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Tarantino's "Django: Unchained"

Hollywood’s Nigger Joke

by CECIL BROWN

I had little dog, his name  was Dash

I’d ruther be a nigger than be white trash

–African American saying

In order for a joke to work, Mary Douglas, the eminent British anthropologist, wrote that one had to have a social context for it to operate in. “We must ask what are the social conditions for a joke to be both perceived and permitted,” she asked in her wonderful little essay, “Jokes.”

“My hypothesis,” she writes“is that a joke is seen and allowed when it offers a symbolic pattern of a social pattern occurring at the same time.”

With Django: Unchained, the symbolic pattern–I’d call it historical context–is Hollywood itself. “If there is no joke in the social structure,” Mrs Douglas observed, “no other joke can appear.”  In Hollywood, there are lots of jokes in the system!

The social pattern that allows Quentin Tarantino’s “Nigger joke” to work is set in the South, two years before the Civil War, but my point is that this is only a pretext for Hollywood itself.

Some critics, like Betsy Sharkey in the Times, think this film is a masterpiece. Sharkey calls it,   “the most articulate, intriguing, provoking, appalling, hilarious, exhilarating, scathing and downright entertaining film yet.”

African American critic Wesley Morris hated it. He called it “unrelenting tastelessness — [...] exclamatory kitsch — on a subject as loaded, gruesome, and dishonorable as American slavery.”

Ishmael Reed, the novelist, pointed out how the Weinstein Company promoted an advertising campaign to get a black audience by promoting  Jamie Foxx as the star. In fact, Foxx is only one of the stars, along with Christoph Waltz and  Leonardo DiCaprio. As Reed points out, Foxx spends most of his time looking at Mr.Waltz and then looking at Mr. DiCaprio, with a puzzled look on his face, as if to say, What’s dese white folks, talkin ‘bout?

My aim in his essay is to examine the way in which the symbolic system is a reflection of the social system. “What are the social conditions for a joke to be both perceived and permitted,” Mrs Douglass wrote in that little essay, “Jokes.”

What are the social conditions that would permit Django to be the big howling, empty nigger joke that it is?

One of these social conditions, certainly,  involves the relationship between black actors and Hollywood as a symbol of the plantation system.

In his review of the film, for example, Mr. Reed said that Sam Jackson, in the role of the conniving, omnipresent, evil slave, is “playing himself.”

If  Jackson had not dominated the Hollywood system in such a sly way,  then his role as Stephen,  the  master-worshipping house slave to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) would not have its loaded, edgy, uncanny realism. The plantation is called CandieLand (Candyland) and is meant to refer to Hollywood itself as a producer of entertainment (Candy). Get it?

If Jamie Foxx is not known in  Hollywood as a resourceful hustler, who will play almost any role, then his part as the “bad nigger” Django would not be so compelling (and lubricous). If he was not the “New nigger on the block,” then the confrontation between him and Sam Jackson’s character, Stephen, the off-the-hook house slave, the scene would not be powerful (and dumb) at the same time.

The dramatis persona forms a homology with the enacted characters on the screen. The key that unlocks Tarantino’s sensationalistic mosaic is that it reveals the inner game of how the Hollywood studio and the plantation slave institution exploited black people.

Unwittingly and unconsciously Tarantino has provided us with a scenario that makes the plantation system the symbolic equivalent of Hollywood.  It is a film a clef.

In other words, Hollywood forms a homology with the slave plantations system– in both cases making money is being underlined as the goal, and it does not matter how many people are hurt or offended.

Tarantino approaches Hollywood–that is, the Weinstein Brothers production company as if it were a plantation, and as if he were an aspiring poor white trash overseer trying to get into the closed system by manipulating the slave code.

Instead of presenting the Weinstein Company with a script, Tarantino screened a film– Django (1966.), a Spaghetti Western.

How hard was that? In an age where even Hollywood execs don’t read, Tarantino made it easy for them.  As it turns out, Django (1966) was itself a take-off of the Spaghetti Western, Fistful of Dollars, a film (and a genre) invented by the Italian director Sergio Leone.

Tarantino’s task (as he probably explained to the Weinstein Company) was to map characters, incidents, and plot points from the original Django (1966)  onto the target, his proposed plantation script, Django:Unchained (2012).

Let us now compare the original Django (1966) directed by Sergio Coerbucci with Tarantino’s Django: Unchained (2012).  In mapping, some things are easily transferrable and somethings are not. What Tarantino took from the original films were the characters, plot, and gross details of violent acts. What he added–and what was not in the original–was African American nigger humor, the joke. Tarantino ransacked Black folklore for the Trickster, the slave John, and the Bad Nigger, and the Jezebel.  For music, he takes some of the original Italian, but for the most part, he overlays the film with James Brown’s “The Big Pay Back” and  hip-hop music.

If we compare the plots with each other, as summarized in the IMDb, we can see what Tarantino transferred over from the original source the target:  “A coffin-dragging gunslinger enters a town caught between two feuding factions, the KKK and a gang of Mexican Bandits. Then enters Django, and he is caught between a struggle against both parties.”

