Django: Why the Truth Matters

Well, I finally got around to watching  “Django Unchained” the other day. I’m probably the  last person to have seen the film, and I did so reluctantly (and illegally, at that). After several months of reading articles that had nothing good to say about the movie, I figured it was time I do my own research and go to the primary source by watching the movie myself–and then [shamelessly] dedicate a blog-post to my findings!

As an African American, I found the film offensive for so many different reasons. Not that I wasn’t aware that feeling this way after watching a western film based around slavery could be a possibility,  but now that the film has been nominated to win an academy award, I think it is crucial we really see and understand why this movie, along with its success, is perpetuating a problem that has too long existed within Hollywood–African Americans being poorly represented.

In an interview after winning a Golden Globe, Tarantino was confronted over his abundant use of  “Nigger” being tossed around pretty liberally throughout the film–somewhere around 110 times. His response: He wasn’t using it anymore than they used it in 1858. Now if historical accuracy is what he uses to justify the use of the word, than historical accuracy should be a consistent theme throughout the movie. But instead, we see the film flooded with historical inaccuracies. Just to name a few:

1. In the beginning of the film, Dr. Schultz, after shooting one of the slave catchers, claims he has five witnesses (slaves) who can testify to the fact that he was defending himself. In 1858,  Blacks weren’t considered citizens, and as such, they couldn’t testify in court, even if they were freeman.

django-unchained-32. The Ku Klux Klan never existed during slavery. The whole premise of their existence was to create a new force to keep blacks subversive since slavery had been abolished.

3. There was  no Mandingo fighting plantations. In fact, slaves never fought to the death for entertainment. They were too valuable and the strongest were used for useful purposes–tobacco and cotton production–purposes that could generate real profit. After all, that is why slavery existed–for profit, to fuel the economy and a market revolution in America.

Tarantino doesn’t get to justify his use of the n-word with historical accuracy while he so clearly doesn’t stay true to history in so many other regards throughout the movie. Black America has a right to be offended over these contradictions. We have a right to feel disrespected when someone white wants to manipulate our ancestry’s past to become enjoyable to watch. We have a right to be angered when the [white] mainstream sees this movie as a success in conquering racism in America by giving us a black “hero”. All of these responses–along with the movie itself–aren’t a symbol of how far we have come, they represent how far we haven’t come.

To be fair, I felt the film was a success in many ways. Tarantino really went in on this one. Cinematography, directing, acting, and action sequences were all great to watch. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t more than a little bit entertained while watching this movie.

But that’s the underlining problem–the movie was entertaining. Tarantino claims that his intentions in this film are to depict slavery accurately, and in no way was the institutional enslavement of millions meant to be turned into a spaghetti western for our enjoyment and for someone to make millions off of. This film does no justice to educating people on what slavery was: a horrible institution that could come no where close to be entertaining if one stayed true to history. Rather, it’s an over romanticized version of slavery from the eyes of Tarantino, a white man.

A lot of people question why accuracy matters. Whats wrong with making  an entertaining movie that doesn’t stay true to the facts? Its not like it hasn’t been done so many other times before by Hollywood. That’s true, but when it comes to the representation of African Americans and our history within Hollywood, accurate representation has been minimal. Despite taking up a greater part of American history, movies based around slavery are few, and so many people are still oblivious to the details and facts behind the racist institution.

But not just slavery, what about African Americans? So seldom do we see African Americans–or our history–in films. When we do, their roles are either minimal or secondary, and our history generally revolves around–or told from the perspective of–white folks. “Django” being no exception. Django’s character is more of a sidekick who gets his “five minutes of fame” at the end of the movie. His freedom, his ability to  purchase his wife, and even his skills as a bounty hunter are all predicated on the relationship he has developed with a white man–which seems to be an extremely paternal relationship.

Django UnchainedSo often in Hollywood do we see the “black sidekick” or the paternalism underlying black-white interactions with one another (anyone remember “The Help”). So based on Hollywood’s track record when dealing with racial matters, “Django” doesn’t really surprise me, but that doesn’t let them off the hook.

To all those who could care less about historical accuracy and more about being entertained: that way of thinking is costly. It perpetuates the degradation of black actors/actresses. It leaves no room for meaningful dialogue on black misrepresentation. It allows blacks to narrowly be cast into the same roles we have become so used to seeing. Roles that don’t adequately represent the diversity of the black community, but that rather perpetuate stereotypes that have far too long existed in Hollywood.

Tarantino claims he was trying to give blacks a western hero we have long deserved but never had.

Maybe African Americans do need a hero to call their own, but that ain’t Django.


Chris Dorner: What Does it All Mean Really?

I’m not an aspiring rapper, I’m not a gang member, I’m not a dope dealer, I don’t have multiple babies momma’s. I am an American by choice, I am a son, I am a brother, I am a military service member, I am a man who has lost complete faith in the system, when the system betrayed, slandered, and libeled me. I lived a good life and though not a religious man I always stuck to my own personal code of ethics, ethos and always stuck to my shoreline and true North. I didn’t need the US Navy to instill Honor, Courage, and Commitment in me but I thank them for re-enforcing it. It’s in my DNA.”


Those were the words Christopher Dorner used to describe himself in his recent “Manifesto”, a 14-page document written to justify the crimes he committed—the murder of three people with ties to other LAPD officers who were on bad terms with Dorner. February 13, 2013, marked Christopher Dorner’s death. He was an ex LAPD and U.S. Naval officer. This past week was filled with various news media outlets broadcasting various view points of the events and it has been fueling a nationwide debate.

Before discussion really begins on an analysis of the events, I think it should be important to briefly summarize Dorner’s “Manfisto”. In the document, Dorner first tells his life story and the role racism played in it. He paints a vivid picture the helps us understand what brought him to raging “warfare” against the LAPD. He describes his experiences growing up as an African American in majority white neighborhoods, towns, schools and jobs. He gives details to dealing with being called racial slurs from childhood. He tells us first hand accounts of witnessing collogues using completely unnesessary force on victims (something that has a historical legacy with the LAPD dating back to the Civil Rights Era), and how he was discharged for being a “whistle blower” because he reported such incidents. Dorner writes that “from 2/05 to 1/09 I saw some of the most vile things humans can inflict on others as a police officer in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the streets of LA. It was in the confounds of LAPD police stations and shops (cruisers). The enemy combatants in LA are not the citizens and suspects, it’s the police officers”. He continues to say that “The department has not changed since the Rampart and Rodney King days. It has gotten worse”. He justifies his murders as “a necessary evil that I do not enjoy but must partake and completefor substantial change to occur within the LAPD and reclaim my name”.

The dynamic range of responses that appeared online did not surprise me the least, but that does not mean I wasn’t upset. On the one end, I saw the usual response of people criminalizing his behavior as a justifiable one, but that’s where it ended. These people couldn’t look beyond the murders and see that maybe his critique of corruption in the LAPD might be valid. Such a response is not only problematic, but it also limits us from having a meaningful discussion around such events because it becomes a very binary approach. Binary in the sense that it looks at these events in a “black and white” lens, rather than seeing it as a more complex issue deserving a more complex analysis.

On the other end, I saw people who really took his message to heart, and because of this, ignored the atrocities he committed when judging his character. The message in his “Manifesto” of racism and corruption that underlined the actions of many LAPD officers resonated with a lot of people nationwide. I’m assuming primarily people of color. People who also felt racially marginalized growing up and at many times felt the same emotions Dorner describes in the “Manifesto”. Dorner’s story isn’t much different than my own story. A story full of racial marginalization and not feeling fully embraced because I too was a different hue than my peers. When I first read Dorner’s story, I’m ashamed to say that part of me was cheering him on because I know what its like to be driven crazy from society’s racism. I too know what its like to be fueled by the same hate that Dorner expressed in his “Manifesto”.

A man wearing a Dorner t-shirt says, "Not Chris Dorner Please Do Not Shoot"
A man wearing a Dorner t-shirt says, “Not Chris Dorner Please Do Not Shoot”

So I get it. I understand why people felt this need to put Dorner on this pedestal because of what he represents: All the anger that has been repressed from the black community. The same anger that caused the race rebbelions in the 60s. The same militism that fueled Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Huey P. Newtown and so many others who fought the good fight for equality. Dorner represents the frustrations of a whole community that has continually demanded equality, but have been continually denied just that.

In my own view, I think that Dorner nailed that critique of the LAPD. It is still doing its job the same way as in the days of Rodney King, but that does not mean I condone Christopher’s actions. When we only see his message of critiquing the LAPD, and don’t connect them with his actions, we are also being binary, except on the other side of the spectrum. We are limiting ourselves once again from really make productive critiques. It upsets me when I see people with t-shirts of Christopher Dorner; because on this side of the spectrum, we are limiting ourselves as well because we are condoning his behavor and giving him the undeserved cup of martydom.

Indeed, many of the points Dorner made were very much valid—racism, terrorism, and corruption within the LAPD needs to be addressed. As well as addressing the need for adequete gun control laws as he later proposes in his conlusion:

the time is now to reinstitute a ban that will save lives. Why does anysportsman need a 30 round magazine for hunting? Why does anyone need a suppressor? Why does anyone need a AR15 rifle? This is the same small arms weapons system utilized in eradicating Al Qaeda, Taliban, and every enemy combatant since the Vietnam war. Don’t give me that crap that its not a select fire or full auto rifle like the DoD uses. That’s bullshit because troops who carry the M-4/M-16 weapon system for combat ops outside the wire rarely utilize the select fire function when in contact with enemy combatants. The use of select fire probably isn’t even 1% in combat. So in essence, the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle is the same as the M-4/M-16. These do not need to be purchased as easily as walking to your local Walmart or striking the enter key on your keyboard to “add to cart”.

Dorner’s points are valid, the LAPD needs to change; but when killing is the result, the ends never justifies the means.

Making Christopher Dorner a symbol of black rebellion poses many problems. The main one being people will never take our complaints seriously, because many people don’t take Dorner seriously. Not only does Dorner’s end not justify his means, but he can’t even achieve such an end with his method of means.

But what becomes a real problem is when we start picking sides on this debate, because then we limit how far we can actually move forward from such an event. We have to start asking ourselves the real questions—the important questions—the questions that matter. We need to cut down the binary lines we naturally make when looking at these issues, and then we need to wonder about what all these events really mean. Its 2013, we have an African American President, and many people have convinced themselves that America has moved beyond and healed from the racism that plagued this country for the last 400 years.

So if what Darner is saying is true, how post-racial are we really? It’s been 20 years since the Rodney King beating, so how has the LAPD changed?

Its been almost 50 years since the race rebellions that swept Urban Black America in the 60s. Rebellions fueled by the frustration of being terrorized and brutalized by the police. So if conditions in Urban America are still the same as during the Civil Rights Era, how far have we really come?

Unfortunately, I don’t know how to answer these questions. But I think for now, the point isn’t to come up with immediate answers, but rather to reflect upon these questions and learn to see all these seperate events that have been happening—domestically and abroad—as being under one overarching theme. Only then can we earn the right to really voice our opinions over such matters.