In Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, Henry Louis Gates Jr. addresses the “burden of representation” that goes along with being a black man in 20th century United States.
As a major Hollywood film about chattel slavery in the antebellum South, Django Unchained carried its own heavy “burden of representation” from the moment it was first conceived.
Django’s director and screenwriter, Quentin Tarantino, is white: a fact that would seem to rule out the possibility that the film can safely be understood as an example of “black film.”
Who deserves to be recognized as the author of a film like The Shining? Director Stanley Kubrick?...
.... Author Stephen King (whose novel of the same title was the basis for the film’s screenplay)?...
... Lead actor Jack Nicholson? All, some, none of the above?
The long series of credits that roll at the end of any major motion picture stand as a testament to film’s status as the most collaborative of all major art forms. Here is just one of the thirty-one slides that roll at the end of Django.
The Cosby Show was both celebrated for its realistic portrayal of “mainstream” (i.e. bourgeois) black life and critiqued for its failure to represent the struggles (cultural, social, economic, and political) that “real” black people face in their everyday lives.
Tarantino has acknowledged that major influences on his approach to filmmaking include Blaxploitation films (such as Detroit 9000), martial arts films (such as Fists of the White Lotus), and spaghetti westerns (such as the original Django).
Moviemaniacs interview with some of Django's main cast and crew, (L to R) Jonah Hill, Don Johnson, Kerry Washington, Jamie Foxx, Quentin Tarantino, Cristoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, and Walter Goggins.
One of Hollywood’s most embarrassing treatments of U.S. slavery is the 1946 Disney film, Song of the South.
Django Unchained was heir to a particular set of racial anxieties from its inception, carrying a “burden of representation” on its shoulders that no single film could possibly bear. In contrast to the black men who populate Gates’ book, however, Django’s burden was taken on knowingly and willingly. The people who made Django knew they were making a risky film. They also knew that “dangers are not places you run away from but places that you go towards” (Hall, 1992: 285). Making a film about chattel slavery in the United States is an inherently dangerous undertaking that is guaranteed to upset a lot of people. Django isn’t an important film, however, simply because it pushes people’s buttons: it is an important film because it tells a story about race and racism that desperately needs to be told.
Django is a black film. More than that, it is an exemplary black film. We would even go so far as to say that it is one of the most important black films of the century . . . which is where some of you will interrupt us to point out that Quentin Tarantino, the film’s director and screenwriter, is white, making it impossible for Django to be a black film.
So we begin again, in order to clear up some misconceptions about “black film” that stand in the way of the argument we want to make about Django. Typically, the term is used to refer to films that are made by (actual) black people, offer depictions of (authentic) black experience, and/or are primarily intended for (real) black audiences. Taken at face value, Django falls short on at least two of those counts—but taking things at “face value” is precisely the sort of uncritical interpretive stance that we want to avoid. Embedded in the claim that white directors cannot make black films are two problematic assumptions: one about essentialism, and one about auteurism.
The essentialist assumption is that there is a direct relationship between people’s racial identities (on the one hand) and the aesthetic, cultural, and/or political characteristics of whatever art they make (on the other). Only black people, the argument goes, have enough firsthand knowledge of “the black experience” to represent that experience properly in art. Because white people lack such knowledge, their efforts to tell black stories and/or work within black aesthetics are inevitably inferior and/or politically problematic (e.g., Mississippi Burning, 1988).
Meanwhile, the auteurist assumption is the widespread belief that we can reasonably attribute cinematic authorship to lone individuals. Typically, this distinction is reserved for directors, though occasionally producers may be granted such honors. So Alfred Hitchcock (rather than screenwriter Ernest Lehman) is widely understood as the main creative force behind North by Northwest (1959), Stanley Kubrick (rather than Stephen King) gets credit for The Shining (1980), Orson Welles (rather than Herman Mankiewicz) is celebrated for Citizen Kane (1941), and so on.
In the case at hand, auteurism tells us that Tarantino—and only Tarantino—deserves credit (or blame) for Django. Meanwhile, essentialism tells us that Tarantino’s whiteness prevents him from understanding black culture well enough to capture its essence on film. Taken together, these philosophies tell us that Django can’t possibly be a black film, because only directors matter when it comes to cinematic authorship, and because white directors cannot make black films. Neither of these seemingly straightforward claims, however, manages to reflect the realities of authorship or identity very well.
If auteurist visions of the singular genius artist work at all, it is only for the small number of aesthetic practices that are feasible as solo efforts: for example, novel writing, poetry, painting. Most art forms, however, simply do not function this way. As the most collaborative of all major art forms, however, film is especially ill-suited to this particular understanding of authorship. Even the most low-budget feature film requires creative input from hundreds of different people. To be sure, a film’s cast and crew are not an egalitarian commune in which artistic decisions are made through a democratic process, and directors exert far more creative control over “their” films than (for example) key grips or lighting technicians. But directors never make films alone. Whatever creative genius Tarantino brought to the making of Django (and there was certainly plenty of this), it would not be such an aesthetically rich, politically savvy film without significant creative labor from its principal actors (Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kerry Washington), its cinematographer (Robert Richardson), its editor (Fred Raskin), and its production designer (J. Michael Riva).
Moreover, even if one believes that Tarantino really is the principal creative force behind “his” films, his most striking auteurish contributions come from his liberal borrowing of shots, scenes, costuming, and characters from Blaxploitation films, martial arts films, spaghetti westerns, and the like. Significantly, most of those genres depend heavily on non-Western, non-white, and/or hybrid aesthetic styles. To be sure, Tarantino blends these genres in ways that give “his” films a recognizable feel of their own, but the resulting style is much closer to a remix or mashup aesthetic (Lessig, 2008) than it is to traditional notions of a unique auteurish vision.[open endnotes in new window]
Essentialism is no more helpful than auteurism when it comes to understanding the relationship between artists and their creations. The apparent clarity of a categorical label (such as “black”) hides a messy, thorny tangle (dare we call it a briar patch?) of context-dependent significations: enough so that, when one examines it closely, the essentialist equation—for example, that only “real” black people have access to “authentic” black experience—implodes.
