I never really watched Boondocks when it was on, I think I may have seen two maybe three episodes. This is one of the ones my son hipped me to. Reginald Hudlin was an executive producer of the Boondocks and a producer of Django Unchained. The two projects shares some commonalities. Actually, the movie and a particular episode of Boondocks share some interesting parallels. Hudlin said Tarantino asked him 15 years ago to work with him on a movie about Afrikan Americans. Hudlin told Tarantino he wasn’t interested. Tarantino reached out to him 15 years later and said, ‘I got a new script. Tarantino continued, ‘You planted the seed and here is the tree." Watch the Boondocks episode and tell me what you think?
Movies are always more than what they appear to be. They touch us on a conscious and subconscious level. They speak to our inner being. When I wrote plays and stories in college, I remember I use to have sub-themes, symbolism, subplots, and all that. And I wasn't a professional writer. This is why I am certain, professional writers and scripts have sub-themes, and subplots, which form their symbolic and subliminal messages or themes. I'll use the Lion King to illustrate my point. How many of you saw it? The Lion King was an extremely popular movie, both children and adults alike were enraptured by it magic, its meaning. But the Lion King was not simply another good versus evil children's saga. It was the story of Jesus the Christ! And this is why it resonated so well with so many people. We felt in on a subconscious level and Christians in particular, identified on a subconscious level with its special truth, its message. The following are just some of the parallels between Simba's life and Jesus':
Opening scene: The Nativity
Mufasa is the King of the Pride Land: God and his Kingdom
Simba is Mufasa's only son: Jesus, God's only begotten son
Scar “kills” Mufasa: Lucifer's Rebellion
Simba leaves pride land: Lost in the Wilderness
Simba thought to be dead: The death of Jesus
Simba comes back to defend and defeat Scar: The Resurrection
Scar falls down a cliff: Lake of fire and brimstone
Simba, like baby Jesus grows up, goes through the "Circle of Life" and eventually become king: Redemption
There are many additional parallels, but they are outside of the scope of this article.
Now, many readers will have a problem with me drawing these parallels. And there are many people who believe the Lion King is Shakespeare's Hamlet. Well, the truth is that Hamlet and the Lion King are based on the same story--the life of Jesus. Okay, to be truthful and more exact, the Lion King is actually based on the life of the Kemetic deity, Heru. It is Christ's life that is based on Heru's. (This is documented in my book, Distorted Truths.)
Returning to the question of the subliminal, in the above example, it just so happens that the subliminal message is positive, unless you're a diehard Christian ideologue and take offense to the "pagan" elements in the movie, totally disregarding the film's essential message. The point is, that when it comes to cinema, the symbolic and subliminal are always at work; so be careful what movies you watch. What your conscious mind sees when awake, your subconscious mind revisits in sleep. What if the subliminal message is negative? And in sleep you are defenseless: no defense mechanisms, no ration mind, no conscience to filter the ideas. The question is, “When you watch a film, when you awake the next morning, which has affected you more, the movie's obvious or its subliminal message?” And was it positive or negative?
Without a doubt, this is a Quentin Tarantino film: it contains his trademark gratuitous violence; his realism that borders on the comic (comic realism); a cameo; and his knack for telling a story. There's a lot of violence in the movie, and most of it is excessive to the point of being ridiculous. One example is when slave-master Candie's sister is blown away. She is literally blown away! (Man, they had some powerful pre-assault weapons back then.) As in previous movies, Tarantino shows the pangs of dying, which smack of realism, since we are so accustom to instantaneous deaths. He lets us hear the moans and groans, and see the tangled gyrations of the dying. The scene where the pre-Klansmen start to argue is comic but also something that could happen when you get a group of people together. Although the scene makes these terrorists look imbecilic, at the same time it humanizes them; it lessens their violent intent, as their human frailties are emphasized, and this can evoke identification or worse, sympathy. The opening scene with enslaved Afrikans walking is another instance of comic realism: the Afrikans are walking, hobbling, even hopping, as they should be after trekking for miles. We've never seen a bunch of bad walking brothers like this, and I don't mean the good bad either. But then again, it was 37 miles.
Before I discuss what I think Tarantino did well and what he didn't do so well, I'd like to address his use of the N-word. You know, nigger! If your only reference to movies about slavery is the made-for-television Root series, then it's no wonder you thought his use of the word was over the top. If you've seen Mandingo or Goodbye, Uncle Tom, then you would realize its use was appropriate. Furthermore, history supports its usage, and this was one of the few historical accuracies in the movie. It was the most common term used to address our people, used by both the free and the enslaved. If a black producer-director had made this movie and left out the word, he'd be guilty of sugarcoating our history. Yes, nigger is an ugly word but it was the word of choice then. And it has made a comeback! I don’t like hearing the word, but if it offends you, then you better not listen to hip-hop or eavesdrop on a typical conversation of young people.
What Tarantino did well
Tarantino shows the stark contrast between the southern Bourbons and poor white trash. We see some trashy white folks too, especially that hilarious character Mr. Stonesipher, who simply mangles the English language. Tarantino extends this class contrast into slave society, offering a glimpse of house slavery and field slavery. And didn't he give us a head-nigger-in-charge Uncle Tom "house slave" par excellence in the character of Stephen! (I'll have more to say about him later.) Through this character and others we are given a small window into the mores of the enslaved. Though Tarantino displays the depravity, even the sexual depravity of slavery, for example the common practice of castrating or disfiguring the Afrikan male's genitalia, or the slave prostitution of Big Daddy's plantation, to his credit there is not one rape scene, which is often a staple in movies about slavery, even a Roots. Additionally absent from the movie was the usual sexual titillation or sexual undercurrent that's commonplace in the cinema.
Aside from the brief whipping flashbacks, the movie does not show Afrikan women being brutalized. Which bring me to the question of the brutality of slavery, and how well was it presented. The level of brutality varied from plantation to plantation during slavery, nevertheless, it was endemic to the system. Brutality and dehumanization were the necessary evils needed to maintain the system. Tarantino is actually moderate in his display of slavery's brutality. He gives us the whipping flashbacks, the dogs attacking the Mandingo, the Mandingo fight, and the near castration of Django—that's basically it. If you want to see the dark side of slavery, see Goodbye, Uncle Tom. Or just read some history.
There is some character development with Django, which is necessary for the credibility of the film. You can't be Kunta Kinte one minute then jump out and be Fred Williamson or Jim Kelly, the next. A memorable scene for me was when Dr. King Schultz was telling Django the story of Broomhilda. We witness the child-likeness of Django, the slave. But at the same time, this was a link to his Afrikan past, where storytelling is an important cultural element. We see Django confronted with a moral dilemma when he has to kill a bounty in the presence of the bounty's son. He learns that being a good bounty hunter requires an emotional disconnect. He trains in the mountains and through diligence, he develops what appears to be an innate ability--He becomes an excellent marksman. The character development of Django was fairly even until he escapes from the miners at which point he becomes more blaxploitation-like. To Tarantino's credit, the film was only vaguely reminiscent of a spaghetti Western. Yeah, there was a song or two that sounded spaghetti Westernish, the amazing gun-fighting, and the zoom-in camera effect, but overall, I didn't leave the movie thinking I had seen a black spoof on the Good, Bad, and the Ugly.
What Tarantino did not do well
There was little or poor character development of Broomhilda. She reminded me more of a European damsel in distress, than a strong or even resilient enslaved Afrikan woman, albeit she was a house slave. She seemed frail, and this was reflected in her fainting. The couple embracing, a silent cry, or maybe even an “Oh, Jesus” would have been more dignified. Instead we get a weak, almost contrived faint. I also think Tarantino failed to be believable at a crucial point in the movie. The story is fantasy, as many movies are, so that's not the problem. But there are still points of credulity needed no matter how unrealistic a film might be. For me, when Django surrendered, that should have been the end of the movie because, pardon my language, but they should have shot that nigger right then! I would have. You can't be that badass and I let you live to do some more fantastic, miraculous shooting, stupendous feats, and who knows what other shat he had up his sleeve. That nigger has got to die now. And then, rather than publicly torture him in front of the entire nation if possible, especially for such an egregious taking of white life, it was decided to let him live so he dies of hard labor in a mining camp. Though known for its brutality, we didn't know the mine was headed by more imbeciles. Django escapes, and now we see Django on steroids. Another area I felt Tarantino kind of missed his mark, was the music. It was good but perhaps too eclectic a blend. At one moment you are listening to a spaghetti Western tune, then gangster rap. I enjoyed it, I'm just saying, spaghetti Western music followed by hip-hop?
The Other Movie
From the movie's trailer, I thought it was going to be a blend between Django and Addio Zio Tom (Goodbye, Uncle Tom), the Italian pseudo-documentary about Afrikan enslavement in antebellum America. Seeing the film confirmed my initial assessment, to which now I would add Blazing Saddles, Mandingo, and Rosewood to the mix. Tarantino, the movie buff turned successful producer-director, has the ability to take bits and pieces from movies, add a new story line and come up with a masterpiece. Django Unchained is no masterpiece, but it is a very entertaining movie with a special twist: it has an avenging and triumphant fugitive slave protagonist, an unfathomable combination in the cinema. Django Unchained is also a love story, one based on revenge no less. It is truly uncommon to see a “slave” love story. The movie gave us some memorable characters and performances. But most important, like Rosewood—we saw a black hero. We saw a people, always the victim, being victorious, and we love and need more of that. But hold it a second. Every movie is actually two movies—the one you see and the one you don't see--the exoteric movie and the esoteric (subliminal) one.
And no good movie review is without an interpretation of the movie's symbolism or subliminal message. So, let's get started analyzing the movie. Who is Dr. Schultz? Was he Jewish? If so, then once again we have a movie where a Jew is the friend of the black man, his only friend. This is a common theme and misconception in black history--that the Jew has always befriended and worked on the side of righteousness and liberalism; when the reality is that Jews were on both side, friends and foes, for and against slavery. Like Django, there is some character development with Dr. Schultz. We see his become more than just a bounty hunter but a person that begins to identify with the enslaved (his nagging flashbacks). His death helps to make Django the true hero, and makes Schultz less of the White Savior, and more of a sacrificial victim; a person ennobled by his or her willingness to die for a worthy cause. In contrast, we have Stephen's character, who we assume is a house slave. (Malcolm told us about house slaves; it's just that we were not ready for Stephen.) However, making matter worse, Stephen is not a slave (Candie tells us he freed him). He does what he does of him own volition. Consequently, he is an ultra villain, who in the end is worst than the master himself. One can only imagine that if he was a master, and in many ways, he was the master of the master, he would have been worst than a white master. Stephen is not your typical house slave, one that is loyal to his master yet shares some sympathies with the field or other slaves. He was not simply an ignorant, cowering slave, or one that seemed protective of his privilege. He was just evil, with a capital E! Master Candie was evil too, but we almost expect him to be. Also we know he had an excuse, he's deranged, so we forgive him, sort of. But we cannot forgive Stephen, and we must ask, “What is his hatred of his people based on? It is a self-hatred indoctrinated through slavery.
In many ways Stephen's character lets the master or the white man off the hook. In actuality, Django Unchained is a film where both the protagonist and antagonist are black. And this too, is rare, if not unheard of for a movie about slavery! Stephen, not master Candie, is the real villain. Even the fact that the master's house, a symbol of the slavocracy, and Stephen, meet their demise at the same time suggest that he is the real power on the plantation; that these two dichotomies are one. Thus, while we are impressed with Jackson's performance, this message is being imprinted in our consciousness. And, this message is a distortion of history. Django, as protagonist, is his counterbalance. The problem is there were actual slaves that were like Stephen or approximated him, while there were no Djangos. Stephen was and is real, Django is not! But even the Django we see is limited in his development, especially if we are to consider his a true hero. To his discredit, Django never becomes a freedom fighter but remains an individual on a personal mission. He kills white people not because he wants to free our people or end slavery, but because his woman is still enslaved. (Loving your woman is a noble devotion, but somehow, loving your race seems even nobler.) He is disconnected from his people. Even in the end when he escapes from the mining company, he never gives words of encouragement to the enslaved, all we get is the one slave that gives a faint smile of admiration, as if saying “I see you” or “right on brother.” From Django we get nothing.
On the surface the movie is quite benign: it is entertaining, well-acted, has eclectic music, good cinematography, and a number of other noteworthy elements; but subliminally, the movie is sinister: it offers an entirely different message, a message that absolves white responsibility and even blame for Afrikan enslavement. (Those black slavers and house niggers did us in, and by extension Afrikan kings.) It offers us a Jewish sacrificial victim, a master who's controlled by his clever darky, and a violent blood lusting nigger with a gun, and who knows how to use it. Damn. I’m scared of him just writing this. So, which movie did you see?
PS: Oh, and to respond to Spike Lee's comments, no, the movie did not dishonor our ancestors, no movies can. We dishonor our ancestors when we trivialize them, and most of all when we forget them.
Spike Lee, by your own admission, you have not seen Tarantino’s newest film, but you have been hyper-critical of it. You stated: “I’m not seeing it. All I’m gonna say is, it’d be disrespectful to my ancestors to see that film. That’s all I’m gonna say. I can’t disrespect my ancestors.” You later added on Twitter: “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.”
Well then, why haven't you yet? You've had enough time to create this epic movie. You've made She's Got to Have It, School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, and a number of other movies. Where's the epic on slavery--that movie dedicated to our ancestors. The one person who you could have united with, for funding and networking, Tyler Perry, you have probably alienated. You could have honored our ancestors by learning to work with your peers and appreciating the value in their work or contribution, rather than always criticizing and appearing to be that "crab in the barrel."
Why don't you do what any intelligent person would do, reserve comment until after you see the movie? Oh, I forgot, you're not going to see it.
I say all this, and I continue to be one of your biggest fans, and I'm critical of Tyler Perry's movies as well. But what I don't like is playing the ancestor card. I take my ancestor veneration seriously. I have a shrine and make a pilgrimage annually to their grave sites, so I don't take lightly people using them as a scapegoat for their political, economic or egotistical platform! This sounds like a personal beef between you other director-producers you have sparred with in the past; some for valid reasons, others not. This performance you are putting on has little to do with our ancestors and may really be an effort to keep yourself relevant concerning movies about Black people.
I'm going to do the intelligent thing and see the movie, then give my impressions.
PS: I once taught a high school history course entitled, Afrikan American History through Cinema.