‘Django Unchained,’ ‘ZD30’: What exactly are we arguing about?


When I was in college, I once interviewed the late Rupert Crosse, an African-American actor who got an Oscar nomination for a 1969 film called “The Reivers,” whose star was Steve McQueen. If I’d known then that I would, 40 years later, write a book about John Cassavetes (in whose seminal film, “Shadows,” Crosse had appeared), well, it obviously would have been a different discussion. But who knew?

Instead, we talked about “The Reivers,” adapted from a William Faulkner novel, which, among other things, dealt with race. Which brought up another film of that same period, “The Learning Tree,” directed and written by Gordon Parks, adapted from his novel. I mentioned that that film made me feel uncomfortable at a couple of points, as had “The Reivers,” when Crosse’s character was mistreated by white characters (since it was set in the American South in the 1920s). When he asked why, I said, well, it made me feel guilty for the way whites mistreated blacks.

I thought of that again recently when the arguments began about Quentin Tarantino’s film, “Django Unchained,” with its copious use of the word “nigger.” “Django” unleashed a tornado of discussion points that found their way into reviews, into public discourse and beyond.

(There was even a television reporter whose interview with Samuel L. Jackson went viral when Jackson wouldn’t let the (white) reporter ask a question about “the ‘N’ word”: “Which word is that?” Jackson challenged him – and when the reporter refused to actually utter the word “nigger,” Jackson refused to answer his question.)

Yet the discussion about “Django” seems diffuse and unfocused. People can’t seem to agree about what it is they disagree about when criticizing or praising the film.

The same is true of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film that has provoked controversy in a variety of ways. Indeed, both the “Django” and “ZD30” controversies have been so heated – and yet so unfocused – that I wanted to dissect just what it was that people were arguing about in relation to these films.

What exactly is the discussion here? I guess it depends on your context.

This commentary continues on my website.

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