Fear not this will not be another post about ‘Django Unchained’ I am not in any position to offer a critique on a film that I have not seen. Instead I want to focus on Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. Spike Lee has been damming about the ‘Django Unchained’ film claiming that it would be an insult to his ancestors to watch it. That in itself did not surprise me but I was really taken aback by the vitriol of some of the Black Tarantino supporters in cyberspace. Some claimed that Lee was nothing more than a jealous, bitter failure throwing insults at a more successful competitor. If we do compare the two it is easy to see that one has a love for his heritage while the other is more concerned with self promotion.
I may not have seen all of his films but there is no denying the importance of Spike Lee to Black cinema, in fact to cinema full stop. There was no taboo too big for him to tackle be it interracial relationships in ‘Jungle Fever’ racism in ‘Do the right thing’ and colourism in ‘School Daze’. I remember when ‘Malcolm X’ came out and the excitement the film caused. The backstory was just as dramatic as the film. The movie studio had allotted $30 million for all filming which proved to be inadequate. Undeterred Spike enlisted the financial assistance of Black celebrities, the likes of Oprah, Janet Jackson, Magic Johnson to name but a few to complete filming. In the United Kingdom the film had a ‘15’ rating and I had just turned fourteen. I begged my older cousin Jacqui to come with me. She was eighteen and I had hoped that her older mystique would assure my entry. It did.
It was the first time that going to see a film at the cinema felt like an entry to a movement. The film itself was a fitting tribute to a man who died because of his love for his people. It was lavish, powerful; it was a labour of love. It was always one of those rare moments in my adolescence were an international event gave me a swelling pride of my history, my culture of my Blackness. The film celebrated the African diaspora with the African American story at its heart. Watching famous African Americans rally together gave a moment for us all to feel proud. The completion of the film embodied truth and audacity. Many will argue that the film is not totally accurate, they might be right. However, the films power lies in the fact that it presented the truthful essence of what Malcolm X stood for: humanity and integrity even in the face of danger. Making a film or any kind of project without funding will take its creators to the brink of madness. Money is the sole reason why my project is not completed. To see a filmmaker create a film on that scale outside of the typical funding mechanics gives hope to any creative without a budget. Trust me, sometimes hope is all you have.
I am not a Spike Lee groupie. I often find that his female characters lack the easy depth he applies to his male leads. Nola Darling’s three suitors in ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ had more to say for themselves than the female protagonist. Likewise, the female characters in ‘School Daze’ were more akin to Stepford Wives than empowered, educated Black women. That said let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. To his credit he did executive produce the outstanding ‘Pariah’ based on the director Dee Reese’s experience of coming out in her early 20’s. We will have more complicated, meaty Black female roles on the big and small screen when we have more powerful Black women in the industry. It is not a coincidence that Olivia Pope is the creation of super producer Shondra Rhimes. I don’t think that she is largely loved by Black female audiences just because she is sleeping with the American President and has a fabulous wardrobe. She is loved because she is complicated, flawed, smart, vulnerable, capable and most importantly human. She is not neck swinging, overweight or the friend in the background. She is the leading lady.
I have not seen ‘Django Unchained’ and I am largely indifferent about it. Just for the record, I don’t believe that only a Black director can make a film about slavery. I don’t doubt that it’s very entertaining and I understand why Black audiences would have thoroughly enjoyed it. Firstly, we have a Black hero shooting at the Klan and managing to stay alive to the very end. Secondly, we have a Black damsel in distress. Sadly, I can’t think of another mainstream film that has a Black female lead that was worth killing and dying for. Thirdly, if there is anything that Quentin does well its dialogue so I imagine that the film is peppered with quotable chunks. Positives aside, it is Quentin Tarantino’s arrogance which has put me off heading off to the cinema to see his latest effort.
His off colour remarks about ‘Roots’ already put me on alert. He claimed that the narrative did not move him. Nearly 40 years on the impact that mini-series had on my parent’s generation is still apparent. I don’t have the words to express what it meant for my parents to see a primetime show depicting their history and their current struggle. To be dismissive of this seminal mini series and to offer a spaghetti western as some kind of definitive alternative is insulting. ‘Inglorious Basterds’ did not receive the same amount of uproar because it was predated by ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘Life is Beautiful’ and various factual documentaries/films about the Holocaust. There isn’t the same wealth of mainstream information about slavery and its lasting effects on the African diaspora. Therefore when an opportunity like this comes up, the issues that it raises surely must be more important than its directors’ ego. Spielberg approached Alice Walker’s masterpiece ‘The Color Purple’ respectfully, dealing with issues such as racism, Black misogyny, enduring love and Black womanhood delicately. In comparison, Tarantino has no problem with altering historical fact for fear that details should get in the way of telling a good story.
I am really puzzled by the vigorous defending of Tarantino by members of Black cyberspace as though he is some kind of celluloid civil rights activist. He is a pop culture magpie, taking various elements from here and there. Quentin has no more love for Black culture than he does for Manga anime. He is an ‘auteur provocateur’ and knows that nothing more puts bums on seats than a little controversy. However, what really left a bitter taste was the rubbishing of Spike Lee’s career just because he didn’t join the Django bandwagon. Moviegoers do not need to agree with him but there is no need to disrespect him. Integrity is an expensive commodity and Spike Lee has paid a high price for not toeing the party line. Movie studios, distributors, cinema chains are similar to banks; they give the biggest loans/exposure to those who can make them the most money. A director with a few awards under his belt can command big budgets, big marketing campaigns, big crews, big stars and in turn hopefully produce a big return at the box office. If you lack awards, the second option is to play to the lowest common denominator: make a violent, sensational or a super hero feature which will appeal to the masses. If you choose not to go down those avenues you will soon find that the budgets, distributors, cinema releases shrink at a rapid rate. Spike Lee has chosen to stay true to his art irrespective of the cost. To have a career nearly spanning 30 years without ‘selling out’ is the type of success we all should aspire to. Even if he never again reaches the heights of ‘Malcom X’, Lee proved how empowering, universal Black cinema can be and for that I will always be grateful.
Please let me know your thoughts