Quentin vs. Spike: Directors Unhinged Jessica Tholmer

Quentin Tarantino is quite a character, am I right? If you have seen more than one Tarantino-directed film, you probably understand his style, at least somewhat. People love Tarantino. The internet loves Tarantino. His almost live-comic-book style is appealing. He certainly breaks from the typical film style, never shying away from blatant and, at times excessive, violence and bloodshed. Tarantino has directed some of the biggest cult classic films of my generation: penning and directing Pulp Fiction (a Best Picture contender, and winner of Original Screenplay), both Kill Bill films, Reservoir Dogs, and Inglorious Basterds. Upon Inglorious Basterds’ release in 2009, there was a bit of controversy surrounding the accusations that Tarantino must be accustomed to at this point in his career, specifically regarding his lack of attention to factual history.

Spike Lee, one of the most outspoken directors of all-time, has screamed and shouted about Tarantino’s newest film, Django Unchained, causing almost everyone to weigh in on the film itself. Whenever we are dealing with sensitive racial topics in America, it is expected for controversy to arise, however, the argument over Django is becoming more and more involved all the time. The National Entertainment Collectibles Association, Inc. (NECA) and the Weinstein Company paired together to create figurines of the characters from the movie, and it has left plenty of people with a bad taste in their mouths. The figurines, though billed as “collectibles,” seem insensitive, offering people the opportunity to view slaves as a toy.

Lee tweeted, in his characteristic style of writing, “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust.My Ancestors Are Slaves.Stolen From Africa.I Will Honor Them.” Lee is also known for retweeting and tweeting in response to his followers, and there have been plenty of hours-long arguments concerning the movie (one in which I got involved in!), with the majority of Lee opposers accusing him of assumptions, due to the fact he refuses to see the movie. Lee has read the screenplay, which those in support of his argument believe is enough. In interviews, Lee has claimed that he believes it would be disrespectful to his ancestors to see the movie, and has taken public issue with the fact that the movie was released on Christmas Day and has earned as much money as it has to date. (20 million dollars in the American box office thus far.)

This is not the first time Lee and Tarantino have clashed. When Tarantino created Jackie Brown in 1997, Lee expressed his distaste over the excessive use of that word no one ever wants to hear: “the n-word.” In fact, Lee has been clear in his offense over Tarantino’s use of the word in all of his films. With previous sensitivity to Tarantino’s films, the fact that the n-word is used over 100 times in Django infuriated Lee. Tarantino claims that the use of the word in this particular film is justified, stating, “If someone was to make a case that I use the word more than it was used in the antebellum South that would be ludicrous. But as no one is making that case, they are asking me to lie or to soften it for modern-day consumption and I don’t do that.”

Though I believe this is a fair argument concerning his latest film, as an incredibly racially sensitive person, I agree with Lee about the past use of the word in Tarantino films. I am an avid listener of hip-hop and rap music, and I wish we would stop using the word entirely, however, in a film set during the era of slavery, historically accurate or not, it would be unbelievable for no one to utter it. 100 times may be cringe-worthy, but the antebellum South was just that.

Plenty of people of all different racial backgrounds have spoken up about the film. Tavis Smiley, talk show host and political commentator, has also spoken out against Django Unchained and Tarantino himself. Smiley, in an interview with Newsweek Magazine, explains that he finds Hollywood’s lack of seriousness concerning slavery troubling. Smiley explains, ”it’s as if this spoof about slavery somehow makes slavery a bit easier to swallow.”

I saw Django Unchained after a few weeks of deciding whether or not I wanted to support Tarantino and his insanely financially successful blockbuster “about” slavery. I was torn as a gigantic Leonardo DiCaprio fan (I always see DiCaprio movies the day they are released), as an Oscar buff, and as a sensitive young woman of mixed race. I want to approach life as if everything is not about the Black vs. White fight that we still struggle through every day in our country, but to not acknowledge it is to turn a blind eye, which I simply do not do. When I finally decided to see Django, I found myself incredibly enthralled in the film. I became wholly invested in the characters, particularly Jamie Foxx’s perfectly portrayed title character, Django. (Talk about an Oscar snub!) By the end of the movie, I found myself celebrating the retribution and vengeance, but also feeling guilty for being so entertained by a film almost satirizing slavery. There have been other movies made over the past few decades depicting slavery in a much more serious light, but they always seem to be directed by white men. Two of the most well-known, Amistad, directed by Steven Spielberg, and Glory, directed by Edward Zwick, leave me wondering: if a Black man or woman wanted to make a movie about slavery, would it get the green light? The miniseries Roots, written, created, and based on Alex Haley’s novel was just that: a miniseries. A televised miniseries. How about Roots on the big screen, directed by Spike Lee? (In my dreams!)

