2 Takes on 'Our Peculiar Institution'
Quentin Tarantino's upcoming film tackles slavery, but Octavia Butler's Kindred still cuts to its heart.
"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?
What I didn't expect was that the script for Django would be as good as it is. It reads like a traditional Western, with all the expert gunslinging and professional killing that goes along with the genre.
If that sounds violent, it's because it should. What's more violent than slavery? What's a better backdrop for the ills of a torturous institution that affected everyone it touched for the worse? When a gunslinger rides into town, you know there's gonna be trouble. When there's a slave auction in the middle of that town? Double trouble.
Production on the film, which stars Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio, is supposed to begin early next year. And get this: Django is set to premiere on Christmas Day 2012. Happy holidays!
Before reading the script, I found the Christmas release date more than a little peculiar. Everybody goes to the movies on Christmas. Do family night out and "our peculiar institution" go well with popcorn? Perhaps not -- or perhaps that's the point.
Maybe Tarantino can force-feed the moviegoing public into a civics lesson, especially if he's calling his Southern tour de film a "spaghetti Western" and not "a violent roller coaster that will probably leave you as emotionally speechless as Precious."
Look at the black-history-through-cinema continuum: Dreamgirls, The Great Debaters and Ali all came out on Christmas Day. The Color Purple was released a week earlier on Dec. 18, 1985. I think there's a pattern here.
In a effort to make our history more universal, studios see an in at the box office on an official holiday, a holiday that's supposed to be about bringing folks together and maybe contemplating what happened the year before (or years and years before).
Butler proved in 1979 that slavery is a subject we can tackle from unconventional angles. More than three decades later, hopefully Tarantino can prove that "we" need to keep tackling the subject. And by "we" I mean all of us, any of us.
Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.