Spike Lee v.s Quentin Tarantino

Note: This post uses the word ‘race’ as it is used in a social context.  The word ‘race’ though, has a proper scientific definition.  Within that definition, all humans, regardless of perceived race (Black, Hispanic, Caucasian, Asian, ect.) are members of the same race.  There is only one human race, and we are all members of it, regardless of the colour of our skin or the reproductive organs we may have.  I believe that the word racism is misused and that it lends a degree of scientific credibility to prejudices that have no scientific basis whatsoever, but are based entirely on ignorance.   In this post, when the word ‘race’ is used, it refers specifically to ‘perceived race’.  Ethnic and cultural differences do exist.  Racial differences, between humans, do not exist (though that with standing, I will concede that our perceptions are our realties).

Spike Lee

 

In  an interview with Vibe magazine, director Spike Lee recently spoke on Quentin Tarantino’s recent film Django Unchained, saying: “I can’t speak on it ’cause I’m not gonna see it. All I’m going to say is that it’s disrespectful to my ancestors.”  I know what you are thinking: He said he wasn’t going to say anything about it then said something about.  And he made a judgment on the film which he hasn’t seen.  Right.  A paradox befitting John Donne.  Lee goes on to say: “American slavery was not s Sergio Leone spaghetti western. It was a Holocaust. My ancestors are slaves. Stolen from Africa. I will honor them.”  Lee has professed an issue with Tarantino’s work in the past, most notably with the film Jackie Brown, saying: ““I have a definite problem with Quentin Tarantino’s excessive use of the n-word. And let the record state that I never said that he cannot use that word – I’ve used that word in many of my films – but I think something is wrong with him.”  Now, Lee admits that he speaks only for himself, and not on behalf of any group of people.

Quentin Tarantino

 

Lee is entitled to his opinion and he is free to say what he wants about any subject he chooses.  But that said, as a director, and as an artist, he needs to be defending the voice of his fellow artists.  I’m not suggesting that the work of an artist shouldn’t be questioned, that is after all, the entire purpose of art, be it film, books, paintings, or music.  You are supposed to engage the art, and ask questions.  Lee though, in this instance at least, sounds more like a stuffy republican who has no concept of post-modern theory or art, and as an artist, it frankly makes Lee sound ignorant.  What Lee has said about Tarantino’s latest film, says more about Lee than it does about the work.  He has made a judgment on something, not only without watching it, but without thinking about it.  Such responses are shaded by the individual’s perceptions and will be a reflection of that person; a self-portrait of sorts. In 1999, for example, when then mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani saw the art exhibit “Sensation”, and claimed that the piece Holy Virgin Mary (a depiction of the Mother Mary that incorporated elephant dung, a traditional African method of artistry) was “anti-Catholic”.  His statement spoke less to the actual piece and more to Giuliani’s ignorance of art history and cultures outside of his own. His response was reactionary, weighed down by faulty assumptions and devoid of critical thinking and contemplation. If Giuliani had been an active participant, or an active viewer, if he had stopped to ask questions to fill the void left by his ignorance and correct the misperceptions created by his faulty assumptions, then he could have walked away from the piece with a better understanding. Instead his comments illustrated how ignorant he was on such matters.  Lee’s comments, frankly, illustrate how ignorant he is.  His response, like Giuliani’s, is reactionary, weighed down by faulty assumptions and devoid of critical thinking and contemplation.

What is Django Unchained about?   It is about a bounty hunter (Dr. Shultz) who is after the bounty on three men.  He knows that a slave named Django has seen them, and so needs his help.  He buys Django’s freedom whilst setting several other slaves free at the expense of the lives of two slave traders.  Django agrees to help Dr. Shultz and in the process takes revenge on three men who whipped him and his wife: Broomhilda (another slave).  Afterward Shultz agrees to help Django Freeman free his wife, but happily ever after does not come to fruition before a high body count arises.