Tarantino has recently spoken out about Roots, calling it inauthentic. Roots is almost entirely based off of a retelling of Haley’s own ancestors.

The Oscar nominations were just announced, and Tarantino did not receive a nomination for his directing. Part of me believes the snub was due to the racial controversy surrounding the film. Django itself received five nominations.

It is sad that we still have to have this conversation, but as long as these huge racial arguments are swarming around our entertainment industry, it needs to be talked about. Everyone’s voice matters. In an interview with BET, Samuel L. Jackson, a frequent collaborator with Tarantino said, ”Here’s the deal: I want the conversation to start.”

What do you guys think? Is it okay to depict slavery in a light-hearted, anti-historical fashion, or is it too serious to satirize? Why is the Holocaust taken more seriously in film history than slavery is? Or is that an unfair argument, as well? Speak up, use your voices, don’t be scared!

Image of Spike Lee via iammobetter.com, image of Django Unchained via moviesblog.mtv.com, “collage” smushed together by moi.

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  1. Spike Lee is criticizing Quentin for Django’s use of the n-word and yet, in 2000, Lee wrote and directed a film called Bamboozled about black people in blackface trying to re-popularize the minstrel show on American TV, a movie which was riddled with the n-word. How is that any different than what Tarantino is doing? Bamboozled used satire to force audiences to realize, in an indirect way, the implications of that language. Who says Django isn’t functioning in the same way?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPBmOEpviOg Trailer for Bamboozled if anyone was interested.

    Tyler Vendetti | 1/13/2013 01:01 pm
  2. The controversy surrounding Django has been of great interest to me because words cannot even describe how much I hate racism and the exploitation of human beings, and also Quentin Tarantino is my favourite Director of all time. Some people might think racial sensitivity and being a Q fan are mutually exclusive, but I do not believe that to be the case.
    “Django Unchained” made me HATE slavery. It made me hate the philosophy behind it, the institution of it, the perpetrators of it, and the people who benefitted from it. There were scenes in this movie where I was literally squirming in my seat because I was so uncomfortably horrified, and scenes that made me feel physically ill. That is, in my opinion, exactly how one should feel when thinking about slavery.
    When I sat through “Lincoln” I felt bored and lethargic, and barely knew there was any racial debate surrounding the abolishment of slavery. The 13th Amendment was more or less a political strategy to stop getting all the white kids killed in the war, and it was passed by white men in top hats who either had little to no interest in racial equality, or were vehemently opposed to it. I can appreciate the fact that Lincoln was about the bureaucracy of ending slavery at a time when people generally wouldn`t have been activists for 21st century definitions of “equality”, but I resented this movie for making me not care. Spielberg is the same man who brought us “Schindler`s List”, so there is no doubt he is capable of making an audience loathe and mourn injustice. How could he so obviously dodge the issue of oppression of black slaves in America? (And also why was Daniel Day Lewis impersonating Bill Clinton in some parts?)
    I understand that Django uses “the N word” more than people are comfortable with. In all honesty it makes me a lot more uncomfortable hearing it trivialized in “Pulp Fiction” than hearing it in a movie like Django where it was very much contextual. To have a movie set in Antebellum south that did not use the word liberally would have been insulting to the intelligence of the audience.
    Another key aspect of the film people took issue with was the fact that it was a campy spaghetti western that made people laugh at times. The argument was that it makes light of racism and involuntary servitude. However, what I consider the funniest scene in the history of cinema never would have happened if we were to dismiss the right to use humour in tackling serious subjects. I am, of course, referring to the part about the KKK overnight raid which had the audience laughing hysterically for 3 minutes straight. In addition to being a brilliantly written scene, it established a sense of idiocy for the people who hold white supremacist values. It made the KKK come across as cartoonishly stupid in a way that only a satirical account could. Tarantino sets this tone where you can`t possibly take them seriously because, just look at them!
    If we refuse to let artists tell stories the way they want to tell them we create a dilemma where people can`t express themselves at all. Spike Lee does a disservice to the arts, and more importantly to freedom of speech, because he creates an environment that is so hostile it destroys any hope of critical debate by trying to push it all under the surface where we can`t see it or think about it. Then we end up in a position where if racially marginalized groups are not visible it`s whitewashing, and if it`s done wrong it`s racist, so everyone just has to shut up. A situation where we have to suppress freedom of expression because Spike Lee might get mad is indicative that things are not okay. That we are not as close to a fair and equal society as we want to be or think we are. If we censor artists because they are the wrong race to make a particular statement, how does this help to develop a society of progress?

