Wednesday, December 26, 2012

DJANGO UNCHAINED: Did You See It?

Controversy can often lead to added box office.  The new film from director/writer Quentin Tarantino  is Django Unchained starring Oscar winner Jamie Foxx as Django.  Reportedly, the N-word is used over 100 times in this movie.  Lord, have mercy.
Mr. Tarantino wrote the screenplay.  Have I liked the filmmaker's work?  Yes.  Especially Pulp Fiction and his remake/revisioning of Inglourious Basterds.  However, I have found myself thinking two things as I sit through his films:  1) He could make the same point and have a tighter film at two hours.  It doesn't need to be this long.  2)  I'm really tired of him throwing around the N-word as much as he does.  The second point comes from a guy who grew up as a child of the Civil Rights Era and has felt that sting of that vile word hurled at me by white people.  I cannot comment on Django Unchained because I haven't seen it yet.  If you have, I'd like to read your comments on the film.  Spike Lee, another director/writer who -- like Mr. Tarantino -- has acted in his own films -- had some angry comments about it.  Apparently, Tarantino (who references past movie genres in his productions) borrowed from the 1970s "spaghetti westerns," westerns made in Italy that became popular here in the States.  When Spike on Twitter wrote "American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti western" and declared Django Unchained "disrespectful to my ancestors," he'd not seen the film.  I sat through Spike Lee's new movie, Red Hook Summer, over the summer.  Oy.  The minutes flew by like hours.  The N-word is tossed about in that one.  A slight follow-up to 1989's Do The Right Thing, we see an older Mookie (Lee) from that movie still delivering pizzas in Brooklyn.  Mookie didn't even move up to a management position.  He's still delivering pizzas and now has hair like Morgan Freeman.  Not one of Lee's best.  On Twitter, I noticed that the folks angered by Tarantino's thrill ride use of the N-word in Django Unchained are black.  I've read six reviews of the film by nationally recognized critics and the overall rating for this slavery western was "very good" to "masterpiece."  These were critics with Entertainment Weekly magazine, The New York Daily News, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio and, formerly of TV's Entertainment Tonight, there was Leonard Maltin. Very interesting.  All these critics are white.  Not a one, I'm assuming, ever has been called the N-word or otherwise personally felt the sting of it.  Having a more racially diverse group of nationally recognized weekly film critics would make for juicier film talk.  The dialogue could provide the Hollywood entertainment industry and filmmakers with stuff they need to hear.  There could be viewpoints Quentin Tarantino needs to hear.
As I've blogged before, there are very few -- if any -- black film critics that American TV viewers can name.  We're over a decade into the 21st century and, still, black film critics are rarely seen on network morning news shows like CBS Sunday Morning where David Edelstein does reviews.  The weekday network morning shows seemed to drop weekly film journalism when networks became wedded to film studios -- like Disney with ABC and Universal with NBC.  But, when they did have film critics, we saw:  Gene Shalit on NBC, the late Gene Siskel on CBS, the late Joel Siegel on ABC.  Siskel & Ebert were in syndication.  After Gene's death, we saw Roger Ebert with Richard Roeper.  Then we saw Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons as a national movie critic duo.  That's pretty much a white boys' club.  I'm positive I wasn't the only black broadcaster who tried for a long time to integrate that field.  I was the weekly movie critic on the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee in 1981, the year Ben Lyons was born.  I was in my second year on the job.  A few summers ago, NBC let Kathie Lee Gifford's son, Cody, do film reviews in the last hour of Today.  He's younger than Ben Lyons.  Full disclosure:  I lobbied to do regular film reviews when I worked for WNBC in the early 1990s.  No luck despite my years of TV and print experience.  From The Color Purple to Do The Right Thing to Hustle & Flow to The Help and now Django Unchained, whenever a film with heavy duty content about black folks opens, it's Caucasian critics telling us minority moviegoers why we need to see it.  On the network morning shows, the contributors talking about film and film-related topics such as forecasting Oscar nominations are usually Caucasian.  Throw some color into the mix.  The arts demand diversity.  Do you know who this man being applauded is?
He's not as recognizable to TV viewers as Leonard Maltin, Roger Ebert or even Ben Lyons from E! Entertainment Television.  But Wesley Morris won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for film criticism. The journalist for The Boston Globe follows Ebert as a recipient of that prestigious award.  Trust me on this, there are many many black film critics in the country who would love the opportunity to be on TV other than Black History Month.  We need to hear some black film critics give us their opinions of Django Unchained.  How did they feel hearing "n****r" onscreen over 100 times?  Is Tarantino helping or hurting?  Did he screen the film for black critics or black audiences for feedback before it was released?
Leonardo DiCaprio is opposite Jamie Foxx in the above photo.  The slave revenge western also stars the actor who was so brilliant as the Nazi officer in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.
Christoph Waltz won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for that Nazi role.
Samuel L. Jackson co-stars in this controversial pre-Civil War story.
On her internationally-famous daytime talk show, Oprah predicted DiCaprio would win the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Howard Hughes in The Aviator.  Her prediction came with the grandly dramatic proclamation, "Go get your Oscar, Leo!" when he was a guest on her show.  He lost to Jamie Foxx who amazingly channeled Ray Charles in Ray.  I have a feeling Leo will get his some Hollywood gold of his own one day.  Not to worry. 
If you saw them in Django Unchained, what did you think?  What point does the director strive to make with it?  Is it socially relevant or just a wild western, Tarantino style?  Please, leave me some comments.  By the way, I respect Spike Lee, but I would not publicly condemn a film that I had not yet seen.  That wouldn't feel like fair play to me.