The question is: How is this disrespectful to Lee’s ancestors?  I don’t think so.  Tarantino is not, like other whites before him, exploiting the Black experience for his own personal gain.  This isn’t like Aphra Behn, who, living during the time of slavery, and seeing the success of slave narratives, decided to write a piece of fiction that mimicked the traditional slave narrative and then went on to sell it as authentic to capitalize on the suffering of Black slaves.  That is morally reprehensible.  Tarantino has done nothing of the sort.  There is no niche for films like Django Unchained, nor does Tarantino present the narrative as authentic.  Still, it could be said that he is sensationalizing the Black experience and making it fodder for Hollywood.  This may be more what Lee is speaking to, but this is not how I see the film.  Since the earliest days of film and television, Westerns based in slave-era America have been hugely successful, yet, few of these the works in either of these mediums feature Black protagonists, and few deal with matters of race (Eastwood’s Unforgiven did feature such a character and touched briefly on matters of race, and I’m sure there are other instances of this).  Racism, like slavery in America, has been disgustingly white-washed in Hollywood, and one need look no further than films such as The Patriot, where Mel Gibson leads young men to fight for ‘freedom’, and in this instance, that meant the freedom to enslave and not pay taxes to the British.  Eastwood made a career in Westerns during his prime, and I don’t remember one character using the n-word in any of his early films.  Nor do I remember anybody using such language in Bonanza, Gunsmoke  or Rawhide.  Even in early radio and pulp novels, this era of American history was romanticized, and slavery was seldom mentioned despite the fact it was an enormous part of American history in the era.  How many slaves did John Wayne free in his films?  Westerns are a lot like Happy Days.  They are nostalgic and romantic and encourage people to yearn for the days gone by when things were simpler.  But that is not an accurate representation of the past.  If Happy Days had been authentic, there would have been a Black cast member somewhere about the town, and he likely would have been grossly discriminated against by a number of the show’s characters.  But these race issues are absent from such shows, just as they are absent from the typical Western.  This is what Lee should be upset about.  What Tarantino has done is highjack one of the most popular genres in American culture (be it film, television or novels) and injected it with the Black experience.  Slavery is not an unmentioned backstory in this Western, it is the story.  The Black character is not a peripheral character in this film that simply hoes the earth in the background, or brings food out to the table.  He is the protagonist.  The film brings out the ignorance and racism of the era and puts it on full display and mocks it, as it should be mocked.  Tarantino makes the Black experience essential and important and tragic to this era of American history that has too often been romanticized.  It is not a simpler time, but a disgusting time.  Is the film sensational?  Unrealistic?  Yes, but so are many of Tarantinos’ films (just watch Kill Bill  and Inglorious Basterds).  Does it make light of the Black experience?  No.  At no time does the audience come away with the impression that slavery was easy, or exciting, or fun.  Instead, the audience is constantly reminded of the hell slavery was, and how morally corrupt the people who endorsed it were.  It is a celebration of Black independence.  It puts a Black hero squarely at the center of this romanticized era of American history.  It draws out American’s ugly past and tears it down.

Jamie Foxx and Leonardo Dicaprio

If this sounds at all familiar, it should, because this is exactly what Tarantino did with Inglorious Basterds.  He took a narrative in world history, a chapter that many are disgusted by, and empowered the people who were victimized.  The real history of WWII is tragic.  Over six million Jews were killed (and along with them many Gypsies, homosexuals, developmentally disabled persons and political dissidents).  And in the end Hitler did not have to answer for his crimes.  He took his own life on his terms, and many of the people who were complicit in this horrendous crime escaped without punishment.  In Tarantino’s world though, he empowered the Jews, gave them heroes who fought back, and ultimately allowed a Jewess to give Hitler and his minions the death they deserved.  And the thing is, I don’t remember Steven Spielberg coming out to say that the film was disrespectful to his ancestors without actually watching the film.  Perhaps though, I’m giving Lee too much credit by putting him in the conversation with Spielberg.

If anything, Lee should be disappointed in himself for not being the one to reinvent the Western with a Black narrative.  This is something I imagine a lot of Black artists aspire to do (though some have done this with less success).

The poster for the film Jackie Brown, which Spike Lee also commented on, though he took the time to watch the film first in this instance.

As to Lee’s comments about Tarantino’s liberal use of the n-word in Jackie Brown, all I can say is that I don’t remember the word being used once.  That is not to say that it wasn’t used, but when I came away from the film, I never stopped to take note of its use, which tells me that it was used effectively.  Pulp Fiction is another story.  In that film I took sharp notice when Tarantino himself used the word in character, and was put off by it.  Here is how the scene played out in the film:

And here is how it sounds when politically correct terms are used in place of offensive and pejorative terms like the n-word:

In that context the word stood out.  It was out of place.  But it also said something about the character.  The character was white. His wife was Black.  His friend (Jules) was Black.  Obviously the character was accepting of people of other races, but still used this word.  It raised questions.  What are the answers?  I don’t know.    William Faulkner likewise made liberal use of the word himself, but always with a purpose.  The n-word is an ugly word, like all racial and ethnic slurs, and homophobic and misogynist slurs as well.  That does not mean that they should never be used in art, just that they should be used with great discretion.

