The Problem of Django's Exceptionalism

CNN contributor Salamishah Tillet writes that what makes Tarantino's lead character special also makes him problematic, if he's used as a stand-in for all African Americans.

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Though many cite the success of Oprah Winfrey or President Barack Obama to exemplify how far blacks have come in America, the vast majority of people won't attain the achievements of these two African Americans. This fact, ­writes Salamishah Tillet at CNN, is the problem with Quentin Tarantino's gun-slinging protagonist Django in Django Unchained. It's dangerous to boil down the representation of an entire people to one individual, says the assistant professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, especially when those around him are little more than one-dimensional characters, but this is often what happens in Hollywood.

And yet his exceptionality comes at a price: Unlike "Amistad's" Cinque or "Beloved's" Sethe, he seems to exist in a vacuum. Most of the slave characters he meets are not his equals; they are flat, naive, and as in awe of him as the audience. And they barely dent racial stereotypes.

The emphasis on black exceptionalism is not just in Tarantino's film. It has been a problem in the post-civil rights era, one that should be defined as much by the everyday killings of youths such as Trayvon Martin as much the re-election of the first African-American president.

Instead, racial progress is too often determined by the exceptional success of people such as Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey.

It is true, as Princeton professor Imani Perry writes in her book "More Beautiful and More Terrible," that "the African-American figure of note and achievement is evidence for, and in some instances a sign of, the chipping away at the infrastructure of white supremacy." But our constant celebration of their individual success as the only proof of racial progress is too risky.

Read Salamishah Tillet's entire piece at CNN.

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