The seemingly endless media spectacle that is Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, was given a new burst of energy with the recent revelation that the National Entertainment Collectables Association (NECA) had developed a line of "slave action figures" based on characters from the film. To be fair, NECA has had a long history of producing such film based collectables, and had done so for Tarantino films in the past such as Kill Bill (Vols. 1 and 2). Detractors, though, were quick to point out that there were no dolls for Tarantino's Inglorious Bastards with its focus on the Nazis and the Jewish Holocaust. The collectables have attracted controversy from those who see the dolls as another example of the ways that Hollywood and Tarantino, in this instance, have continued to exploit Black pain and trauma for profit.
The very idea of "slave action figures" is something that was anticipated a few years ago by conceptual videographer and filmmaker, Pierre Bennu, whose "Black Moses Barbie" trilogy depicts the Underground Railroad in a series of mock commercials featuring the fictitious "Black Moses" Barbie Doll. In the first commercial "Runaway Ken" and "Runaway Christie" (in a nod to the Black Barbie doll that was introduced by Mattel in 1968) are confronted by the Underground Railroad's famous conductor Harriett Tubman -- "Black Moses" Barbie -- with "motivational freedom rifle" in tow.
From a historical standpoint, the mock commercial is a reminder of the kind of discipline that Tubman demanded within her ranks, where anyone who broke from those ranks, could threaten the safety of the others in the group. As even Tarantino's Django Unchained evokes, "slave catchers" understood the value of well-deployed forms of torture well before the Bush and Obama administrations. That "motivational rifle" was how Tubman kept the ranks tight.
Yet we're left with the absurdity of the story of American slavery being told via the flagship product of one of the most popular corporate brands in the world. However one might feel about Bennu's work here, it's not difficult to imagine some enterprising ad executive sitting in a meeting and wondering out loud if Mattel could increase their Black share -- especially as Bratz began to cut into that share -- using Barbie to tell the story of American slavery (likely the same guy who came up with that "Crispy Chicken" ad for Mary J. Blige). And of course there has to be attractive accessories, hence the "freedom oars" that are sold separately.
Like many moments in Tarantino's film, "The Black Moses Barbie" series creates a discomfort in some viewers, confronted by their own desires to laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all. Indeed we've all been socialized to hold a reverence for such examples of group trauma. Alluding to some of the criticism directed at Django Unchained, cultural theorist Wahneema Lubiano notes that "some of the criticism really falls into the trap of thinking that slavery, like the Holocaust (according to this view), is an almost sacred horror that has to be treated as though we really cannot bear to look on it without being turned to stone; that returning to the narrative in order to think about it and play with the aesthetics of how to tell a story of social horror is itself a sacrilegious act."
Bennu, who is also known for his videos "Sun Moon Child" (music by Imani Uziri) and Gregory Porter's "Be Good (Lion's Song)," shares the artistic sensibilities with a generation of Black artists like Kara Walker, Michael Ray Charles, Hank Willis Thomas, who have sought to turn Black stereotypes, Black history and Black trauma into vehicles of satire, humor and ultimately cultural resistance. As Glenda Carpio notes in her book Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery (Oxford University Press, 2008), "Black American humor began as a wrested freedom, the freedom to laugh at that which was unjust and cruel in order to create distance from what would otherwise obliterate a sense of self and community." (4)
For Carpio, who examines the work of figures like Dave Chappelle, Suzi Lori Parks and Tarantino critic Ishmael Reed (whose own Flight to Canada may be the standard for judging a satirical view of American Slavery) in Laughing Fit to Kill, such artists "are conjurers who use the complicated dynamics of race and humor to set the denigrating history of antebellum stereotypes against their own humorous appropriation of those images. Improvising on the verbal, visual and performative aspects of African American humor, they give life... to the taboo aspects of race and sexuality in America, ultimately seeking to effect a liberating sabotage of the past's hold on the present." (15)
Not so ironically Black artists such as Bennu are given some latitude -- though not much -- to explore some of the satirical aspects of Black trauma; latitude that is largely denied a White artist like Tarantino, at least in the popular imagination. Yet what Bennu doesn't have access to is the kind of financial backing and promotional machine that Tarantino can rather easily tap into. Bennu's response to a system that he describes as a "disgusting, gross, slow moving machine" in an interview on Left of Black, is to create media that is "so tiny, so viral" that it has the capacity to undermine the Machine.
According to Carpio, that Bennu does so with a healthy dose of humor, should not be surprising, noting that the Black liberation movement of the 1960s "produced tacit forms of censorship that resulted in the suppression of stereotyped-based humor" by Black Americans, hence the reaction to some aspects of Tyler Perry's films or the forthcoming reality series All My Babies' Mamas as causes of social panic. Here Bennu is playing against all sides: a media structure resistant to inclusion, Black American gatekeepers committed to a politics of Black respectability, and Black cultural hardliners invested in rigid realist interpretations of "the Black Experience."
What should not be missed is the element of "play" that exist in Bennu's work, which brings me back to those Django Unchained "slave actions figures." However problematic the commodification of trauma may be for many communities, there is still the power of the imagination. Like those little girls with all of their Barbies, who decide that they have no need for a Prince Charming -- or Prince Ken, as it might be -- and that Barbie can liberate herself, there's also the possibility of some Black child sitting on the floor who decides to enact her own slave revolt, with Broomhilda -- or Olivia Pope, as it might be -- deciding to light a torch to Candyland. For me, the possibility of that scene, is far more powerful than the sale of a bunch of dolls, who are lifeless without a creative imagination.