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
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT