When Race and History Meet Hollywood (Part I): Django Unchained

When Race and History Meet Hollywood (Part I): Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, “Django Unchained”, can best be described as “Unforgiven” meets “Glory” meets “Pulp Fiction”.   As someone who wouldn’t have claimed to be a Tarantino fan, I began my endeavor to see the film with rather low expectations.  The cast appealed to me.  The story line intrigued me.  Odds were that the soundtrack would be awesome.  As long as I didn’t fall asleep or spend half the movie covering my eyes then it was sure to be a win-win.

Yet, the movie turned out to be everything that I assumed it would not be – entertaining, thought-provoking, insightful, and culturally relevant.  As I left the movie and for weeks afterward, I found myself thinking about the audacity of the storyline, how Tarantino had earned my respect not only as a film maker but as a story teller, and wondering why the film was received with a lukewarm reception from numerous Black film makers.

Contrary to the numerous criticisms of the filmmakers’ overuse of the N-Word, I found myself considering the powerful weight of the word against the backdrop and images of slavery.  I found myself wishing that every Black child and teenager, whether a scholar or a gangbanger, were sitting in the movie next to me.  I felt uncomfortable hearing the N-word spoken after every other word just as I should have felt…just as I hope that everyone else that sees the film feels. After the first few chuckles that come with hearing the word, it becomes somberly apparent that the innumerable “n*ggas” in the film isn’t an effort by Tarantino to be neither hip nor casually pithy.  One cannot help but be uncomfortably reminded that the original intent of the word was to demean, belittle, and dehumanize those with brown skin.

A groundbreaking revelation this is not - but to younger Black, White, and Brown generations -those who missed the syndicated airings of “Roots,” “Eyes on the Prize,” “Glory,” and even “Amistad”- it is gravely important for them to see and hear the original context of this word.  As a generation who will hear more about Jay-Z and Tyga than Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King or JFK, this movie presents a glimmer of a panacea to their ignorance.  They may have no interest in understanding the relevancy of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments or of knowing the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation, but an image of Jamie Foxx nearly getting his “nigga balls” castrated is sure to enlighten a few.

Even as an adult raised a stone’s throw from the Civil Rights Movement, I too, have let an “n-bomb” loose when referencing a reality television show on VH1, Bravo, or TLC.  Yet as innocuous as my references may feel in the most casual settings, I will forever see the face of Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Stephen, nodding his head in agreement whenever I hear or accidently say the word which, in the end is enough to make me eliminate the word from my vocabulary forever.

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    Kay S

    Kay Smith is a Chicago-based freelance writer and blogger who focuses on race, politics and urban culture. Having worked on public policy at the state, regional, city and community level, her opinions have been featured in the Chicago SunTimes and a host of news websites (under very mysterious sounding pseudonyms). Follow her on Twitter @kaywillsmith or contact her at kaywilliamsmith@gmail.com.

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