This week Spike Lee dredged up a fair amount of controversy when he announced, in a very public and very Spike Lee way, that he would not be going to see Django Unchained because of the exploitative nature of Quentin Tarantino’s new film. It was the potshot heard round the world, as white boys everywhere got their knicker(bockers) in a twist rushing to defend a supposedly important American hero against the criticism of someone who has long ago fallen out of favor with the gentrifying world of film criticism. Of course, it should strike anyone as strange that so great a cloud of witnesses were ready to dismiss the argument of someone who has consistently produced some of the most thoughtful films on race in America. For Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X alone, Spike Lee deserves a lifetime pass of credibility. Not that we should believe everything he says, but that we should take it seriously and wrestle with it. The biggest response to Lee’s remarks, of course, is that he has no right to judge a film that he has not seen. How can he call a film exploitative when he doesn’t know what that film entails? Sadly, this is just another example of a failure to think. There are at least two good reasons to assume, before ever stepping foot into the theater, that Django Unchained represents an exploitation of the sufferings endured by African Americans under slavery.
For one, there is the issue of form over content. I agree that, without having seen the film, it would be impossible to rate the film’s exact exploitative nature, if such a scientific scale existed. That is to say, it would be hard to discover exactly how exploitative the film is without seeing it, but that does not mean we cannot know that it is, in some degree, exploitative. In a very real sense the actual content of the film matters little, since the first and most significant act of exploitation occurs on the meta level. Simply by writing, producing, and directing a film about slavery which inhabits a genre particularly suited for exploitation (the spaghetti western), Tarantino has posed some very serious problems for himself. Here’s the deal: exploitation does not rest on authorial intent, or the degree to which a work offends those who might be offended. Arguments like “Tarantino is not racist” or “Black people aren’t offended by this – Jamie Foxx and Sam Jackson are in it” are red herrings as to the question of exploitation. The very act of writing about American slavery is so enormous that it must be taken seriously; like the Holocaust, it should be off limits to lighthearted fare. That’s not necessarily to say that a film about American slavery can have no humor in it, but the nature and purpose of that humor and lighthearted nature matters. For example, a burning satire of slavery and race relations could work quite well, in the hands of the right director (and of course has, in a less volatile context, with Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles). But even such fare would have to have the burning sense of injustice that motivates all good satire. From all the advanced buzz and understanding, it seems apparent that Tarantino has created a “fun” revenge flick in the context of American slavery. By their very nature these two aspects do not belong together. Movies which grapple with slavery certainly have their place, as do (I suppose) vengeful cinematic romps, but yoking them together raises serious questions.
The second reason Lee’s assertions are valid: we know Tarantino. This is not some indie filmmaker presenting a splashy debut film. At this stage in his career, Tarantino’s positives and negatives are well known enough that no one should be surprised at what they get. For all his reputation as a “shocking” director, Tarantino is really rather predictable. Walking into a Tarantino film you can expect the following: smooth, stylish visuals, twisted humor, outrageous violence, pop culture pastiche. On the negative side you can expect little interest in character development or heart, a shallow exploration of themes, and outrageous violence (yes, it counts twice). Why should anyone give Tarantino the benefit of the doubt on this one? We know his films are exploitative – heck, they are self consciously so, since he apes so fastidiously the quirks of his various beloved drive in genres. He has shown himself again and again to be a very gifted technical director but not someone who creates films worth thinking about and mulling over. He is the very definition of a “fun” director, and a very talented one at that. And there is nothing wrong with that. We need movies that let us escape, that serve no other purpose than to tickle our fancies and delight us for two hours.
BUT. Context matters. One very disturbing trend I see in pop culture today is the belief that anything is justified as long as it is done in a spirit of humor or fun. Nothing’s sacred, so the saying goes. This essentially seems to be Tarantino’s approach to filmmaking. I heard part of an interview that Terri Gross did with him a few weeks ago for “Fresh Air”. It was simultaneously sickening and revealing. She briefly pressed him on the issue of violence in his films. When asked why he included so much violence in his films, he literally answered: “it’s fun”. When asked about his films in the context of violent tragedies like Sandy Hook, he naturally got very defensive and blamed it all on “gun control and mental health issues”. He even went so far as to say that it would be disrespectful to victims of violence to talk about violent movies. And this is someone we consider to be a leading light in American film? From both his output and the things he has said, Tarantino strikes me as similar to a teenage smartass who sits in the back of the class, cracking wise, and expects to get away with anything because he is “clever”. Such cleverness is the mark of his films, but it always comes across as empty chicanery. Just like that jackass whose wisecracks wear thin after a very short time, so too does Tarantino’s schlocksploitation.
It concerns me greatly that ours is a culture which seeks after fun in all things, all situations. In this regard we are not unlike the Romans of the late empire. Before, in the days of the Republic, death was something to be taken seriously. But as wealth grew and the people drifted from their foundations, human death became a thing for sport, a family entertainment, even. This was one of the markers of how soft and decadent Roman society had become. We face the same issues today. The problem with Tarantino’s films is not that they glorify bad things like violence or racism, but that they trivialize them. Violence is a powerful thing in human society, but we seem less and less able to think about it well. Violence as social release, violence as cultural renewal, violence as a means of relation between individuals, as a means of gaining glory: all these things are worth thinking over and mulling, even putting on screen for crowds to meditate on. But violence that is splashed across the multiplex just to show what tricks a director can do, that is violence which is dangerous, both to the individual and society. In the same way, discussions of race are critical for our society. It seems like many white people have been quick to embrace the idea of a “post-racial” society, not out of genuine desire for equality but as an excuse to do and say whatever they want, with no consequences. Thus too the trivialization of Tarantino’s work.
I have a running theory about the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac in the book of Genesis: the terribleness of God’s request can only be justified because it was used to express a truth to Abraham that could not have possibly been conveyed any other way. That is to say, the extremity of the situation is only permissible because it takes an extreme situation to convey an extreme, mysterious message. If the point of Abraham’s ordeal had been only “don’t kill people”, the means would have been well out of proportion to the ends. In the same way, certain events from our past should only be confronted for very specific and, yes, serious reasons. I love comedy as much as the next person, but comedy must learn its place. Something as searing to our national conscience as slavery (the defining act of American history) should not be tossed around for two hours of thrill seeking. Maybe someday Tarantino will grow up a little and produce a film that seriously seeks answers to complex questions. Till then, I’ll be chilling over here with my man Spike.