History Unchanged? Django Unchained

This week I have been traipsing to and from Colindale each day to access the British Library’s newspaper collection. It has mostly been a journey back in time through microfilm; specifically, I have been reading every issue of the Carolina Gazette published between 1791 and 1792. At times it has been mind-numbing, but those little nuggets of gold have kept me mining. I’ve also taken the opportunity to order up back copies of the (now extinct) black British newspaper, New Nation. This had to be the highlight of my week – rummaging through features about old popstars and now retired athletes in newspapers (yes, real newspapers!) from 2006. I had gone to this publication looking for the article submitted by Tony Blair in the November of the same year in which he had offered an apology, or rather an expression of ‘deep sorrow’, for the transatlantic slave trade and the part that Britain had to play in it. Although at the time that this entered print I was just starting university, I remember the moment vividly, and I remember the reactions that it provoked in the national media (some of which had been reproduced in the following December 2006 edition of New Nation.) What I don’t remember, however, is the content of the article itself, and there is a simple explanation for that: I never read it. I could spend an entire post berating myself for that, but then I’d have to berate myself for not reading any kind of newspaper back then (I really didn’t, much to my shame). The article was published in the run up to the bicentenary of the British abolition of the slave trade. Reading it for the first time made me angry, for various reasons, and that brings me on to Django.

 

Yesterday I went to see Django Unchained, a film that has been widely publicized as a ‘slave revenge’ narrative.  I’m not going to say much about it here, because I have little to say that hasn’t already been, or won’t be said, by others. Tarantino lovers will not be disappointed – there’s plenty of exploding viscera to keep you going. And before the mudslingers start piling up the clods, I have to say that I actually quite enjoyed it, but that was largely owing to Jamie Foxx, whose performance will no doubt be overlooked in all of this controversy. Over the past week, Django has cropped up in conversation several times. There have been mixed feelings about the film, it’s intent, and how it deals with slavery, and I had hoped that seeing it would clarify whether I should be on the side of the angry squad or not. I remain undecided, however, and I think I can pinpoint why.

 

Before I walked into the cinema, yesterday, I was unsettled about the fact that a white director had made a film that is ‘making people talk’ about slavery. We should, of course, be talking about slavery, but as a white woman who struggles to negotiate the problem of speaking and writing about slavery on a daily basis, I cannot reconcile myself to Tarantino’s sainthood. Perhaps, people will contest, it doesn’t matter who starts the dialogue. And they are right; it doesn’t matter who starts the dialogue, but it matters who controls it. When I was carrying out some preliminary research on Tony Blair’s 2006 New Nation article, I found hundreds, possibly even thousands, of references to it online. New Nation folded in 2009 and sadly no longer exists as a periodical publication, but if you were to carry out an online search of the newspaper, you might be led to believe that it never existed (if it weren’t for the handful of traces and the short profile on Wikipedia.) What survive in these traces are the words of a white politician speaking about slavery. What do not survive are the numerous instances of such activity enacted by New Nation independent of Tony Blair. Black people were talking about slavery long before Tony Blair felt compelled to do so and long before Tarantino started inventing new genres, but it seems that we have just never been that good at listening. Django, like Blair’s article, has been released unto the world. It will reach millions, no doubt. And if people start speaking about slavery as a result, that has to be a good thing. But we must remember that for everything that’s put out there, there is always something that’s cut out and that we play a vital part in that ellipsis.

 

I went to see the film with my partner and two friends, however, and this, I think, distorted my interpretation in a way that I hadn’t expected. Although my friends have a general idea of what it is that I do, I rarely speak in depth about it with them, but after we saw Django, I started speaking to them in a way that I had never spoken to them before, and they seemed genuinely interested and keen to learn more. While I am a lot more open with my partner about the nature of my research and the things that I have discovered over the past 3 years, he was evidently quite shocked by the scenes of slave torture, mutilation and murder in Django, and perhaps even more shocked when I told him those were ‘pretty tame’ compared to some of the eyewitness testimonies that I had read. After we had left our friends, on our way home, we discussed this further, and I reiterated my concerns about the film. I told him that I didn’t think that Django was likely to change the world, or change the way that we respond to the challenges of the African diaspora. ‘But if it does,’ he responded, ‘will you eat your words?’ I was stumped. Usually so sure about how I feel about these kinds of things, I now feel less so. The film is problematic, for more reasons than I’ve accounted for, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t effect some good.

 

I’d like to think that when people go to see Django Unchained, they will ask questions, and not just of the director, or of the screenplay writer, but of themselves, because only this way will it have something to offer to posterity. Slavery isn’t just our past, after all, but is imbedded in our living memory. We remember selectively, and Django only serves to reinforce this, but with a concerted effort, perhaps we will all begin to build a bigger picture.

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