2 Takes on 'Our Peculiar Institution'

Quentin Tarantino's upcoming film tackles slavery, but Octavia Butler's Kindred still cuts to its heart.

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It's the holidays, so of course I've been thinking a lot about Santa, sleighs -- oh, and slavery.

Recently I finished Octavia Butler's time-traveling and mind-altering novel, Kindred, about a black woman who gets sucked back to antebellum Maryland circa 1815. Butler uses science fiction to deftly weave together the tale of 26-year-old Dana and her great-great-grandfather "Marse Rufus," whom Dana gets called back in time to help throughout his life.

When first we meet young Rufus, he's drowning in a river near his father's cotton plantation. Inexplicably, Dana is transported from her home in Southern California to the riverbank. She drags Rufus from the water, gives him mouth-to-mouth and is then promptly wooshed back into her own time, 1976.

This happens again and again. Whenever Rufus is in trouble -- about to burn his house down or get beaten by a runaway slave -- Dana suddenly materializes to save the day. Rufus ages, going from an innocent boy who grows to respect Dana despite her skin color to a selfish, violent young man who seeks to trap Dana in his own time.

In a 2004 interview with SciFiDimensions.com, Butler explained, "I was trying to get people to feel slavery. I was trying to get across the kind of emotional and psychological stones that slavery threw at people."

What's chilling about Kindred, published in 1979, is how effortlessly it sneaks into your subconscious as you split sympathies between Master Rufus, who's obviously been corrupted by institutionalized evil, and Dana, who herself almost succumbs to the "slave mentality."

I finished Kindred the same week Google celebrated Mark Twain's 176th birthday with a doodle depicting the infamous "whitewashing" scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Perhaps the universe was telling me something, because I headed directly into another unconventional slave narrative, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained.

If Butler uses a familiar genre, science fiction, to introduce readers to the unfamiliar horrors of slavery, then Tarantino plans to use the spaghetti Western to that same end. It's a genre that audiences know: The good guy, all in white, saves a damsel in distress from the bad guy, all in black. The twist is, it's the black guy, a former slave, who saves the day in what Tarantino has described as a "Southern," a Western set in the antebellum Deep South.

"I want to do movies that deal with America's horrible past, with slavery and stuff, but do them like spaghetti Westerns, not like big-issue movies. I want to do them like they're genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it's ashamed of it," explained Tarantino in a 2007 interview with the Daily Telegraph.

After reading Kindred, written by a black woman and featuring a smart, strong black female protagonist, I had my own preconceptions about what Tarantino's "Southern" would look like. The "white male gaze," as Toni Morrison describes mainstream artistic points of view, seems to be the polar opposite of what one would want for a big-budget film tackling a taboo. But then again, what else can one really expect?