Three weeks ago, the Academy announced this year’s Oscar nominees, and Quentin Tarantino found his blaxploitation spaghetti Western Django Unchained competing with the likes of Lincoln and Argo for the title of Best Picture.
Sadly for Tarantino, the two most recent “Best Pictures,” The Artist and The King’s Speech, literally put me to sleep, so I feel fairly certain that a flick about a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) exacting revenge on white slavers doesn’t have a shot with the somnambulant Academy.
If there were an Oscar for most offensive picture, however, Tarantino would be a shoe-in. Using slavery as a platform for an action/revenge film that notoriously uses the N-word over 100 times, the director has been called out everywhere from Buzzfeed, to the New Yorker, to Spike Lee’s Twitter account, Most recently, civil rights groups like National Action Network and Project Islamic Hope spoke out against Django action figures marketed to children.
Now, as I’m not black, and the film has already been extensively discussed by a host of critics who are, it would be irrelevant and inappropriate for me to spend time explaining why Django is so problematic. What I can add to the discussion, however, are a few recommendations for politically conscious films about race that wouldn’t make Spike Lee cringe.
My first recommendation is Nothing But A Man, a 1964 film made by two Jewish men that would become Malcom X’s favorite movie of all time. In 1963, Michael Roemer and Robert Young had no experience making narrative cinema, and decided to make a feature about black people living in the southern United States. Members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored (NAACP) advised the pair on the script, and they shot the film that same turbulent summer John F. Kennedy announced his civil rights bill, Medgar Evers was assassinated, and Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington.
With cinéma verité style realism, the film tells the story of a young black couple (Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln), who struggle through life in small-town Alabama as systemic racism threatens their livelihood and their love for each other. The film deftly portrays not only the grave poverty suffered by much of the black community, but also the devastating emotional effects of those conditions.
When the film was released in 1964, the American Motion Picture Production Code still forbade showing black characters kissing, and no film had ever shown black characters in close-up. With their laughable $230 ,000 budget, Nothing But a Man had trampled Hollywood’s racial taboos and condemned white supremacist America like no other film ever had.
The next two films I recommend were made the following decade by members of a group of black artists known as the L.A. Rebellion. These directors studied and made films at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) between the late sixties and early eighties. In the words of Jacqueline Stewart, these independent filmmakers “attempted to both address socio-economic plight of black people still struggling for rights and recognition… and simultaneously develop their own personal artistic visions.”
One of the best known films from the L.A. Rebellion is Killer of Sheep, which Charles Burnett made on the weekends while he was enrolled at University of California, Los Angeles UCLA in the late 1970s. Like many L.A. Rebellion films, Killer of Sheep deals with the bleak everyday of Watts, L.A., the ghetto that played host to one of the worst race riots of the 1960s.
Here, while the protagonist Stan goes to work at the slaughterhouse, neighbourhood children play in the sun-drenched, decrepit cityscapes of industrial Southern Los Angeles, and his friends pull off low-level heists. As the camera wanders directionless through tableaus of life in Watts, the limited narrative structure and the crumbling backdrop of the neighbourhood underscore Stan’s sense of emptiness as he drifts further away from his wife and children. The film acts as a devastating revelation of the trap residents of lower-income neighbourhoods are forced to live in.
Lastly, another excellent film from the L.A. Rebellion is Bush Mama, made by Ethiopian-born director Haile Gerima as his thesis project, with Charles Burnett as the cinematographer. Through a startling fusion of documentary realism and surrealism that relied heavily on improvisation, Bush Mama follows Dorothy, a pregnant woman at the mercy of the racist welfare system in Watts. Her social worker pushes her to abort her pregnancy, her husband is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, and the neighbourhood is terrorized by the police. Slowly, Dorothy, and the film itself, become radicalized by extreme circumstances as she explores the ideology of black power.
Unfortunately, the radical racial rhetoric and innovative style that make Nothing But A Man, Killer of Sheep, and Bush Mama some of my favorite films also ensure these films will never reach large audiences. Indeed, Django Unchained, with its relatively superficial treatment of racial issues, has been seen more times in the month since its release than these three films have been viewed in the decades since theirs.
I don’t mean to suggest you shouldn’t see Django, even if it is highly problematic (what Hollywood film isn’t?). At least this one was entertaining. I do suggest, however, that Django is purely entertainment, and that if you’re looking for meaningful racial commentary, you can look elsewhere and be highly rewarded.