6 comments:

  1. I saw the movie on Christmas Day, and I loved it. I expected to love it. I KNEW I would love it. But I understand the concern about "the N-word."

    I am white. My fiancé is biracial. Her lovely mother is black. I do not mention this in the sense that I am preempting an argument with a sort of "I can't be racist, my BEST FRIEND is black!" But I did go into this movie a little uncomfortable with how slavery and racism and, I guess, that word would be handled.

    First, I understand Mr. Lee's discomfort with Mr. Tarantino's use of the word in his movies. At times, it feels real and honest, as when used by Samuel L. Jackson. At other times, it feels... weird, and a little dirty, as when Tarantino himself delivers his his "Dead Nigger Storage" rant in Pulp Fiction. Sometimes I watch that movie, and I don't notice it, but sometimes I feel a little offended, as it does certainly seem unnecessary.

    It would be easy to take a very simplistic view of the use of this word. It has been used as a weapon for a very long time, and the resulting wounds are still very real, and very open, and very, very sore. So should we not use the word at all?

    I don’t. I don’t out of respect, and because I find no humor in ironic use of “nigga” when referring to my friends. But if I were an artist, and I were trying to express something, would I be as hesitant? Probably not.

    Tarantino is not a stupid man. Nor is he an insensitive one. I would wager that Pam Grier and Samuel L. Jackson are both very aware of the history of that word, of the civil rights movement, of slavery, and they seem perfectly fine acting in this man’s films, saying the words he’s written.

    Does that make “nigger” okay? I don’t know. It’s okay to some people who, by Lee’s logic, should take great offense at its use. Of course, Grier and Jackson are not spokespeople for their race. Of course, neither is Spike Lee.

    What I find most troubling about this brouhaha about the arbitrary number of times a word is used in a movie, aside from the fact that it is used in a movie about slavery, is that outrage is being expressed by people who haven’t seen the film. Not having seen the film, Lee is boycotting his notion of the film, not the film itself, and I would argue that he may be missing something worth seeing.

    Django Unchained uses “the N-word” a whole bunch, yes. Thing is, it is a film set in the antebellum south. A south where the word was thrown around freely. Was it a cruel word? Was it used to dehumanize and discredit people of African heritage? Was it right? No. That’s kind of the point here.

    You hear a lot about the use of this word, but nothing about the depiction of slave suffering or abuse in this film. Do you not find that curious? It’s so easy to get up in arms over arbitrary language, especially without appropriate context. There are absolutely gutwrenching moments in this film, including slaves being whipped, forced to fight to the death, being attacked by dogs, being tortured, castrated, and any number of other atrocities that, frankly, have NEVER been portrayed in any film in this same way. I’d say that the overall role of this film in reminding us that the pain of slavery and subjugation was very real, and incredibly painful. Slavers and plantation owners are killed left and right with cartoonish glee. It’s cathartic, much in the same way that Hitler’s death in Inglorious Basterds was cathartic. But unlike Tarantino’s avoidance of the horrors of the Holocaust in his WW2 movie, he confronts the evils of slavery head on, and with respect. Is the rest of the movie around that entertaining? Yes. But we can have both things.

