Skip to main content

Why 'Django Unchained' stirs race debate

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
January 8, 2013 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino spatting over "Django Unchained"
  • Seymour says film, which upends slavery narrative, is classic comic-book Tarantino
  • He says debate is over whether white artists have right to tell any part of black American story
  • Seymour notes James Baldwin's sound advice: "If you don't like their alternative, write yours"

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

(CNN) -- Spike Lee says he's never going to see Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" because he's certain it is "disrespectful of my ancestors." Tarantino says he doesn't need to waste time responding to Lee's accusation. That, as they say, is that.

So why do we insist on staring at two egomaniacs staring down each other?

Race. Again. The subject that never fails to provoke, antagonize, alienate -- and fascinate rubber-necking onlookers from sea to shining sea. Fixating on race is an absurdity that has no rational reason to exist, yet no one quite knows how to eliminate it from humankind. The only thing dumber than race is underestimating its importance.

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

"Django Unchained" is Tarantino's latest exercise in genre-bending audacity, an antic ripsnorter folding in most of what its director knows and loves about spaghetti westerns, 1970s blaxploitation thrillers and his own ribald, recklessly violent body of work. Its title character, played by Jamie Foxx, is a slave bought and freed by a drolly effective German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz), who agrees to help Django emancipate his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from a decadent plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



"Django" makes no pretense of being anything other than a phantasmagoric pseudo-western, rife with calculated vulgarity, anachronism and impropriety. Its body count rivals that of Tarantino's 2003 martial-arts epic, "Kill Bill Vol. 1" (to whose messily operatic set pieces of slaughter "Django" bears an uncanny resemblance).

Marquee blog: What's the verdict on "Django Unchanied"?

Film violence inspires real violence?
Jamie Foxx: 'Django' controversy is good

The movie has so far grossed more than $100 million since its Christmas Day nationwide release. Critics' reactions have ranged from wild-eyed enthusiasm (The Boston Globe's Wesley Morris: "Corkscrewed, inside-out, upside-down, simultaneously clear-eyed and out of its mind") to wary detachment (The Detroit News' Tom Long: "(Y)ou may leave ... wishing for both more and less") to borderline outrage (Slate's Dana Stevens: "There's something about (Tarantino's) directorial delectation in all these acts of racial violence that left me not just physically, but morally queasy.")

Given advance hype for the movie as extravagant as its violence, I doubt that audience members, whatever their race or age, bought tickets with the expectation of seeing some historically faithful saga of antebellum life, and neither did I. We were buying a comic book. Many people have a grievance against the very notion of comic books, but I don't. Expect a movie or a comic book to explain everything about anything and all you earn is surplus sadness that you don't really need.

Nevertheless, there are many who, unlike Lee, have seen the movie and carry the same grievances as he does. The most scathing attack came from that novelist-satirist-poet Ishmael Reed, writing in The Wall Street Journal: "To compare this movie to a spaghetti western and a blaxploitation film is an insult to both genres. It's a Tarantino home movie with all the racist licks of his other movies." He aimed this laser shot at the Oscar-nominated actor who plays the treacherous "house slave" to DiCaprio's character: "Samuel L. Jackson ... plays himself."

I doubt Jackson felt the blow. He has, in fact, further provoked the movie's antagonists by running straight at an interviewer asking about the movie's prolific use of the "N-word," refusing to answer the question unless the reporter, who is white, actually says the dread epithet aloud. (He didn't.)

Still, Reed's condemnation discloses what may lie at the heart of Lee's objection: the debate over whether white artists have the right to tell any part of the black American story -- which, as Reed writes, is as old as Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 abolitionist novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

It is also as recent as 1967 when the white Southern novelist William Styron published, "The Confessions of Nat Turner," a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel told in the first-person voice of the brilliant-but-doomed leader of an 1838 slave rebellion. The outcry from African-American novelists was so intense that a collection of essays, "William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond" was published a year later. James Baldwin, a friend of Styron's who was one of the few African-American authors speaking out on the book's behalf, put his position as succinctly as possible: "I will not tell another writer what to write. If you don't like their alternative, write yours."

It's still sound advice -- and in the intervening years, black authors have taken it, from Alex Haley's 1976 blockbuster, "Roots," to Toni Morrison's haunting "Beloved" from 1987. Both were adapted for the screen, and while "Roots," the television miniseries, delivered a resounding national impact, the 1998 movie adaptation of "Beloved," even with Oprah Winfrey as producer and co-star, earned about $26 million, roughly half of its $50 million budget.

I remember many of my African-American relatives and friends who told me they were not going to see "Beloved," no matter how good it was or who was in it, because they simply did not want to watch a movie about slavery's legacy. Some of these same folks, on the other hand, tell me they were psyched about seeing a movie, however "incorrect" on several levels, in which a black ex-slave secures freedom for his wife, kills every white man who stands in his way -- and gets away with it.

Exasperated? If you're not, you should be.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT