The Comfortable Racism “Liberal Art” Gets Away With

It’s time to caustically deflate the kind of enthusiasms that swell from the projects of “artmakers” like Quentin Tarantino, Katheryn Bigelow (or anyone else who has strong technical ability  and vision), that display a practically stupefying lack of racial empathy in films like Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty.

Some Uncle Tom Character.

Some Uncle Tom Character.

I’ll admit that I enjoyed watching bad dudes get whipped half to death or sniped from long distances in Django Unchained. Who wouldn’t? Baddie are fodder for a righteous, ultra-violent Django, a hero the likes of which we probably haven’t seen in this way since Rambo or that Arnold Schwartzenegger flick, Commando, where he storms the compound and pretty much lays waste to every color of the brown-person rainbow.

But let’s be serious and adults, for once, and admit that Django Unchained pretty much does nothing to really unsettle audiences the way Inglourious Basterds does. Django Unchained is essentially built on using a unilayered character to annihilate a slew of unrecognizably evil straw-men for our morbid, sadistic enjoyment. Yes, we the coastal liberals, recognize this group readily as the ashamed ancestors of those we’re still comfortable ridiculing as idiots for voting for Mitt Romney, painting Obama as the return of fascism and clinging to their assault rifles even after events like Newtown, CT. Tarantino gives Django a good enough reason to want to kill them, a story about how amazing he became as a gunfighter, and then let him lose.

And for all the white people in the audience with at least one black friend, it seems okay to laugh and root for the black guy. Our own, liberal, wishes to not be obstructed by bigots in our quest for racial harmony culminates (if only for a few hours) in a wish-fulfilling cinematic murderfest. Go us.

But let’s not act like this is about asking deeper questions about racial inequality in America. Tarantino went pretty far out of his way to give his white characters layered and contextual personalities, but left the black characters in the dust. Christoph Waltz  and Leonardo DiCaprio have to consistently justify and re-justify their moral positions throughout the story, almost to the point where you want to just tell the screen “Yes, okay, thank you… one of you’s the badass bleeding-heart and the other is the insecure overlord! You’re layered. I get it.”

But the black character, Django, was just a black guy seeking revenge.

What’s worse is that, in the context of actual history, small uprisings didn’t occur that often and slaves didn’t as often escape because these godforsaken plantations were communities filled with their extended families. As much as he’d want this to seem like uncomfortable “black on white” wish fulfillment to subvert America’s delicate, pasty white sensibilities, the flick ends up presenting Django as simply another entertainer, black familial community and culture be damned. The guy sweeps into town, blows everyone away à la the original spaghetti western, Django, and splits to let everyone else, the real people living there, to clean up the mess. If Django Unchained featured the day after all this happened, it would surely mean pain and torment for every member of the black community in and around Candyland because they couldn’t bear to leave their extended family behind to suffer alone. But this arthousey film was about violence, Quentin Tarantino and stuff white people like. Not reality, obviously.

Of course there’s no need for Tarantino to acknowledge, really, any side of black morality as it relates to slavery compared to the carnival of moral justifications and requirements imposed on the white characters by, mostly, themselves and preternatural “codes of ethics” that determine how much slavery/inhumanity they could withstand. And so, to full-blown subvert these justifications against or for white people’s still-apparent racism in the U.S.A., Tarantino tried to make Django Unchained “black wish fulfillment” and scare/stick it to those skittish white folk. You know, the same kind of stories white people always make up about black people as an excuse to preemptively hurt them and destroy their communities.

Dumbest of all, there’s a meta-cherry hovering above this mountain of madness: Tarantino may have deliberately (or not) made a film about characters who are trying to save someone by pretending to peddle black fighters as entertainers. At the same time, you and I are actually watching a film ostensibly about something-or-other but REALLY about a black entertainer comfortably murdering a ton of evil white people for our entertainment. And what’s the result? White people eat that shit up, while black people feel like they’re being betrayed (which they are!). Even Louis Armstrong was called an “Uncle Tom” for mostly playing in white clubs and to white audiences. Most jazz musicians didn’t mingle there, and then later had to justify what they were doing when they’d split and head over to the black clubs for afterparties with just about everyone else (including occasionally-accepted white jazz musicians like Dave Brubeck). Jazz history, among others, is rife with examples of how comfortable white people are with black people entertaining them, alongside how uncomfortable they are with black people mingling with them as equals. I mean, black performers in whites-only clubs? Weapons-grade bullshit.

This film and, just-as-bad-if-not-worse, Zero Dark Thirty are full-frontal testaments to the leniency White Americans give themselves to portray non-whites any-way-they-feel-like-it as long as these portrayals are constituted an “artform.”

Funny, too, that as long as you’re seen as White and Liberal-ish, you have the power to give this kind of leniency away, isn’t it? If Spike Lee made Django Unchained for the exact same reason, you’d have a lot more actual racial tension and the film would just have more of a point. But, instead, a white guy artist did. If Asghar Farhadi directed Zero Dark Thirty, I’d call it high art because it would be. Why? Because it would do what art is supposed to do: blow the lid off our assumptions! Farhadi would likely hear lots of statements from White Americans like, “That wasn’t really torture!” or “That middle eastern director’s just trying to make Americans look like imperialists.”

At the very least, the film’s racial statements would be made louder and clearer because of the people putting the projects together and their actual intentions.

Instead, we get shit like this:

Charmers, all.

 

Reminds me of a quote by Edward Said: “History is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and rewritten, always with various silence and elisions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated.”

There’s been enough written about Zero Dark Thirty, but the point here is that it’s a flick built around legitimately jettisoning middle easterners from any conversation having to do with the land they live on, and doing “whatever it takes” to place them in subordinate positions for the constant, undeniable supremacy of completely undisclosed, practically unimportant as a plot point, American values.

“Oh nothing. Just hangin’ out, watchin’ some guy torture another. You?”

That’s right: undisclosed! Aside from the real sounds of emergency calls from the Twin Towers in September 11th in the beginning, there’s little to no justification for any of the characters to so-comfortably torture truckloads of the same kind of person: brown, Muslim, male, frustrated, possibly-a-terrorist-who-the-hell-knows-so-why-bother-giving-him-the-benefit-of-the-doubt. “Torture ’em all!” the story touts. “Almost a hundred,” the main American torturer guy says at some point. “Do what it takes.” “If they get too close, kill them.” “Have you considered the cost of not doing it?” It is always the brown people’s responsibility to steer clear of Americans and our infallible troops; never our responsibility to act on behalf of everyone’s interests or with any other cultural, social, religious or political considerations in mind. America is only made up of white people with one kind of morality. No. Others.

These brown people are fodder as well, à la Tarantino’s racist white guys. Except, at-least, the villains of Taratino’s story, evil white slaveowners guys, were the crazy minority from an somewhat bygone era. Zero Dark Thirty‘s “bad guys,” all shown as morally-ambiguous cultural subordinates in some audience-dismissed corner of the world the United States simply has to have a presence in in order to be a presupposed “beacon of morality,” exist right now, and surely there’re a shitload of them to gun down if America wants to stay on top.

Finally, in the last scene, the Zero Dark Thirty‘s heroine actually cries because it is over.

My brain spattered all the way to the back of the theater.