Quentin Tarantino’s new film Django Unchained is a sort of revenge narrative with a fictional black bounty hunter as its superhero (or übermench if you prefer). It has sparked debate about not only American gun culture, but also racism and the representation of slavery in the antebellum South. David Sirota’s article in Salon asks, “Could a black director have made Django?” But the more important question might be, “would they?” Spike Lee answered in so many words, “Fuck No!” Lee tweeted on December 22nd that “[sic]American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.”
Despite Eric Deggins’ provocation that Tarantino “may be the baddest black filmmaker working in big-time Hollywood movies today” along with his insinuation that Lee seems to hate Tarantino for other reasons (perhaps more significant ones, like how the director benefits from systematic white supremacy in Hollywood?), Lee’s rejection of Tarantino’s antebellum spaghetti Southwestern, is an important point of departure that opens up crucial ideological question about the film, which other critics have left unexamined.
However transgressive Django Unchained might seem on the surface, it reinforces key tenets of American ideology - namely individualism and exceptionalism – that perpetuate a matrix of racism in the United States which has been at work since before the birth of the nation. Despite the Obama phenomenon, structural racism that found its genesis in American slavery and continued despite the civil rights movement through the twentieth century, remains strong. From sharecropping, the GI-bill post-WWII (which was effectively white ‘affirmative action’), and de jure segregation pre-civil-rights movement to the de facto segregation via white flight, the war on drugs, and the prison industrial complex, racism and its legacy still permeate America. Why? Because its ideology resists the necessary dismantling of white supremacy - the system of structural racism that privileges white people over others, regardless of the presence or absence of racial hatred.
The racism embedded in a film like Django Unchained runs much deeper than others have claimed. It is not simply how many times a character says the word ‘nigger’, or that a white director grants himself the right to have his characters use the word liberally. It’s not merely that he invents a black superhero so to construct a spectacular revenge narrative at the cost of trivialising the cataclysm of American slavery. Finally, it is not only about ‘White Privilege.’ (The struggle for liberation cannot be led by the oppressor. White people should be the invisible hand that helps in that struggle. Fanon and Cabral agree.) It goes deeper.
American ideology is uniquely resistant to systematic critiques of racism (and for that matter any structural oppression) largely because of a convenient little adynaton called ‘Bootstrapping.’ Bootstrapping is a term from the phrase ‘to pull oneself over a fence by one’s bootstraps’ that emerged in the early nineteenth century United States. It is derived from what is called the “Horatio Alger Myth.” Alger wrote rags to riches stories in the late nineteenth century that celebrated capitalist markets and insisted that if a poor person worked hard and was lucky enough to solicit the aid of an older wealthy person, they could improve their social position, thus gaining wealth and honour.
There are two major problems with the notion of ‘bootstrapping’. The first is that it’s obviously a fundamentally flawed concept. This is backed up by empirical evidence showing that those born into both the top and bottom tiers of the income index tend to stay where they are from one generation to the next. Furthermore, African Americans are disproportionately likely to be stuck at the bottom and fall from middle incomes across generations. The second problem with the bootstrapping myth is that it ignores the fact that blacks were not even legally entitled to receive a wage for their work at all, let alone equal wages with whites, until anti-discrimination laws were gradually put in place (which only then made it possible to begin fighting systematic racism).
But why is ‘bootstrapping’ fundamental to the racism of Django Unchained? Because Tarantino’s narrative is premised on black exceptionalism, which inserts the bootstrapping adynaton into the logic of white supremacy, used by both conservatives to deny contemporary structures of racism and liberals to applaud blacks for ‘transcending race’. Django gets unchained by a wealthy German bounty-hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Cristoph Waltz), who trains him in marksmanship and makes him a partner in his profession. When Shultz learns the story of another exceptional slave -Django’s wife Broomhilda, who is literate and speaks German - they set off to free her from Calvin Candie, a plantation owner and ‘mandingo’ (slaves that are used to fight to the death) breeder. Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio) names Django (Jamie Foxx) as the ‘exceptional negro’, as ‘one-in-ten-thousand’. Django adopts this title of ‘one-in-ten-thousand’, displacing himself from the subaltern class of black slaves and embodying the exceptional individualism of the liminal outlaw. This move speaks to the essence of American ideology and it’s no surprise that Tarantino uses its archetypal cinematic form to tell his story.
Despite Taratino’s sincere effort, Django Unchained actually works to perpetuate the racism of black exceptionalism with his bootstrapping narrative of slavery and the [South]West. It transposes the violent imagery of slavery onto the form of a western in order to enact some ahistorical vengeance, perhaps confronting white racists with one of their great fears, but ultimately serving as revenge porn for liberals plagued by white guilt. In the end, the potential for real cultural work interrogating systematic racism and the legacy of slavery [such as Kara Walker’s artwork] is subsumed by a famous white guy’s fantasy. A film by someone more familiar with racism and American ideology that offers a truly radical account of slave revolts in the South (most of which were actually way more violent than any Tarantino film, see Gabriel Prosser in Virginia in 1800, Denmark Vesey in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822, and Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831) is due. Perhaps Lee will step up.