Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, "may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!" To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY."
-- Excerpt from the speech,
"What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"
Frederick Douglass, 5 July 1852
We as a nation, are no longer interested in history; we have become bewitched and enthralled by tweetstory; the 140 characters (or less) social documentation of a retrofitted deconstruction of the facts. We will make it up as we go along, just to get some attention, some wiki/google pages, some dollars, and some relevance. Whether what we are transmitting is true...
... Or not.
The anthropological shorthand of Twitter has touched all aspects of our postmodern society; political, social, even personal. The spirit of Twitter's blue bird of paradox, has even flown into the gilded coop of Hollywood. How else can one explain the provocative, almost manic frenzy across the country, over the release of director Quentin Tarantino's new film, Django Unchained?
Let me make one thing clear; this is not a blogpost to disparage Tarantino, his film, or dissuade anyone from going to see Django Unchained. Hollywood has crowned the 49-year-old filmmaker as an iconic auteur, and he has the awards, clout, admirers, and money to back that up.
Like Tarantino, I am an autodidactic film student. By GOD's Grace, I taught myself how to write the script for New Jack City by watching Oliver Stone's Wall Street one weekend almost thirty times on my VCR, playing and pausing scenes in the film, and even watching the entire film on mute, in order to feel the words of a film, as opposed to hearing them.
To paraphrase James Baldwin's description of his hunger for the written word, my study of directors and films, became like a weird food to me. And though I am of the opinion that Quentin Tarantino is a bit overrated as a director (Spike Lee and Paul Thomas Anderson are both stronger and more original in their approach to cinema; while Tarantino candidly admits that he is more of a cineaste-DJ, who does a phenomenal job of sampling filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Don Siegel, Jack Hill, Jack Arnold, Jean Luc Goddard, and Park Chan Wook, to name a few. In fact, Jack Arnold's blaxploitation 1975 bounty-hunter caper, Boss Nigger, starring Fred Williamson, may have been a point of reference for Django), he is a brilliant storyteller. Hands down.
Django Unchained boasts an all-star cast of some the greatest actors working today; Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, and Leonardo DiCaprio. These are actor's actors, especially the incredible Jamie Foxx, probably the most talented actor in Hollywood, bar none. But the 20-minute clip of Django I saw during the Cannes Film Festival this year, was enough to turn me off from viewing this film today in it's entirety (despite an associate telling me the film has a strong and positive coda at the end).
And if Django Unchained is Tarantino's attempt to historically obliterate the memory of D.W. Griffith's 1915 racist screed of a movie, Birth of a Nation, then I respect him even more.
Even though Spike Lee beat him to the punch on rewriting that wrong on both Malcolm X (1992) and the soaring tone-poem-of-a-documentary, When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts (2006), if Quentin Tarantino's mission in creating Django Unchained is his version of a visual anecdote to Griffith's bigoted poison, then he deserves all of the accolades being showered upon him.
I have to admit, though (and maybe it's my middle-aged-ness), that slave joints are not part of my get-down anymore, especially a factually amended slave-era fable. And especially in the present day epoch of a Black Commander in Chief being voted into his second term, I am going to pass by the ticket buyers line for Django (but I would pay to see a revisionist Godfather IV joint, with Jeffrey Wright or Harry Lennix playing the Prez, and orchestrating with Melissa Leo playing Secretary of State Clinton, on how they were going to slump&trunk Osama bin Laden). The magnificent, storied, and ground-breaking television series Roots, from our American Tolstoy, Alex Haley, was a tremendous education and enlightenment for me.
Which is why I believe, for all those interested -- and especially young African Americans, and all Americans for that matter who are 20, 25, and 30 years too young to remember the importance of Roots -- they should see Django Unchained, and then go back and watch Roots. And begin to read up on Frederick Douglass.
And John Brown, a white man that gave his life as an abolitionist. Or Harriet Tubman. Or Nat Turner. Or Sojourner Truth. And many other brave souls who were stolen from their land, only to be tortured, raped, and massacred. And then compare the revisionist p.o.v. of Django with the veracity of the martyrs of the American Slave Trade, this country's first excursion into Wall Street; trading human bodies as stocks and bondage ("Bid'em up, bid'em in!," cried the slave auctioneers).
The U.S. Slave Trade is also the matrix of this country's fascination with porn, as the auction blocks were the Original American Peep Show.
The actual history of American Slavery.
My only concern regarding Django Unchained, is Jamie Foxx saying he channeled the character I created, Nino Brown, as source material for his role as Django, the freed slave/abolitionist.
Nino Brown was not an abolitionist.
As the screenwriter of New Jack City, Nino Brown was my fictional assemblage of a real life, slave trader transposed to the modernity of the 1980s. Nino Brown was a dark knight in the fraternal, genocidal order of (not the KKK) the CCC; the Crack Cocaine Constructionists. The progenitors (along with the Reagan administration -- knowingly or unknowingly -- and Oliver North) of the second wave of American slavery.
An American slave trade that came not with chains and whips but with crack rocks and AK-47s. Nino Brown was a chemical slave trader; something acknowledged by Pookie the Crackhead (deftly portrayed by the underrated Chris Rock) who says in one scene of New Jack City, "Like Marvin said on that song, the boy who made slaves out of men. That's Nino Brown!"
As I note in the prologue to my New Jack City Eats Its Young anthology of my work as an investigative reporter in the 1980s:
"Crack was a circuit breaker in the psychic fuse box of African-American advancement. Crack rewired the motherboard of the descendants of the Motherland, reprogramming them into the 20th century slaves of a new pharm-land, where the cash crops of cooked cocaine had been reaped from the infertility of their very own hopes and dreams. Crack cocaine vaporized the '80s into a stagnant era odorized with the acrid, postmortem stank of aborted and unfulfilled wishes."
Without question, Nino Brown was both a drug dealer, and a pharmaceutical slave owner.
In many ways, I penned New Jack City as an urban horror story. Nino Brown was a monster who destroyed lives and communities, and he deserved the eternal sting of death from that barrel of that old man's revolver at the conclusion of the film (and very fitting that his judgement took place in the courthouse staircase).
All of which presents a bit of a dilemma for Django Unchained; if Jamie Foxx and Quentin Tarantino were using Nino Brown as some sort of paradigm for a swaggy abolitionist, then both their model and premise are truly flawed. Because Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Sojourner Truth, and all of those bleeding, children of sorrow, bound and brutalized by a chain, heavy and grievous, deserve much better than a spaghetti western in the middle passage of tweetstory.
Follow Barry Michael Cooper on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BarryMichaelC