  3. I loved Django and don’t agree that it was making light of slavery. It seemed pretty clear that Tarantino wanted to distinguish the tone in regards to the deaths of whites and the deaths of blacks in the movie. The two specific instances of black death in the movie were pretty horrific and managed to show a glimpse into the brutality of slavery. The deaths of whites, however, were shown more comically than dramatically, and were often moments of triumph. I think that the death of whites in the movie wasn’t necessarily killing a specific white person. rather the killing of the institution of slavery and white supremacy. Which are things that we should feel good about. And YIKES, I’m with Akilah on the “getting over” slavery comments. We are still living the effects of slavery, white supremacy is still very much alive, and ignoring this isn’t helpful to anyone.

    • I agree, except I think one really important scene was Django`s bounty scene where the guy`s kid is there. It was later brought up as well as something Django felt somewhat remourseful about, and I think said a lot about his character. It also kind of de-trivialized death and demonstrated that even the greatest monsters humanity has to offer are still people. But yeah, totally with you and Akilah on the getting over slavery comments.

  4. I really liked the post, but the comments section has me squirming. People should just “get over” slavery? Yikes. Maybe that’s where the discourse needs to begin. I have never ever heard a white person say to a Jewish person “you should just get over the Holocaust.” It’s extremely insensitive, mainly because the implications of both acts of terror are still apparent to this day. I like Django and wrote a post on my own blog about how I think it’s worth seeing. It’s not really a movie about slavery, it’s a movie about vengeance and a man saving his wife set in the 1850s. People said “the n-word” a whole lot back then, and we’re still forced to read “classic literature” littered with it without any protest. I think this is a bigger discussion than “get over it,” but I think the movie was what it set out to be: entertaining, vindictive, and in-your face. Inglourious Basterds was about a Jewish woman wreaking havoc on despicable nazis, and this was a movie about an ex-slave wreaking havoc on despicable slave-owners and beneficiaries. It’s not to be compared to Roots.

  5. I, too, had my qualms about the movie. It had pretty cringeworthy language and, of course, superfluous violence (which is expected in his films by now), but if you look at his second most recent film, Ingloroius Basterds, it’s almsot a remake.

    It seems that Tarantino is catering to minority audiences by creating, what he imagines to be, the most vengeful group of said minority and sicking them on, what he imagines to be, the worst opressor that said minority has faced in history. I guess at two films it’s a bit early to call it a trend, but I definitely saw the similarities between Basterds and Django.

    I understand how Django might be more incendiary due to the language and the American( ie personal) nature of slavery, but Basterds made a farce out of the Holocaust, which is also a big deal that went sort of under the radar in it’s time. I do not support the overuse of “the N-word,” but maybe this is film could open up a larger conversation about the repercussions of slavery in our modern day. I honestly think that America could really benefit from that sort of conversation.

    As for Tarantino, I’m not sure he’ll ever stop making offensive movies. It’s his thing. He seems to love it and there seems to be a large audience for it. But we can, as a country and/or as a society, look at these satires and farces and use them to create real conversations about our actual history, because, in the end, isn’t that what we are so incensed about, anyway?

  6. I think that what people are forgetting is that it’s just a MOVIE. We all know that slavery was abolished a very long time ago, I don’t think that it will ever happen again and with all due respect, it’s time people got over it and moved on. The only way to move forward is to let go of the past, I say.

    Not all movies have to be made the same way or follow a specific standard or even be historically accurate for that matter, it’s like saying books that get made into movies always follow the book, when they rarely ever do.

    There was once this wonderful and great thing we had called imagination and creativity, something that QT obviously has never lost (along with the uncanny ability to do his own thing uncensored and to not give a crap about what others think about it), his style of writing and film making is so far from the norm, that it’s exactly why a majority of people love his films.

    And no, I have not yet had the opportunity to see the movie.

  7. Spike Lee is entirely too sensitive and ignorant. Remember when he retweeted George Zimmerman’s supposed address and a bunch of racially charged propagandists who were his twitter followers swarmed said house. It turned out to be the home of two elderly people! I mean, I take what they both say with a grain of salt. Although there should be dialogue over racisim in this country Lee shouldn’t start it. He’s already lost his authenticity over the years with me. Still complaining into relevancy.

  8. Nothing is sacred….everything should be satirized…..our families all have shitty pasts if you dig deep enough….some of us were slaves…..some of us were slave owners….we need to learn to get past that. You are not a slave, so whatever aggression over the subject is second generation at best. A sense of humor and an acceptance that this shit won’t happen again should be enough to get most people through the day. Tucking away these touchy subjects does nothing more than give them power. Quit saying the “n” word entirely and when some asshole yells it in a bar fight it will ring that much stronger. This is art, but people make it into war.