The identity side of the equation depends on the notion that “race” is a natural phenomenon that can be used to accurately place the peoples of the world into discrete, non-overlapping categories. In actual practice, however, such categories vary significantly over time and across space—which makes them cultural and historical fictions, rather than universal, scientific facts. Moreover, as the growing population of self-identified multiracial people should remind us, those categories overlap a great deal. Racial identity is more of a finely granulated spectrum than a simple binary choice, which, in turn, makes it impossible to anchor the identity end of the essentialism equation with any precision.
Meanwhile, at the other end of that equation, the abstract quality that is “blackness” is even harder to pin down. Debates over the politics of putatively black cultural texts routinely flounder over the question of what counts as “authentic” blackness in the first place. The Cosby Show, for example, was both celebrated for its realistic portrayal of “mainstream” (i.e., bourgeois) black life and critiqued for its failure to represent the struggles (cultural, social, economic, political) that “real” black people face in their everyday lives—with much of the debate hinging on the question of whether upper-middle class blacks or working class blacks count as the “true” face of black America (Dyson, 1993: 78-87; Gray, 1995: 79-84; Jhally and Lewis, 1992). What such divergent analyses reveal is that “blackness” is far too variable to be understood as a homogeneous phenomenon. There is no singular “black experience,” and no individual black person has access to the full range (or even the majority) of different “black experiences” that one might name.
In spite of all their unavoidable messiness, racial labels perform significant (albeit not always positive) work in the world. The imprecision of such terms doesn’t render them meaningless or useless, but it suggests that we need to think about them in more nuanced ways than essentialism allows. With respect to “black film,” we want to suggest two related possibilities: one descriptive, the other prescriptive.
On the descriptive side of things, we would argue that “black film” doesn’t refer to a set of natural, essentialist truths as much as it does a range of culturally specific articulations (Hall, 1986). Writing about this issue as it relates to rap, Gil Rodman has argued that,
We can—and should—understand “black film” in a similar capacity, especially insofar as many films that fit the category quite “naturally” (e.g., Blaxploitation classics such as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974)) were actually made by white directors and thus fail the essentialism/auterism test. By the same token, this understanding of the term frees us from having to squeeze all films made by black people into the category by default.
More prescriptively, we want to suggest that the modifier “black” should be understood as a marker of progressive, anti-racist politics, rather than as a “simple” statement about a filmmaker’s racial identity. Addressing a much broader version of the essentialism question (i.e., “Black Like Who?”), Village Voice columnist Joe Wood makes the following argument:
To understand “black film” in this context is to insist that any film worthy of the label do significant work toward identifying, condemning, and dismantling systemic and institutional racism. It also necessarily opens the door for “fellow travelers”—political allies who are not black—to make “black film.”
This is not to advance some sort of simple “colorblind” claim in which racial identity is wholly irrelevant to someone’s capacity for making black film. Undoubtedly, it is much harder for white filmmakers (be they directors or not) to make “black film” than it is for black filmmakers to do so, since most white people have never had to face the harsh realities of systemic racism in the way that people of color (filmmakers or not) are forced to every day. Because the meaningful relationship here, however, is about articulation, rather than identity, it is still possible (even if it is rare) for white people to make black films. We would not claim that all (or even most) of Tarantino’s directorial efforts meet the criteria we describe here—but Django most certainly does.
One of the most troubling aspects of the auteurist bias in the public discourse around Django is the way that commentators have routinely overlooked the agency of the film’s black actors. For example, a Moviemaniacs roundtable interview with Tarantino and the film’s major cast members begins with a question for Tarantino about his “sense of responsibility...in terms of making a movie that brings slavery out front and center like this,” but the actors are not addressed as if they, too, had made important creative contributions to the film. Instead, they are asked for their thoughts on Tarantino’s artistic vision: e.g. “When you read the script, what were your first impressions?” (Moviemaniacs, 2013). Similarly, in an ABC News Nightline interview with Tarantino, Foxx, and DiCaprio, Cynthia McFadden spends several minutes focusing on the risks that Tarantino took by using “the n-word” so liberally, and the risks that DiCaprio took by choosing to play a character of “pure evil” in a supporting role—but she has nothing to say that recognizes the choices (risky or otherwise) that Foxx made with respect to Django (ABC News, 2013). Even Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (who really should know better) spends the majority of a three-part interview with Tarantino about the film (2012a, 2012b, 2012c) asking questions that frame the film as the exclusive by-product of Tarantino’s creative vision.
Perhaps the most ironic version of this erasure of black agency, however, comes from Dexter Gabriel (2013). In an otherwise convincing essay about the history of Hollywood’s (largely abysmal) efforts to depict slavery, he derides Django as nothing more than a white fantasy about black acquiescence:
Gabriel may have a point about the silent docility of most of the slaves in Django (though, even here, he ignores the fact that film extras are supposed to be voiceless backdrops), but his larger argument only works if the film’s black actors are too “dazed and voiceless” to contest (what he takes to be) Tarantino’s racist fantasies—or, worse, if those actors are modern day Uncle Toms who are all too eager to do a white man’s bidding. Either way, Gabriel winds up transforming Foxx, Jackson, and company into the very same caricatures that he dismisses as “mythical.”