Quentin Tarantino’s blood-splattered and N-word-littered Western “Django Unchained” got off to a controversial start when fellow filmmaker Spike Lee let fly with a critical Tweet.
“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 wrote.
Black people made up 42 percent of the film’s initial screenings, according to The Hollywood Reporter. As of Wednesday, Box Office Mojo said the film has grossed more than $82.4 million.
The story about a freed slave turned bounty hunter played by Jamie Foxx has enthralled viewers with Tarantino’s signature audacious violence and off-the-wall humor while repulsing others. Critics have compared it to the spaghetti Westerns Lee referenced as well as the Blaxploitation films of the late 1970s, such as the Southern Gothic “Mandingo” and “Superfly.”
Some prominent black commentators with Cleveland ties disagreed with Lee’s outspoken commentary on the film. We recently spoke to three of them.
Former Plain Dealer columnist Sam Fulwood III is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington D.C.
“I went to see it with trepidation,” said Fulwood. “And I came out of the theater conflicted. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.”
Fulwood conceded that it was the first Tarantino film he’d ever seen and that it was highly unconventional.
“It’s a weird movie. But it is not a historical document about slavery. This is not ‘Roots.’ A lot of black people feel that anyone who approaches the subject must take their collective point of view into account. What Tarantino has done is make a subversive film. It’s [the Mel Brooks comedy] ‘Blazing Saddles’ with explicit violence. He’s made a movie about a love-struck black cowboy. There are almost no movies about black cowboys. Slavery is a subplot.”
Fulwood had another unlikely comparison when it came to the violence that is at the heart of “Django.”
“It was like a Road Runner cartoon. It’s like seeing Wile E. Coyote being knocked off a cliff, run over by a truck and having an anvil dropped on his head. When you see the amount and kinds of violence Tarantino piles on, you can’t take it seriously.”
Fulwood found Lee’s Tweet a tad disingenuous.
“Tarantino is a filmmaker who makes the films he’s going to make, and he doesn’t care what anybody thinks about them,” said Fulwood. “Guess what? Spike Lee is the same kind of filmmaker.”
Fulwood’s piece on the movie will be published on the website americanprogress.org.
Mansfield B. Frazier is an author and freelance journalist in Cleveland. He wrote a critique of the movie for coolcleveland.com.
“What disturbed me wasn’t the lack of historical accuracy, but the amount of gratuitous violence perpetrated by the two main characters,” he wrote. “They would have still made their point quite well if they had killed fifty percent fewer bad guys.”
Frazier also took the long historical approach about what the film says about race relations today.
“The film’s brutal honesty in regards to just how rotten to the moral core the institution of slavery was (and how sick and demented those who perpetuated it were) offers ample proof that as a people there’s nothing wrong with us black people . . . but that something was indeed done to us. And, while I understand we all wish the national healing was going faster, I also understand it takes centuries, not merely decades, to shake off the lasting remnants of slavery and this film, in a sense, gives a voice to that reality. In spite of having a black president, on some levels relations between the races haven’t changed all that much since the era depicted in ‘Django.’ ”
Jimi Izrael is a writer and regular contributor on NPR’s “Tell Me More.” He’s a big fan of “Django.”
“I loved it,” he said enthusiastically. “I think it’s my all-time favorite movie behind ‘Birth of a Nation.’ It’s a black love story. It’s a great sendup. It’s a sneaky homage. This movie will answer any silly question any white person has ever had about black people.”
Lee’s objections about the movie don’t particularly bother Izrael.
“Who cares what he thinks?” he said. “Who made him the king of all black people? Why does the media magnify all his opinions? I haven’t checked my email today. Maybe it’s my turn to be the king of all blacks.”
Izrael also thinks that comparisons with iconic historical films such as the TV miniseries “Roots” are like apples and oranges.
” ‘Roots’ is a movie about white oppression. ‘Django’ is a movie about black people kicking white peoples’ asses. Tarantino is a storyteller, not a historian. This is art. This is film. It’s fiction. Tarantino’s responsibility is only to the words on the page, to the truth as he knows it. This is a great film. So well-written, so esoteric, so idiomatic. Leave your preconceived sensibilities at home when you come see this film.”