A slew of scandal has shaken the entertainment industry this year with release of Quentin Tarantino’s much anticipated new film “Django Unchained”, which tells of a newly freed slave and his journey with a bounty hunter to free his wife from the grip of a brutal plantation owner.
Tarantino, who is no stranger to controversy, is receiving criticism for his screenplay which uses the “N-word” (you know the one all the rappers throw out like Mardi-Gras beads from a parade float) over 100 times throughout the film, which is set in 1858, amidst the horrors of slavery in the Antebellum South.
While the film is visually stunning, and has received accolades, including 5 Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Supporting Actor – Christoph Waltz, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, and Sound Editting), and a Golden Globe for Best Original Screenplay, many nay-sayers, including high-profile names such as director Spike Lee, are completely opposed to the film, claiming ”It’d be disrespectful to my ancestors to see that film. That’s the only thing I’m going to say. I can’t disrespect my ancestors”.
And while the film is Tarantino’s most successful to date ( $186.76 million worldwide, topping his last effort, the WWII action flick “Inglourious Basterds”), the film can’t seem to get a break.
Most recently, a line of “Django Unchained” action figures were pulled from shelves, due to controversy over the “slave” and “slave owner” characters being depicted. Perhaps it’s not the film itself that has everyone’s emotions going out of whack.
What it comes down to is that the past was a very scary place. One that to this day conjures deep and unsettling emotions.
On a similar note, contemporary American artist Kara Walker (best known for her silhouetted figures of Blacks and Whites living in dystopian disharmony in the romance of the Antebellum South) has also come under fire (once again) for another politically, racially, and sexually charged depiction of the horrors many African Americans faced prior to the Civil War that included a depiction of a black woman performing oral sex on a white man.
The drawing entitled “The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos” (2010), features bold and brash figures, in Walker’s signature drawing style, and are hurried across the picture, which has the community of Newark divided, after the drawing was covered by a cloth after its hanging on Thanksgiving in the Newark Public Library.
Just days ago, the drawing was reinstated to the walls of the New Jersey library, on the grounds that ”The library should be a safe harbor for controversies of all types, and those controversies can be dealt with in the context of what is known about art, about literature, democracy and freedom,” according to Library trustee, and history professor at Rutgers University, Clement A. Price.
Granted, the African American experience is a sensitive issue, but as Price notes “”Should we be depicted sentimentally, romantically?” or “Should some of the grotesque realities be depicted in art or movies?” Kara Walker has also been invited for a presentation at the Library on the topic of artistic freedom and her role as a black artist to society.
Rather than shy from the harsh realities of this atrocious period in history, Walker’s work attacks it head on, and has gained respect worldwide as an artist who is unafraid of the truth of the matter. In fact, it is the “N-word” that started off the young artists’ career, adapting the persona of the “Negress” and exploring the racism, sex, violence, and mythos associated with African Americans throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, when slavery was at its height in both Canada and the US.
Through careful research, imagination, and pure fearlessness, Walker is able to uncover the hidden truths of the society we live in. On her own work, Walker says “I think my work sort of minimcs the past, but it’s all about the present. Oh, some great artist in the past, Courbet or somebody, said there’s no historical art that isn’t about present…” and ”The work is two parts research and one part paranoid hysteria.”
Much like Walker, Tarantino’s vision of pre-Civil War America is based on a history that has been amplified, as so our 21st Century eyes and ears can hear and see the past in a clear light. In our world today, racism is no way condoned by anybody, but to forget about such a turbulent aspect of our society on the grounds that it is racist is completely naive. This controversy might be a sure sign that our society is in deep denial and conflict over the world we live in.
By shying away from the past, we do ourselves a complete disservice, and deny ourselves the chance to experience the present in its true form. Context is everything, and when dealing with the Antebellum south, the context is not going to be pretty. We should not try to make a romance of the tragedies that have preceded us. To do so could be the most racist thing of all. And we should not try to hide from younger generations the truth, when it has taken so long for us to uncover it.
2013 has been called a year of forgiveness, where past wounds can heal, and new dreams can be achieved. My dream would be to see a society that can own up to its past, and be OK with it – can that change the past? No. But it can allow for healing and forgiveness to those who are up in arms about it.
As for Tarantino in the matter, he brags to the L.A. times “Even for the movie’s biggest black detractors, I think their children will grow up and love this movie. I think it could become a rite of passage for young, black males.” Not only this, but think of Django as a hero who can represent overcoming the most difficult of challenges, and to give power to anyone in the world who feels they have been under the strains of any sort of oppression.
We can rise above. So, suck it up, 21st Century! It’s time to grow a pair!
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Until next time,