderfoot Quvenzhané Wallis, a suborn but strong willed girl, burdened with caring for her sick and short tempered father Wink, Dwight Henry, during a time of crisis.

Living in a fictitious, below sea level region called “The Bathtub,” Hushpuppy is foretold of gargantuan beasts that will soon be free to roam the world, and that upon their release from their polar ice cap prison, the oceans would flood her home. Now faced with losing her home and father, Hushpuppy has to quickly decide whether or not stand strong as an individual part of the universe, or be swallowed by the rest of it.

It’s not uncommon that the spark of a fantasy story be derived from a tragic event, forcing a young antagonist to fall back into an intimate world of fantasy. The film adaptations of the Narnia books depict the fantastic adventures of four young children after fleeing from a war-plagued country. Pan’s Labyrinth follows the journey of a little girl who seeks guidance in a fantasy world after losing her mother during the birth of her brother. A common factor in these stories and most other fantasy films is that they rely heavily on their fictitious creatures. The viewer is forced to learn from the words of a talking lion, or follow directions from a faun. This isn’t the case in Southern Wild.

As fitting as the idea sounds, Zeitlin is one of the rare filmmakers to express concepts via the interactions between father and daughter. The film contains several scenes in which Hushpuppy would appear to be lost without a cause until her short tempered father and his unconventional form of teaching is enacted to show his child the way. For example, there’s a scene in which Hushpuppy and Wink are forced to endure a storm of extreme magnitude. Both seeming to understand that they might not survive, Hushpuppy shows signs of fear. Upon seeing this, Wink grabs a shotgun and literally tries to take on the storm. In watching her father barge outdoors and shoot buckshot at raindrops, the lesson for Hushpuppy and subsequently the viewer was that one never has to lie down when the universe presents itself a threat; the option to fight is never out of our reach. This concept, along with others, is not only restated in several similar scenes throughout the film, but is supported via the continuous voiceovers of none other than Hushpuppy herself, confirming that she had retained and made the information her own. With each new obstacle that presents itself, the stakes are raised and Hushpuppy is forced to progress from student, to executer, and ultimately making her was to leader.

Quvenzhané and Henry are impeccable in their portrayals of Hushpuppy and Wink. It hasn’t been since the Pursuit of Happiness that a child has carried their role with the refined talent of an adult as displayed by Quvenzhané. Henry deserves applause for being able channel and maintains Wink’s southern spirit in every scene.

However, just as the Narnia children could sip tea with beavers, Hushpuppy was able to spend time beasting crabs with good ol’ Levy, a high-spirited, and seemingly “off” character, well played by Jean Battiste. The story contains several characters that resemble those commonly played by animals in fantasy films. Each character serves his or her function in supporting Hushpuppy and the decisions she makes throughout the course of journey. The film comes to a point where the adults have come up with a plan to solve their recent misfortunes. They plan to destroy a levy, which would in turn drain poisonous water form their community, giving them a fighting chance for survival. The catch is that acting out the plan requires one to question what’s right and wrong, to commit an act that would be considered criminal in a worldview, but necessary to Hushpuppy and those close to her. When the switch lands in Hushpuppy’s hands, she’s forced to act quickly and make a serious decision under pressure; something that those of us in the real world understand to be a difficult task.

Beasts takes an unusual task as a film, in that it not only chooses to teach the viewer but also expresses the results of that applied knowledge in a visceral manner. Zeitlin does this on several occasions while still mastering the other elements of film.

Zeitlin’s craft in constructing a world unique to his vision has created a film that viewers will forever recall as original and one of a kind. Beasts of the Southern Wild presents a world seemingly familiar to the reader but becomes completely foreign with the addition of a few simple elements. Adding to the wonder, Zeitlin’s talent with visual effects is displayed in how he creates motorboats built out of truck beds, mobile homes float 15 feet above ground, and a functional town exists in the center of a swamp that appears to have no connection to the outside world.

Beyond the first line of characters, Beasts of the Southern Wild contains several figures that are necessary in completing a successful story of fantasy. One of the most fantastic aspects of this film is that there are no color lines. Each character is respectively efficient in his or her role. While the viewer is lead by two black characters that are plagued by a series of misfortunate situations, there is never a hint that a “them versus us” situation refers to people of color versus those of Caucasian decent. The only division between people was that between those that can’t enjoy life in its purest form versus those that are happy to be alive. Were one to critique this film’s depiction of black and white interactions based upon those that take place in reality, he or she would be in a state of disbelief that a white doctor would be passionate about a sick and beyond poor black man’s well being. Or that a seemingly stable captain would find nothing odd and take aboard liter of filth encompassed children.

There were no angry black rants about how the white man doesn’t care about blacks, nor were there elite voices that forced people of color to remain in a poverty-stricken area. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a relish able film, composed of the perfect mixture of writing, acting, and directing.

Go see the movie and be consumed. See movies for what they were made to be – the augmentation of our dreams.