Gil Rodman deposited Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Film: What Does It Mean to Be a Black Film in Twenty-First Century America? on Humanities Commons 1 year, 5 months ago
“What does it mean to be a black film in twenty-first century America?”
Riffing off of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s work in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, who in turn drew heavily from Wallace Stevens’ 1917 poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” this chapter wrestles with some of the controversies surrounding the 2012 film Django Unchained. In particular, as is the case for both Stevens and Gates before us, we are concerned with the thorny problems of representation and authenticity. As a modern-day blaxploitation film about the horrors of chattel slavery in the antebellum United States, Django carries an especially heavy burden when it comes to the politics of representation. The fact that the film’s screenwriter and director, Quentin Tarantino, is a white man — one who brings significant representational baggage of his own with respect to the politics of race — adds multiple layers of complexity to the way the film has been received.
Significant criticism about the film has ranged from complaints charging it with historical inaccuracies, to the heavy-handed use of “the N-word” throughout the script, to the graphic depictions of violently abused black bodies. These critiques revolve around the assumption that there is a “right,” or as Spike Lee might note, “respectful,” way to tell a story about the history of slavery in the United States — and that Tarantino’s film falls short of that ideal. Just as Gates’ book argues against the notion of a unitary black masculinity, we argue against a unitary interpretation of Django Unchained and/or its racial politics. Our deliberately polemical and provocative application of the “black film” label to Django is, in part, intended to destabilize the cultural script that many readers are likely to bring to both the film and our essay.