'This Brother Needs Help'

By Stern, Marlow | Newsweek, January 4, 2013 | Go to article overview
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'This Brother Needs Help'


Stern, Marlow, Newsweek


Byline: Marlow Stern

Tavis Smiley sounds off on Quentin Tarantino's 'Django Unchained' and how it flubs the history of American slavery.

the author and host of the Tavis Smiley show discusses filmmaker Quentin Tarantino's treatment of black culture in the new Western Django Unchained and asks why Hollywood can't get it right on the legacy of slavery.

I'm interested to hear your thoughts on Django Unchained. What was your initial reaction to the film?

I refuse to see it. I'm not going to pay to see it. But I've read the screenplay, and I have 25 family members and friends who have seen it, and have had thousands of conversations about this movie, so I can tell you frame by frame what happens. I'm troubled that Hollywood won't get serious about making an authentic film about the holocaust of slavery but they will greenlight a spoof about slavery, and it's as if this spoof about slavery somehow makes slavery a bit easier to swallow. The suffering of black people is not reducible to revenge and retribution. The black tradition has taught the nation what it means to love. Put it another way: black people have learned to love America in spite of, not because of, so if the justification for the film in the end is, as Jamie Foxx's Django says, "What, kill white people and get paid for it? What's wrong with that?" well again, black suffering is not reducible to revenge and retribution.

Tarantino even went on the record saying Roots was inauthentic. First of all, Tarantino is not a historian. When people see his film who don't have any understanding of history, they take it as history, because Tarantino passes himself off as a historian by declaring Roots inauthentic, and then goes on to make the "authentic" story about slavery. It doesn't tell the truth about what the black contribution to this country has been. Tarantino has the right to make whatever films he wants to make. What he's not entitled to is his own set of facts and to lecture black people about the inauthenticity of an iconic, game-changing series like Roots. I don't take kindly to white folk like Tarantino lecturing black folk about their history. That's just unacceptable. Tarantino is absolutely exhausting.

What do you find so exhausting about Tarantino, and in particular, his film's relationships with black culture? Spike Lee has had issues with Tarantino's usage of the N word in the past, and he also came out and said this film was "an insult to his ancestors."

To my mind, there's clearly a level of arrogance with what Tarantino does, and what he thinks he can get away with. I don't always agree with Spike Lee on everything, but he's absolutely right on this. I can't imagine any other culture that would allow someone to so recklessly use the word "n----r" in film after film after film. It's not even like he did it one time. There's a level of comfort that Tarantino has with appropriating and reimagining black culture and black history, and that's what I find offensive.

Are you trying to say that you find Tarantino's oeuvre racist?

I'm always leery to call people racist because I don't ultimately know what's inside their heart. I don't know what's inside Tarantino's heart; what I do know is what's inside his head, because that's what we see on film. If what's inside his head is connected to what's inside his heart, then this brother needs some help. And black folk are going to have to make some choices and some decisions about whether we continue to aid and abet Hollywood in the raping of our history.

Why hasn't someone like Lee taken on the subject of slavery? It always seems to be white filmmakers like Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, Ed Zwick (Glory), etc.

It's a great question. John Singleton did a movie called Rosewood and it tanked. When Spike did Malcolm X, he had to go around and get wealthy black celebrities--Bill Cosby, Oprah, others--to invest in the film.

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