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?
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.