The plot of Django:Unchainedis: “With the help of his mentor, a slave-turned bounty hunter sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.” And: “Former dentist, Dr. King Schultz, buys the freedom of a slave, Django,and trains him with the intent to make him his deputy bounty hunter. Instead, he is led to the site of Django’s wife who is in the hands of Calvin Candie a ruthless plantation owner.”

In the opening scene of the original movie,  a beautiful woman (Loredana Nusciak) is rescued from rape by Django (Franco Nero). This female character is mapped over by changing the name and character to  Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington).

Imitating the original scene of desperation, Tarantino opens  his film with a slave coffle. First, a long shot of the slaves chained together. Then, close-up shots of the shackled ankles. Then, overlay of the moanful voices,  Aint Nobody Gonna Hold My Body Down. Next, close-ups of raw stripes of blood lashes on a black backs.

It makes for a painful, depressing sight, and  it is photographed in a realistic mode. The audience is taken in, because the scene depicts the holocaust for many blacks who sat in the audiences across the country.We see the strips from the whips across the backs of the slaves.

Then, there is an incident: a light in the dark. Who goes there? The owner of the slaves calls out.

“Just a fellow traveler,” returns a Dr. King Schultz (Christop Waltz), a bounty hunter. Dr. Schultz examines the slave , picks out Django (Jamie Foxx), and when the slave owner tries to prevent him from talking to Django, pulls out a gun and shoots him dead.  Shooting the white slaver point blank, Dr. Schultz laughs and turns the gun over to Django, who is miraculously transformed from a lowly slave to—Presto!–into a “Bad Nigger” with a gun and a mean attitude. Now we are rolling!

As a spokesman for the director, Dr. Schultz is a white Negro.  His action and trickster character lift the action out of serious mood ; and suddenly, we hear the pounding music of James Brown’s “The Big Payback!”

We are roaring with laughter at the punchline in an ethnic joke. Some of Django’s lines include, as he shoots a poor white man, “I like the way you die!” When Dr. Schultz offers him a deal of working with him as a bounty hunter, Django exhales  the punchline,  with panache, “Kill white folks and get paid for it?”

We realize that all that had gone before, the shots of the black slaves, the sad music, the spiritual music and lyrics—all of that was just a set-up, a pretext. The real text, the underlying message was the punchline that Blacks in slavery were fools and cowards.

Throughout the rest of the film, this is Tarantino method: begin with a serious treatment, suck the audience in,  and then, he hits you—Bang!–with a punch line that catches you off guard.  The problem with the ethnic joke is that the joke is always on the black man, who, has no recourse to respond.

Jamie Foxx as a slave agrees to help him if he will help him go back and get his wife (Kerry Washington ) out of slavery. Tarantino centers on the exotic notion that it beautiful slave’s name Broomhilda and speaks German. Mein Gott!

We know that there was a KKK in the original model. That was easily mapped over to slavery, but Tarantino makes a mistake here.  He choses 1858, two years before the Civil War, as the fictional time for his film.  But  the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t until some 20 years later, in the 1880s, after the Civil War.

Just because it was in the original source, Tarantino included it in the target material. He wasn’t following Black history, but rather he was  following his original template.

In the original, Django (1966), the hero is a “anti hero, ”  but  Tarantino mapped  him over to the target as the “bad nigger.” Black  culture is full of images of the “bad nigger,” including Stagolee, Deadwood Dick, and Dolomite.  They all are screaming, “I’m a bad motherfucker and I don’t mind dying!” (And all of them signified by a large brimmed hat.)

Tarantino didn’t limit himself to lifting the characters, incidents, and plot elements from the Spaghetti Western, but the grossness of imagery as well.

In the original Django material, for example, the hero cuts the bandits’s ears off and force them into his mouth. Tarantino has one of the sadistic slaver  turn Django turned upside down so he can cut his testicles (symbolic equivalent of ears) off. In another scene, he has dogs eat a black man to death on screen. In yet another scene, DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie is watching his Mandingo fighters kill each other; Calvin offers the winner, a hammer to beat his brains out.

There are 5 or 6 instances where I had to look away from the screen,  because it was so violent and  and the violence was so gratuitous.

The film is soaked in pretentious drivel.  For example,  in one scene, Calvin Candie instructs his overseer to set a pack dogs on a black slave and we (the black audience)  watch the dogs eat the slave alive (on screen).  Dr. King Schultz wonders what  Alexander Dumas, the Black French writer,  would have said of that scene.

This gross and ludicrous non-sequitur is meant to show how hip Tarantino is to Black history. Here is notion that Tarantino really knows something about French literary history Dumas was black! No shit?

I’m willing to bet that when Jamie Foxx Jamie Foxx read this in the script,  he turned to Tarantino and asked, “Who the hell is Dumas?”

Tarantino proposed to the Weinstein Company to deliver an audience on Christmas Day that would make them a lot of money.  An equivalent was the poor Irishman who approached the plantation owners with the proposal to save the plantation money by managing his slaves (through beating them and yielding a profit).

What was this audience that Tarantino promised to deliver to the  Weinstein Company?

