Lincoln drives off Django wrangles

| February 13, 2013
Clive Caines Cultural Contributor

Clive Caines Cultural Contributor

Among many of the troubling things about popular culture is its habit of making a fashion fad of some of the most troubling historical events. At the moment it seems that slavery is flavour of the month in Hollywood; what’s more you have a take your pick choice of Quentin Tarantino’s populist, blood-fest or Steven Spielberg’s earnest and thought proving approach.

Now I’ll acknowledge my fellow columnist Joel O’loughlin’s point about Django’s depiction of slavery: regardless of the quality of the medium if it reminds us why we have an African Diaspora then it has value. However we might just see a different message emerge if we look at how Hollywood over time has dealt with issues pertaining to the diaspora.

Let’s begin with a casual scouring of the current news media where we’ll find, some way below the equivocal critical commentary, indication that Spike Lee is less than happy with Tarantino. Reports say that Lee has tweeted “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa.” According to the Guardian newspaper, Lee has “refused to see the thing on principle.”

Spike Lee. Photo courtesy biography.com

Spike Lee. Photo courtesy biography.com

Among Tarantino’s defenders is Jamie Foxx; which is unsurprising given he starred in the movie: “The question for me is: where’s Spike Lee coming from?” … I think he’s sort of run his course. I mean, I respect Spike, he’s a fantastic director. But he gets a little shady when he’s taking shots at his colleagues without looking at the work. To me, that’s irresponsible.”

Skip back fourteen years and look at the Spike Lee’s response to ‘Jackie Brown’ another Tarantino depiction of black America:

“I will say it again and again. I have a definite problem with Quentin Tarantino’s excessive use of the n-word. And let the record show 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… I mean the guy’s just stupid… I am not the only African-American in this world who has a problem with this excessive use of the n-word.”

Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino. Photo courtesy standard.co.uk

So what we find here is evidence that the Tarantino/Lee spat has history. What’s more the comments that Lee makes about Django are merely a repeat of what was said about Jackie Brown; at the time Samuel L Jackson batted away Lee’s comments with words to the effect of “Lee hadn’t made a good movie in a while.”

But lets not get too bogged with the idea that Spike Lee is just a busted flush of a director who’s said all he has to say on race. Instead lets go further back in time and look at the period when Hollywood begins to recognise that it has a part to play in rehabilitating the image of black America and thus that of the African Diaspora; an image that many would say Hollywood has done much to create.

Sidney Poitier. Photo courtesy doctormacro.com

Sidney Poitier. Photo courtesy doctormacro.com

Our trip takes us to 60’s America in the middle of the civil rights movement where Hollywood finds a new type of black American hero in Sidney Poitier. However Clifford Mason’s 1967 New York Times article ‘Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?’ suggests that not everyone was enamoured with Hollywood’s civil rights poster boy:

“Gradualism may have some value in politics. But in art it just represents a stale, hackneyed period, to be forgotten as soon as we can get on to the real work at hand. And artistical NAACPism is all that this whole period of Sidney Poitier moviemaking stands for.”

There are many who would, with some justification, say that much has changed since Mason’s article appeared: well for one thing Poitier is not the box office draw he once was and Hollywood can now boast of at least three leading black actors.

But what Mason’s article says to us when looking at his words in relation to the Tarantino/Lee dispute is that the context for their war of words is much wider than the ability of a director to entertain the masses.

Daniel Day Lewis play Lincoln. Photo courtesy tvbomb.co.uk

Daniel Day Lewis play Lincoln. Photo courtesy tvbomb.co.uk

Now I could take a further trip back in time and comment on the controversy stirred up by the production of Gone With the Wind. But I think that it’s enough to say Hollywood has got form when it comes to stirring up sections of the African Diaspora. And whatever I might say or think about the controversy stirred up by Django I can acknowledge that even if Spike doesn’t get along to see it then it is likely to be a decision that many of his fellow Black Americans will not join him in: when the film opened 42% of the audience were Black people.

From Black Tree TV

Now, to bring things back to where I started, it seems that Spielberg has managed to launch his slave epic without the same level of controversy created by Tarantino. But what is being missed is that Spielberg’s film doesn’t have a black hero at the centre of things; isn’t the real issue here not the nature of the representation but who gets to decide on the representations.

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Category: Caines Corner, Culture & Society, Entertainment

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