William Faulkner: He used the n-word a lot.

So what is Lee’s problem?  Is it that a white director is making a film about the Black experience?  If Tarantino were Black, would Lee have taken issue with the film?  Would Lee have ever bothered to mention Tarantino’s use of the n-word if Tarantino were Black?  I mean, I don’t recall Lee ever making comment that the n-word is used too often in contemporary hip-hop?  Is it that Tarantino is making money off of the Black experience?  Does Lee have an issue with Tarantino portraying people outside of his own race?  That can’t be.  Lee’s films have, to their credit, displayed varied casts that include people from many races, as well as both genders.  Lee should not have a problem with Tarantino doing the same unless Lee feels that he has some license to do such things and that Tarantino does not.   In all honestly, I don’t think it would be fair to guess what Lee means, because he really doesn’t give any reason for his criticism.  He notes that Tarantino’s use of the n-word is excessive, but doesn’t say why.  He likewise notes that the film Django Unchained is disrespectful to his ancestors, but does not explain how (nor can he, since he has not seen the film).

Jamie Foxx as Django Freeman.

What I take issue with, outside of the obvious paradox of Lee’s statement (he does after all precede his assessment of Tarantino’s film by saying he won’t say anything about it, and then admits that while he hasn’t seen it, that it is disrespectful to his ancestors) is the fact that he refers to all Blacks as ‘his’ ancestors, as if he has some sort of ownership over their experience.  The experience of Black slaves in America is a human experience, and therefore is an experience that any human can draw on.  I respect the notion that we all have ancestors and that their history has helped to shape us.  But we are all human, and therefore are capable of relating to and empathizing with all human experience.  The worst thing an artist can do it put a restriction on themselves and say that they can’t speak to a certain experience because they are not Black, or female, or homosexual.  Regardless of one’s gender is, sexual orientation, or perceived race, we are all human, and therefore have a responsibility to try to empathize with and understand all other human beings (on a side note, humans are imbedded in the natural world and should extend this empathy to the natural world and all of its components be they living or non-living).  Tarantino is not a woman, but many of his films feature female protagonists.  I don’t recall hearing Kathryn Bigelow taking issue with Tarantino’s presentation of female protagonists.  An artist cannot confine themselves to their own experiences.  They must reach out and try to understand the world around them and speak whatever truths they find worthy of sharing.  Perhaps sometimes they are mistaken, but when one sincerely attempts to speak honestly, they cannot be faulted for their intent.  Can a white person speak for a Black person?  YES!  In fact, they have had to in the past.  In America the Black population had no voice, or at least were given no voice by the system that enslaved them, but white people within that system spoke for them.  Obviously, Blacks can speak for themselves as well.  Can a man speak for a woman?  YES!  And likewise they have had to.  Women had no voice, or at least were given no voice by the system that exploited them.  It was some forward-thinking men working within that flawed system that spoke for them and eventually got them the rights they deserved.  Obviously again, a woman can speak for herself.  Can a straight person speak on behalf of a homosexual person?  Of course.  In order for there to be any understanding between people, one has to be able to speak for and listen to people who are unlike them.  There are so many walls around us, walls built of perceived race, or religion, or nations, or gender, or the walls between the human world and the natural world.  We need to be able to reach through those walls and empathize and speak for and with other people.  And listen.  Listening is the key, and it is what Lee has not done in his reactionary response to Tarantino’s work.

Quentin Tarantino and Spkie Lee

Now, I understand that Tarantino’s voice is different than Lee’s.  I respect that Lee may simply not like Tarantino’s films, and as such can understand if Lee opts to simply not watch any further films by Tarantino.  I, for example, do not like Michael Bay films and have no intention of ever watching Pearl Harbor for that reason.  But that is not the reason that Lee gave for not watching Django Unchained.  The reason Lee gave for not watching the film is based on a judgment he has made of the film without watching it, and that is where Lee is mistaken.  His reasoning is grossly flawed and is exactly the type of logic that helps to maintain the barriers that create division in this world.  In my view, Lee is not honouring his ancestors, but helping to maintain the walls that allowed them to be exploited and is helping to maintain the romanticized notions of the American West that Tarantino is challenging.

Pearl Harbor; A Michael Bay film I refuse to watch, not because it disrespects my ancestors, but because I think Michael Bay makes shitty movies.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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