    Louis CK said, “Every year, white people add a hundred years to how long ago slavery was.” Hilarious and painfully true. Might somebody like Lee not find value in this film reminding us of how recent and how terrible this moment in American history was? Or is that not allowed, at least from a dorky, chubby white guy?

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  2. CanNOT thank you enough for responding! That's just the quality of dialogue I'd like to hear on a film talk show -- and not just from critics. From wise viewers like yourself. Happy New Year.

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  3. I am Black. I am 44 years old and I have seen very few slave films since Roots.

    While I still watch Roots, and I am still jarred by the writing and performances; not enough care and time have been put into many of the films on the subject of race since (just my opinion.)

    That being said.

    I will wait for Django to come on cable.

    I see no reason what so ever to spend my hard earned money on Quentin's version of what a movie about MY history should be.

    Let's imagine Spike Lee making a film about Nat Turner and real slave rebellion. I imagine the white outrage would be huge.

    Unfortunately, if you have white skin? Hollywood will let you make any kind of film about people of color at all...it's been that way since Birth Of A nation.

    I wanted to see Red Hook Summer and was excited about a film that showed Black people as complete human beings fathers, mothers, teachers and so on. I could not find it.

    1. I am quite offended that Quentin feels the need to include so many "niggers" in his film (I am referring to the word not people of color)

    2. I doubt that this film will bring any relevant "light" to the ordeal that was slavery in America.

    3. I want to spend my money on films that I believe will be bigger and truly revolutionary...For example after watching the Diary Of Anne Frank, I went to the library and researched her life and the untold stories of the Jewish people living under a Nazi regime. In my mind The Diary Of Anne Frank is one of the most explosive film's I have ever seen.

    4. Thanks as always Mr. Rivers for being a great film critic..PERIOD.

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  4. "Let's imagine Spike Lee making a film about Nat Turner and real slave rebellion." Mr. Tyler that is BRILLIANT. Thank you for taking time to read my piece and to comment. Excellent points and observations.

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  5. Hello, there!

    Figured I would take a break from responding on your FB page for this one.

    Before I weigh in, here are some things for you and your readers to know about me:

    I have NOT seen “Django Unchained” yet but am curious enough about it to want to see it. Maybe it’s because all those white film critics told me to. LOL :D

    I hate the N-word. I have never used it against anyone and never will.

    I will soon be marrying an African woman (not American...yet) and even though I’m white, I imagine I will be faced at some point with my wife and maybe even my kids being subject to either that word or some other racial bigotry on some level. Or maybe I'll even be called a "N-lover"...in 21st Century America. Even if it’s not used directly against me, I will still feel the sting. In a sense, I recoil even now when I hear it.

    My thoughts on your piece (apologies if my arguments echo others already made):

    In much the same way that “Inglourious Basterds” was a great movie but WASN'T HISTORICALLY ACCURATE (I'm not yelling, I just couldn't figure out how to use bold or underline), I imagine DU will pretty much be the same. As with IB, it will provide for entertaining escapism, but it will probably still include a hint of historical reality--even if that reality is an ugly one where one element of society treats another like sub-humans. I wasn’t around in the mid-19th Century, but I imagine the N-word was probably bandied about a lot more frequently than is socially acceptable today.

    That said, did Tarantino absolutely need to include the N-word 100 times or whatever it was? Probably not. Was the N-word used in the movie more by whites or by blacks? Don’t know because I haven’t seen it yet. [Remember, it was used by both whites and blacks in “Blazing Saddles.”] All I can say is that if the movie is about an escaped/freed slave who becomes a bounty hunter, then everyone who used the N-word will either end up dead or with a swastika carved into his or her forehead. Wait a minute--wrong movie.

    Two non sequiturs before I end:

    David Edelstein lost me when he hated just about everything he reviewed on last week’s show. Even Les Miserables (which I also haven’t seen)!! That’s like an entire football stadium throwing snowballs at Santa Claus!

    WHERE did you find that picture of Quentin Tarantino?! It looks like he fell off his bike during a race! :)

    Happy New Year!

    Michael

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  6. Michael, I kinda wish Dave Chappelle's show was still in production on Comedy Central so he could lampoon Tarantino's film and its controversy. Excellent points you brought up. By the way, on National Public Radio, David Edelstein said that he felt I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY starring Adam Sandler and Kevin James was better than BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.

    John 11:35 " And Jesus wept."

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