Where I saw the film, at the AMC theater, in Emeryville California, the audience was the same one that had voted for Obama. When I waited in the long line to see the film,  people’s faces were glowing with expectation. The hype about Jamie Foxx and Sam Jackson and Kerry Washington was like voting for a Black man for President.

But after seeing the film, their faces were empty, their eyes were blank. Sure,  they had laughed at the scatological humor, had flinched at the gruesome ugly scenes, had been insulted by the self-deprecating humor, and had been lifted up by  the antics of the “bad nigger” And don’t forget the ending–with the hero and his slave bride ridding off into the sunset and the glowing flames that consumes the CandyLand Plantation! And all this, with this synched to beat of  rebellious hip-hop music. Burn, Hollywood, Burn!

For many of them, Tarantino had delivered. In essence, they had their cathartic laugh, and yet they still felt  dirty from  the guilty pleasure. Their empty faces were drained understanding. They had been used, and they were beginning to know it. You could see that they had been bamboozled.

In one scene revealing scene, the slave master, Calvin Candie shows his dinner guests the skull of a Black slave, Ben. “Old Ben never revolted against the white man? Why didn’t he? Because when you cut his skull open, you find that there is something in his brain that won’t allow him to rebel against the white man.”

What Tarantino is asking in his meta-language,  Why don’t blacks take over Hollywood?  Why do they allow the likes of him and the Weinstein Company along with Sam Jackson and Jamie Foxx to run a game on them?

I ask myself the same question.  Why do Blacks, who can elect a President,  not prevent themselves from being exploited by Hollywood? Why can’t they demand more black directors and better scripts from the likes of the Weinstein Company?

Why do we continue to allow Sam Jackson and Jamie Foxx to clown us?

As I watched the long line of Blacks que up for the movie, and as I listened to their guffaws in the darkened theater, I realized that nobody likes a “nigger joke” more than Black people themselves.   Are Black people themselves deeply masochistic? Would a Jewish American audience tolerate a film that makes fun of their history and their holocaust? I doubt it. Would the Weinstein have made a film about the Jewish Holocaust that ridicule and belittled the Jewish experience during Hitler? I doubt it.

Much of the problem has to do with Black people themselves.  You would think that Samuel Jackson would have enough clout to produce his own films. Every Hollywood black have their own “company,” but they never produce any films.

Even though we have rich black men, they do not have the intellectual heft to confront Hollywood, which is supported by a culture of literacy.  After four hundred years of being told that you can’t write, blacks tend to stay with “acting” and sports. They do not have the respect of their own authors to use their work in films. The literary codes that Hollywood uses depend on a culture that reads books, but for Blacks,  literature  is not a high priority.

Blacks seem contented to be consumers of  the movies and not  producers of them. In the past, Blacks attended film schools and produced Spike Lee (New York University) and  John Singleton (UCLA), but there are few Blacks attending film schools. This year at UCLA, one of  the most important film schools in the country, admitted not one single Black student.

You can’t present a project to a studio about Black Dumas if you never heard of Dumas?  How can you talk to a Hollywood producer if all you know is the lyrics from Snoop Doggy Dog?

In reality, both Hollywood (Weinstein Bros)  and the plantation system are closed systems, despite the fact that slave-owners say they’re taking good care of the slaves  and despite the fact that Hollywood says that the success is based on talent alone.

Another important similarity between Hollywood and the Plantation is that they are both controlled by literacy. On the slave plantations, no black is allowed to leave the plantation without a pass.

In order to get a pass you have to consult the white man since  no black can write one, as Blacks are not allowed to read and write. Therefore, literacy controlled the plantation and the enslavement of enslaved Africans–enslaved mainly because the technology of writing was withheld for them. The attending rhetoric was that Blacks were too stupid to learn to read and write.

I read Mick Lasalle’s the review of the film in the San Francisco Chronicle.  He loved it, “entertaining” for every minute. While putting down Spike Lee’s “The Red Hook Summer”  as one of the worst films of 2012, he puts Django:Unchained at the very top of his best list (second to Lincoln).  He didn’t like Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, which is about A Jewish man who uses humor to survive a Nazi death camp.

Even if he is a fan of white male racist jokes against blacks, he should have warned African American readers that the film is racially offensive in its exploitation of black humor.

The 4th Estate, in a recent study of American newspapers, “Bleached, Lack of Diversity on the Front Page,” claimed that 98 percent of all newspapers headlines are written by whites.  At the San Francisco Chronicle,  the study found that there were no Black writers at all.  Given the social conditions in Journalism, LaSalle was obliged to tell black readers what was really inside the wrapper.

Whites control the newspapers, like Hollywood, and use their print to keep the public stupid and dumb. Like the blacks ancestors on the plantation,  African Americans are held in  check so that the pockets of the cultural producers (ruling class) can be filled.

Cecil Brown, screenwriter and writer, is a visiting scholar in the English Department at U C Berkeley. is the author of I, Stagolee: a NovelStagolee Shot Billy and The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass NiggerBrown directed the film “The Two-Fer” (produced by Ishmael Reed). He can be reached at: 
stagolee@me.com