Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Righteous Indignation: The Real Story behind Spike Lee’s Bogus Case against ‘Django Unchained’



On December 21st, 2012, Spike Lee threw down the proverbial gauntlet at Quentin Tarantino’s feet for the second time in 15 years.  He’s taken issue with Quentin’s Spaghetti western homage Django Unchained.  It follows the exploits of an ex-slave who becomes a bounty hunter in order to rescue his lady love from the bonds of captivity.  In order to do so, he must square off against an evil plantation owner.  


When asked about the film during a filmed interview with VibeTV, Spike said "I can’t speak on it 'cause I'm not gonna see it, all I'm going to say is that it's disrespectful to my ancestors. That's just me...I'm not speaking on behalf of anybody else."  He elaborated further via his Twitter account: "American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western.It Was A Holocaust.My Ancestors Are Slaves.Stolen From Africa.I Will Honor Them." [sic]  When a Tarantino fan accused him of taking things too seriously, Spike fired back "Wrong.Birth Of A Nation Got Black Folks Lynched [sic]. Media Is Powerful. DON'T SLEEP. WAKE UP YO."



If there’s one thing that can be counted on in this world, it’s that any major release aimed at Black audiences will be met with some level of discord within the Black community.  It’s inevitable.  Spike’s criticisms of Django Unchained are an example of this ongoing phenomenon, even though the movie in question doesn’t technically qualify as a “Black film.” It was conceived, written, and directed by a white guy.  That particular issue is at the heart of Spike’s dilemma.  

This ongoing issue has plagued Black cinema for at least the last 40 or so years.  In 1972, Junius Griffen, then a film publicist and head of the Hollywood/Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP, first coined the phrase “Blaxploitation.”  It was short hand for “Black exploitation.”  He did so in an August 10th, 1972 Hollywood Reporter article titled “NAACP Takes Militant Stand on Black Exploitation Films.”  

The term was used to describe a wave of very popular films often portrayed Black folks in a rather stereotypical light.  Many focused on the underworld, and contained ample doses of sex, violence, and profanity.  The genre was born in the early 1970’s and petered out later in the decade.  It included such Fred Williamson vehicles as The Legend of Nigger Charley, The Soul of Nigger Charley, and Boss Nigger, all of which were forerunners to Django Unchained. The NAACP, along with other groups such as The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Urban League, ultimately banded together and formed the Coalition Against Blaxploitation.

Poster for The Legend of Nigger Charley.

The furor over Blaxploitation set a precedent.  Almost every decade since has had it’s very own Black film renaissance, each of which has been met with similar criticisms.  The hood films of the 1990’s were accused of promoting “Black on Black” violence, and were often blamed for outbreaks of violence at opening weekend screenings.  In the current era, Tyler Perry’s various forms of Chitlin’ entertainment have been branded as “Coonery and Buffoonery” by many, most famously by Spike himself.  It seems that no matter how the Black experience is portrayed, some segment of the audience gets ticked off.  Spike’s recent rant about Django, provides a rather handy (though admittedly limited) scope through which to view this phenomenon.  

Spike was perhaps the primary inspiration behind the Black film renaissance of the early 1990’s.  That movement peaked in 1991, when 16 movies made by Black filmmakers received a theatrical release.  This was largely due to Lee’s unique voice.  As Roger Ebert once said of his sophomore feature, “Spike Lee's "School Daze" is the first movie in a long time where the black characters seem to be relating to one another, instead of to a hypothetical white audience.”  This made Spike stand out in a market place where Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby represented the alpha and omega of the Black experience.

From day one, Spike’s penchant for blasting his peers in the media became evident.  In a New York Times article that was published in 1986, the same year that his feature film debut She’s Gotta Have It was released, Spike zeroed in on Whoopi Goldberg.  He criticized her for wearing blue contact lenses, and noted her “vicious crossover mentality.”  3 years later, as Do The Right Thing fast became a lightning rod of controversy, Lee accused Eddie Murphy of not using his considerable pull at Paramount studios to ensure that put Blacks in a position of power.  On The Arsenio Hall show, Murphy called Spike a cricket.  After Hall publically came to Murphy’s defense, Lee branded him an Uncle Tom.

In subsequent decades, Lee’s ire has known no bounds, and is regularly aimed at fellow Black artists.  His targets have included filmmaker Matty Rich, as well former collaborator Samuel L. Jackson.  He even turned on Will Smith, who opted for director Michael Mann when agreeing to star in the biopic Ali.  His recent war of words with Tyler Perry quickly devolved into yet another example of “House negro vs. Field Negro.”  His disdain for modern rap music is also well known, as he has traded words with both 50 Cent The 2 Live Crew.  Also of note are his clashes with white filmmakers and icons such as George Lucas, Clint Eastwood, and Charlton Heston.

Spike’s rants have often either coincided with, or preceded, the release of one of his films.  That underlines his penchant for self-promotion.  It reveals his rather narcissistic view of himself as being the sole standard bearer, and perhaps sole standard setter, of Black film.  During the late 80’s and even into the 90’s, Spike had the playing field all to himself.  Now he has to share it, and he doesn’t like it.  The idea of sharing it with the likes of a nerdy white guy brings us to Spike’s ongoing feud with Quentin Tarantino.

Quentin Tarantino vs. Spike Lee

Spike’s beef with Quentin began in December of 1997, with the release of Jackie Brown.  In an interview with Variety, he took Tarantino to task.  By his count, the n-word was used in the film 38 times.  He noted that Quentin had used it in all of his films up until that point.  He then stated "I'm not against the word... and I use it, but Quentin is infatuated with the word. What does he want? To be made an honorary black man?"  

Spike’s vitriol was surprising given his (then) recent history with Tarantino.  He’d given him a cameo role in his 1996 film Girl 6, which was released on March 22nd of that year.  The timeline of events up until that point proves very telling.  Quentin’s breakthrough film, Pulp Fiction, was released on October 14th of 1994.  In that film, as the character Jimmie, Tarantino performed the now infamous “Dead Nigger Storage” routine.  During that monologue, Tarantino used the N-word multiple times.  Not the colloquial variant, mind you, but the proper pronunciation.  If Spike was so disturbed by Quentin’s obsession with the word, why collaborate with him after the fact?  Did he just realize Quentin’s obsession while watching Jackie Brown?  I highly doubt it.  As Spike himself noted, Quentin had been using the word in all his films up until that point.    


Now let’s take a look at Spike’s criticisms of Django Unchained.  American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, according to him.  However, he certainly didn’t feel that way on August 21st, 1998, when he appeared on The Chris Rock Show.  During that episode, he and host Chris Rock lamented the (then) current state of Black cinema.  Spike cited John Singleton’s film Rosewood as an example of a quality Black film that performed poorly at the box office.  Rosewood was based on the 1923 Rosewood massacre that took place in Levy County, Florida.  The film was essentially a Schindler’s List rip-off that reimagined the horrible tragedy as…a western!  At one point, the character Mann (Played by Ving Rhames) becomes a gun-slinging hero.  No such events occurred in real life.  The film played fast and loose with historical facts.  Chris Rock interrupted Spike’s endorsement, saying that Rosewood, while positive, wasn’t actually good.  

Ving Rhames as Mann in John Singleton's Rosewood.

So what of his comparisons to The Birth of Nation?  Spike’s observation regarding the power of media is absolutely correct.  However, as people of color in America know very well, true racism hardly needs either motivation or justification.  Even a cursory glance at the right wing’s reaction to Obama’s presidency proves that emphatically.  

Ironically, a similar argument was once used by film critic David Denby to brand Lee as a rabble rouser.  In his review of Spike’s breakthrough feature Do The Right Thing, which originally ran in the June 26th, 1989 edition of New York Magazine, Denby said of the film “The end of this movie is a shambles and if audiences go wild, he’s partly responsible.  Lee wants to rouse people, to “wake them up.” But to do what?”  

In that very same issue, columnist Joe Klein weighed in with equally alarmist sentiments in his article “Spiked?”: “All these subtleties are likely to leave white (especially white liberal audiences) debating the meaning of Spike’s message.  Black teenagers won’t find it so hard though.  For them, the message is clear from the opening credits, which roll to the tune of ‘Fight The Power,’ performed by Public Enemy, a virulently anti-Semitic rap group (Professor Griff, the group’s minister of information, recently told the Washington Times that Jews were ‘responsible for the majority of wickedness that goes on around the globe’).”  

Griff was subsequently ejected from the group as a result of his comments.  Klein goes on to say that the film states that both the police and white people are the enemy of Black Americans.  Ironically, Spike seems to be doing exactly the same thing to Tarantino that Denby did to him.  By doing this, Spike has not only aligned himself with would be detractor’s such as Denby and Klein, but also conservative pundits such as Matt Drudge, who fear that Django Unchained might be a call to arms for the Black Community.  They think it might stir up the “good nigras.”  That’s exactly what Klein and Denby once thought of Do The Right Thing.  Interesting, isn’t it?

To be fair, Spike is surely not alone in his disdain for Django.  Among his most unlikely allies is conroversial film critic Armond White, who’s never exactly been his biggest fan.  In his scathing review of the film, which is titled “Still Not a Brother,” White predictably resorts to personal attacks. He brands Samuel L. Jackson an Uncle Tom of the worst order.  Such hyperbole is White’s stock-in-trade, as are his contrarian shtick and effete sensibilities.

Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen the house slave in Django Unchained.  Jackson was recently attacked by film critic Armond White, who accused the actor of being an Uncle Tom.  Obviously, White can't tell reality from fiction.

On the less vitriolic side of things is Erin Aubry Kaplan, who’s recent LA Times piece “'Django' an unsettling experience for many blacks,” lists reactions from a number of Black professionals who work within the entertainment industry (mostly in a behind-the-scenes or journalistic capacity).  She finds Tarantino’s  recent revelations decidedly trite, to say the least: “Tarantino has said in promoting ‘Django’ that America has never dealt honestly with its history of slavery — true, but general enough to be almost entirely uncontroversial.”

She also takes issue with his ideas about how future Black Audiences will receive Django: “In a recent interview with The (L.A.)Times, however, he assigned meaning to his new film in a way that he typically resists. ‘Even for the movie's biggest black detractors, I think their children will grow up and love this movie,’ he said. ‘I think it could become a rite of passage for young black males.’  The presumptuousness of that sentiment is striking to some — passage from what to what, exactly? Watching somebody getting blown away in nearly every frame hardly seems like indoctrination young black men need, if they haven't been indoctrinated into such violence already.”

Filmmaker Tanya Steele, a former student of Spike’s, concurs with Ms. Kaplan.  The Black film site Shadow and Act, Her analysis “Tarantino's Candy (Slavery In The White Male Imagination)” which was recently published on the Black film site Shadow and Act, asks “Is the culture any worse because of 'Django Unchained'? I don't think we are better because of it. Will it deepen discussions around slavery? Probably not. Will it decrease violence in the 'hood? Probably not, if anything, the gun received more glorification and worship. Not sure black males or anyone else needs that.”  

She then goes on to acknowledge the obvious appeal and entertainment value of the film.  Not to dismiss either Ms. Kaplan or Ms. Steele, but both come off as obviously intelligent and insightful sisters who quite obviously aren’t that enthralled with violent revenge thrillers.  Nor do they seem to grasp the concepts of allegory and myth.  Thankfully, there are many other Black folks that do.  Among Django’s supporters are Oprah Winfrey, comedian D.L. Hughley, comedian Donnell Rawlings, writer Touré, Star Jones, and most recently filmmaker Antoine Fuqua.  Fuqua recently came out in defense of Tarantino, noting Spike’s penchant for using the media as his own personal firing squad: "That’s just not the way you do things.  If you disagree with the way a colleague did something, call him up, invite him out for a coffee,talk about it. But don’t do it publicly."  Perhaps even more telling is that the film has been nominated for four image awards by the very organization that once lead the charge against such fare: The NAACP.

So just what is Spike’s real problem with Django Unchained?  I offer that his problem is either that he didn’t think of it first, or doesn’t have the clout and/or talent to pull it off.  Spike has never exactly been a populist filmmaker.  His works are fiercely personal.  He rarely if ever makes concessions to popular tastes.  He expects them (the audience) to come to him (the artist).  Over the last twenty years, moviegoers have been increasingly less willing to accommodate him in that regard.  At this point, one has to wonder if his position is dictated by his own limitations as a filmmaker.  He’s has never been the most adept storyteller around, and his meandering narratives can be frustrating for the uninitiated.  Tarantino is also a fiercely personal filmmaker.  It just so happens that his over-indulgences make for entertaining viewing.  Perhaps, a genre piece that uses American slavery as its backdrop is beyond Spike’s capabilities.

Spike, like the white aristocracy that he has always railed against, is part of a dying breed.  He’s represents an altogether different aristocracy.  He’d like to remake Black America in his image, dictating our collective tastes and mindset.  Slavery should only be depicted by him, in the kinds of films that he’d like to make.  Anyone who deviates from that path is either a house nigger or a wigger.  Well, if cheering on an ex-slave who ultimately takes his destiny into his own hands by seeking bloody revenge (with the help of a white liberal mentor, of course) makes me an Uncle Tom, than so fucking be it!  Spike stopped understanding his audience a long time ago.  Meanwhile, Tarantino seems to know exactly what that audience wants to see, and delivers it in his own unique way.  More power to him.         
  

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