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Why 'Django Unchained' stirs race debate

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
January 8, 2013 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino spatting over "Django Unchained"
  • Seymour says film, which upends slavery narrative, is classic comic-book Tarantino
  • He says debate is over whether white artists have right to tell any part of black American story
  • Seymour notes James Baldwin's sound advice: "If you don't like their alternative, write yours"

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

(CNN) -- Spike Lee says he's never going to see Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" because he's certain it is "disrespectful of my ancestors." Tarantino says he doesn't need to waste time responding to Lee's accusation. That, as they say, is that.

So why do we insist on staring at two egomaniacs staring down each other?

Race. Again. The subject that never fails to provoke, antagonize, alienate -- and fascinate rubber-necking onlookers from sea to shining sea. Fixating on race is an absurdity that has no rational reason to exist, yet no one quite knows how to eliminate it from humankind. The only thing dumber than race is underestimating its importance.

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

"Django Unchained" is Tarantino's latest exercise in genre-bending audacity, an antic ripsnorter folding in most of what its director knows and loves about spaghetti westerns, 1970s blaxploitation thrillers and his own ribald, recklessly violent body of work. Its title character, played by Jamie Foxx, is a slave bought and freed by a drolly effective German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz), who agrees to help Django emancipate his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from a decadent plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio).

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"Django" makes no pretense of being anything other than a phantasmagoric pseudo-western, rife with calculated vulgarity, anachronism and impropriety. Its body count rivals that of Tarantino's 2003 martial-arts epic, "Kill Bill Vol. 1" (to whose messily operatic set pieces of slaughter "Django" bears an uncanny resemblance).

Marquee blog: What's the verdict on "Django Unchanied"?

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Jamie Foxx: 'Django' controversy is good

The movie has so far grossed more than $100 million since its Christmas Day nationwide release. Critics' reactions have ranged from wild-eyed enthusiasm (The Boston Globe's Wesley Morris: "Corkscrewed, inside-out, upside-down, simultaneously clear-eyed and out of its mind") to wary detachment (The Detroit News' Tom Long: "(Y)ou may leave ... wishing for both more and less") to borderline outrage (Slate's Dana Stevens: "There's something about (Tarantino's) directorial delectation in all these acts of racial violence that left me not just physically, but morally queasy.")

Given advance hype for the movie as extravagant as its violence, I doubt that audience members, whatever their race or age, bought tickets with the expectation of seeing some historically faithful saga of antebellum life, and neither did I. We were buying a comic book. Many people have a grievance against the very notion of comic books, but I don't. Expect a movie or a comic book to explain everything about anything and all you earn is surplus sadness that you don't really need.

Nevertheless, there are many who, unlike Lee, have seen the movie and carry the same grievances as he does. The most scathing attack came from that novelist-satirist-poet Ishmael Reed, writing in The Wall Street Journal: "To compare this movie to a spaghetti western and a blaxploitation film is an insult to both genres. It's a Tarantino home movie with all the racist licks of his other movies." He aimed this laser shot at the Oscar-nominated actor who plays the treacherous "house slave" to DiCaprio's character: "Samuel L. Jackson ... plays himself."

I doubt Jackson felt the blow. He has, in fact, further provoked the movie's antagonists by running straight at an interviewer asking about the movie's prolific use of the "N-word," refusing to answer the question unless the reporter, who is white, actually says the dread epithet aloud. (He didn't.)

Still, Reed's condemnation discloses what may lie at the heart of Lee's objection: the debate over whether white artists have the right to tell any part of the black American story -- which, as Reed writes, is as old as Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 abolitionist novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

It is also as recent as 1967 when the white Southern novelist William Styron published, "The Confessions of Nat Turner," a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel told in the first-person voice of the brilliant-but-doomed leader of an 1838 slave rebellion. The outcry from African-American novelists was so intense that a collection of essays, "William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond" was published a year later. James Baldwin, a friend of Styron's who was one of the few African-American authors speaking out on the book's behalf, put his position as succinctly as possible: "I will not tell another writer what to write. If you don't like their alternative, write yours."

It's still sound advice -- and in the intervening years, black authors have taken it, from Alex Haley's 1976 blockbuster, "Roots," to Toni Morrison's haunting "Beloved" from 1987. Both were adapted for the screen, and while "Roots," the television miniseries, delivered a resounding national impact, the 1998 movie adaptation of "Beloved," even with Oprah Winfrey as producer and co-star, earned about $26 million, roughly half of its $50 million budget.

I remember many of my African-American relatives and friends who told me they were not going to see "Beloved," no matter how good it was or who was in it, because they simply did not want to watch a movie about slavery's legacy. Some of these same folks, on the other hand, tell me they were psyched about seeing a movie, however "incorrect" on several levels, in which a black ex-slave secures freedom for his wife, kills every white man who stands in his way -- and gets away with it.

Exasperated? If you're not, you should be.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

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