I might be the last hold-out, but I finally watched Django Unchained. I had read and heard so much about it that I really did forget the nature of Quentin Tarantino’s tomfoolery. I was stunned, for instance, at the scene where none of the white male nightriders, intent on yet another vicious murder, could agree on what to do with their masks because no one amongst them had the skills to cut eye holes in the right place. When you see and hear historical footage of the likes of southern police commissioners, governors, et al justifying Jim Crow, north and south, you won’t be hearing anything that sounds even close to intelligence. In his zeal to make KKK-styled nightriding into something funny, Tarantino might just have captured white men in that era quite well.
I didn’t watch Django Unchained because I actually wanted to see the movie though. I watched it because I wanted a deeper context for understanding Russell Simmons’s “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” parody. Unlike so many others, I didn’t have any questions of why Simmons thought this short skit was fine. Simmons doesn’t have the kind of ethic or high standard in any aspect of his life for me to expect right-thinking from him. I am pretty clear that Simmons thought he would be cashing in on this feel-good-slavery-movie era so I have to ask: why the prevalence of this genre in the neoliberal era? And who does it really belong to? Who’s “new” history is this?
I needed to see what this genre is actually doing so I self-hosted my own personal movie night. I started with the movie, Lincoln, and I was amazed. Here we have a film that displays just how pro-slavery and anti-black the North really was but yet and still casts the white men of that era and location as the heroes. We see with our own eyes that many voted in favor of abolishing slavery simply because of the monetary/status/job favors they received because hardly no white man wanted to see slavery end. It takes some real cinematic orchestration to make it look like progressive thinking triumphs in the end. And, of course, it is as if the supra-radical Lincoln invented the idea of freedom for black folk. Spielberg insists he created an accurate film of Lincoln’s radicalism but his accuracy is along the likes of his most fantastic cinematic fantasy… E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. I knew this movie would be as fantasy-based as Django Unchained; I only started with it because it was long and incredibly dull and gave me some background sound and image while I dusted my house.
Next was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It is actually a good follow-up to Lincoln because in both films, Abe is the sole location of humanity, progress, and radicalism. And once again, white violence gets minimized, but this time not by a dramatization of white property owners in Congress. Slavery in this movie is really the work of vampires and so we get a whole new narrative for the origins of white terror and inhumanity that invented and sustained slavery. It’s all a battle of good vs. evil with the North being good. This movie is as fictional as Lincoln. And we get to really see how extreme this absolute cinematic inability to look whiteness in the historical eye of slavery really is.
By the time I got to Django Unchained, I was not surprised by anything anymore. I knew I would get some real gore and violence but there was, of course, no context for it. We do get a new male gaze in this movie, however: the white male gaze on black women’s bodies. There is no black woman in the movie who has any agency but here’s the new, cinematic twist: every sista in the film is stunning, even the mammy who controls the kitchen of Candyland is gorgeous. Movie mammies are never supposed to be pretty. Kerri Washington is more attractive (and naked) in this movie than she is with all her make-up, fake hair, and designer warddrobe on Scandal… and she has absolutely no personhood. There are no tired, haggard, tore-up-from-the floor-up black women in this movie because white men are surrounded by dozens of beautiful black women who serve merely as delicious, beautiful backdrop— a Candyland, indeed. We certainly know that white men did not visit black women in the slave quarters and people their plantations with rainbow hues simply because they had sexual urges. Plantation discourse presents a public discourse that white women were the center of beauty, femininity, and virtue but that has never been true nor was it ever endorsed in private by white men. All that public discourse did was offer a cover for white men’s sexual violence against black women. The media unleashes that same public discourse now, with the addition of the Jennifer Lopez’s and Kim Kardashian’s into the center of beauty and purity (yes, after all that impurity, beauty, desire, and profit for them are never threatened). Either Tarantino slipped and let his private world/longings show through and/or he wanted us to really see what white men see and want when they see black women.
Watch these three movies and then play the “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” skit. It all fits together. I really do believe Russell Simmons thought this video would be subversive and funny and that he really never meant to offend. Black people are not at a place where they can create a good, sellable, laughable fantasy story about slavery though, even when we think we are recreating Django Unchained, part two. We WERE the auction block, not the auctioneers. That’s the only history we have in the context of slavery and it ain’t re-inventable or fantasizable. White property today may not mean explicit ownership of black bodies like in slavery, but white property today certainly means an unequivocal control of the ways the histories and legacies of slavery get told.