Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Django: ...the underlying message was... that Blacks in slavery were fools and cowards

A review of the new Hollywood film, Django
...Throughout the rest of the film, this is Tarantino method: begin with a serious treatment, suck the audience in,  and then, he hits you—Bang!–with a punch line that catches you off guard.  The problem with the ethnic joke is that the joke is always on the black man, who, has no recourse to respond.

Tarantino's "Django: Unchained"

Hollywood’s Nigger Joke


I had little dog, his name was Dash
I’d ruther be a nigger than be white trash
–African American saying
In order for a joke to work, Mary Douglas, the eminent British anthropologist, wrote that one had to have a social context for it to operate in. “We must ask what are the social conditions for a joke to be both perceived and permitted,” she asked in her wonderful little essay, “Jokes.”
“My hypothesis,” she writes“is that a joke is seen and allowed when it offers a symbolic pattern of a social pattern occurring at the same time.”
With Django: Unchained, the symbolic pattern–I’d call it historical context–is Hollywood itself. “If there is no joke in the social structure,” Mrs Douglas observed, “no other joke can appear.”  In Hollywood, there are lots of jokes in the system!
The social pattern that allows Quentin Tarantino’s “Nigger joke” to work is set in the South, two years before the Civil War, but my point is that this is only a pretext for Hollywood itself.
Some critics, like Betsy Sharkey in the Times, think this film is a masterpiece. Sharkey calls it,   “the most articulate, intriguing, provoking, appalling, hilarious, exhilarating, scathing and downright entertaining film yet.”
African American critic Wesley Morris hated it. He called it “unrelenting tastelessness — [...] exclamatory kitsch — on a subject as loaded, gruesome, and dishonorable as American slavery.”
Ishmael Reed, the novelist, pointed out how the Weinstein Company promoted an advertising campaign to get a black audience by promoting  Jamie Foxx as the star. In fact, Foxx is only one of the stars, along with Christoph Waltz and  Leonardo DiCaprio. As Reed points out, Foxx spends most of his time looking at Mr.Waltz and then looking at Mr. DiCaprio, with a puzzled look on his face, as if to say, What’s dese white folks, talkin ‘bout?
My aim in his essay is to examine the way in which the symbolic system is a reflection of the social system. “What are the social conditions for a joke to be both perceived and permitted,” Mrs Douglass wrote in that little essay, “Jokes.”
What are the social conditions that would permit Django to be the big howling, empty nigger joke that it is?

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Cecil Brown, screenwriter and writer, is a visiting scholar in the English Department at U C Berkeley. is the author of I, Stagolee: a NovelStagolee Shot Billy and The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass NiggerBrown directed the film “The Two-Fer” (produced by Ishmael Reed). He can be reached at: