How SamJack stole Tarantino’s epithet orgy Django Unchained
Uncle Tom, the black overseer created by Harriet Beecher Stowe and despised ever after, reappears to spy on and punish other slaves in Django Unchained. It is the role Samuel L. Jackson was born to play. Here named Stephen, Jackson’s Uncle Tom-style shuck-and-jive is prototypical–even atavistic–climaxing the profane, deceitful racial self-hatred that he has accustomed us to in his detestable roles for Django Unchained director Quentin Tarantino, although not those alone.
In Django Unchained Jackson is to Tarantino what Stepin Fetchit was to John Ford–the actor who personifies his director’s sense of the Other. This is not an alter-ego thing; it transfers detachment into “sympathy.” Roles like Jules in Pulp Fiction, Ordell in Jackie Brown and now Stephen the ultimate Uncle Tom display Jackson’s patented shamelessness–his Nigger Jim flair. Jackson reverses the anger that 70s black militants felt toward the Uncle Tom figure into an actorly endorsement. He embodies the dangerous Negro stereotypes harbored by Tarantino and every Huck Finn wannabe.
That, essentially, is the transgression on view in Django Unchained. This pseudo (not neo-) Blaxploitation film about a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) who goes on a killing spree with a psychopathic bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) two years before the Civil War (rendering that conflict unnecessary) offers a pointless jamboree of disparate sentimental, anachronistic and absurd elements; it seems aimless until Jackson’s Uncle Tom eventually shows up and galvanizes all Q.T.‘s hostile silliness.
Not to rank Tarantino with Ford or Mark Twain but his diabolical Uncle Tom descends from their precursors, specifically to the way Twain refashioned American social codes into a narrative that to this day gratifies some people’s entrenched racial prejudices. That’s why Huckleberry Finn is canonized while Twain’s Puddinhead Wilson is not. It’s also why SamJack is the true star of Django Unchained and Jamie Foxx, with his pandering, deliberately modern swagger, is not.
There’s no mistaking the division of labor or social/racial hierarchies preserved in Jackson-Tarantino’s spectacle: Tarantino uses a gray-haired, wily Jackson with a deceptive limp and mean scowl to fulfill his white hipster’s fanciful reinterpretation of social history. Through Jackson, QT gets to remake the cultural world he didn’t grow up in (complete with incongruous pop songs) and enjoy how its dangers and excesses effect a subordinate. Brazenly inauthentic, Django Unchained is unmistakably QT’s vision–trivializing slavery’s true deep treachery–and it’s an impersonal, privileged vision.
Tarantino, who commands more leverage than any Hollywood director besides Spielberg, is beyond needing to look cool about his race obsession. He’s got Jackson to satisfy his need for pity. [More on this in my forthcoming book Say What?] Pity, according to the hipster definition laid out by Norman Mailer’s classic 1958 essay “The White Negro” (a confession that has entered the subconscious of every Wigger) is the flip side of envy and such pseudo-rebellious class envy borders that thin line next to contempt.
Unlike Ford’s passive naif Stepin Fetchit, Jackson’s Uncle Tom is aggressive, an evil ol’ Brer Rabbit (even nastier than Ordell) who demonstrates how untrustworthy a black man can be. He incites his psychotic Massa (Leonardo DiCaprio) and cock-blocks the simpering romance between the titular stud and his wench (Kerry Washington). This despicable, scowling, sniveling, cursing and cinematically lynched figure reveals what SamJack really means to us: His self-hatred is hilariously grotesque. He’s malicious, not virtuous as Civil Rights Era Ford would idealize Woody Strode in Sergeant Rutledge and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The narrative force exerted by Jackson’s character (and the actor’s lip-smacking glee at exceeding his previous wicked benchmarks) exposes Tarantino’s basic misunderstanding of Blaxploitation. He’s still not a brother.
QT’s misguided delight matches that of black co-producer Reginald Hudlin, a Blaxploitation fan whose name is used to buffer expected complaints about racism. While Django Unchained satisfies the boyish black teen thrill that Hudlin has not outgrown, it primarily proclaims a white hipster’s voyeuristic pleasure in black vengeance–a form of Liberal porn, aberrant hip-hop.
How did Hudlin let Django Unchained erase the politically-charged motivation behind most 70s Blaxploitation films? (Anyone who really knows the Blaxploitation era can only scoff at this movie’s white supremacy.) Insensitivity is evident in the sound and inexcusable repetitions of “nigger” by white characters. QT’s epithet orgy recalls the O.J. Simpson verdict quip “If the word ‘nigger’ could light up the sky, Los Angeles wouldn’t need streetlights.” Django Unchained’s First Amendment mockery suggests it’s lights-out in Obama’s America.
This is not so simple as calling Tarantino, DiCaprio, Waltz, Washington, Hudlin or anyone else racists. (Besides, if QT could reap Oscar nominations for disgracing the Jewish Holocaust in Inglourious Basterds, our culture will surely let him can get away with anything.) These filmmakers simply don’t deliver whatever it is that can justify the word’s utterance as historical accuracy or emotional righteousness. It’s just fodder for Tarantino who single-handedly devised this mash-up of Blaxploitation and Italian Spaghetti westerns out of juvenile amusement–not Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist principles nor Blaxploitation’s get-whitey ingenuity. Django Unchained’s two antithetical genres only belong together in a reprobated mind.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair