Wole Soyinka at University of Puget Sound

I am extremely upset that I'm going to miss this lecture by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka on February 7th at University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. I mean....Soyinka?!?! I'm such a fan but my nephew is getting married that day and I cannot miss that. I think I will make my students go and record the lecture (insert evil laughter here).....

Monday Links

Congratulations to Ryan Coogler and Fruitvale for winning top awards at the Sundance Film Festival! This is the type of film I love to see get attention. Keep it coming!

And here's a link to one of the funniest and most true rants about teaching English at a university that I've read.  It's by Adam Mansbach who is the author of the children's book, Go the Fuck to Sleep.

MLK Event

Next Monday is the national  Martin Luther King, Jr.holiday,  but this Sunday in Tacoma, The Conversation hosts its annual MLK event. The Conversation is a community organization that meets each Sunday to focus on social justice issues. Their interfaith service this Sunday will feature a keynote speech by Dr. Dexter Gordon, spoken word, musical performances by Annie Jones Barnes and a creative dramatization by C. Rosalind Bell. I will be there. I hope to see you there, too!

Real Life Stories into Art

Please consider this call for artists on migrant stories. The deadline for proposals is January 20th and they are looking for art written or performed from a pro-migrant perspective.

For a real life story about the effects of aggressive anti-immigration legislation on families, read this story about Arizona immigration rights activist Erika Andiola.

And from the "Unbelievably Bizarre Real-Life Stories Made into Documentaries" category: I recently watched "Crazy Love" about Burt and Linda Pugach from New York. It came out in 2009 and is available of DVD. That's all I will say because I don't want to spoil the storyline. Let me just say that I would never have predicted the ending.

Princesses and Writing in Second Grade

When I met with my seven-year old's teacher last fall, she told me that it was common for second graders to misspell words that they actually know how to spell. She said that this was a common phenomenon, and that it straightens itself out through repetition. In other words, little people have to write the same words over and over again in sentences before they remember the correct spelling. I found this interesting because Ava gets 100% on all of her spelling tests and she reads constantly, but when she writes a longer piece, like a paragraph, there are usually a couple of misspellings.  Interesting to think about how the mind works when we are writing.

More frustrating for me is this princess thing she's been on for a couple years. I suppose she'll outgrow this as well. I'll try not to be a grouch until then.

Remembering Jayne Cortez

I was very sad to read that poet Jayne Cortez passed away on December 28th, which just happens to be my birthday. Cortez was a poet who I read extensively to understand how to write poetry that was lyrical and culturally-referenced. I tried to imitate her style. When I read her as a young person, I knew from her references that she read an expansive knowledge base and I knew that if I wanted to write I had to read a lot. I was also intrigued that she was from the west, from Arizona, and that she had changed her name. Here is a link to one of her poems. R.I.P. Jayne and thank you.

Django Unchained Forces Me to My Blog Left for Dead

I said I wasn’t going to write about Django Unchained. For over a year I’ve been teaching a course on the imaging of blackness in Hollywood films, and because of this, analyzing Django felt like work and during my semester break, no less.

But a response to the movie was writing itself in my head anyway, waking me up in the middle of the night. I’ve read a lot of the criticism about Django, but I haven’t read exactly what I was thinking after I’d seen the film, so here I am, writing about Django when I promised myself I would not. Maybe this exercise will silence the voices so that I can enjoy the rest of my break.

Here’s what I’ve read that I agree with:

1.) The film features one exceptional black man (Django) at the expense of all the other black slaves. http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2012/12/25/opinion-quentin-tarantino-creates-an-exceptional-slave/. I kept waiting for one of the uncredited actors, who plays a slave in the movie, to team up with Django. This character seemed somewhat important because there were so many close-ups of his face as he observed the fearless, exceptional Django in action. I kept thinking that they would eventually collaborate. As others have said, there are plenty of historical slave revolts in the Americas, including Nat Turner’s, to use as inspiration for a film about a collective rebellioin led by a fearless leader. http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/ive_read_tarantinos_django_unchained_script_and_well_its_certainly_not_nat_ Instead, Django is only concerned about rescuing his wife and is not portrayed as giving a damn about the other people held captive at the Candie Land plantation.

      2.)  The women characters are weak.  More about this below, but in response to remarks that we should cheer this film because a black man rescues a black woman, I say this: I have not been sitting around twiddling my thumbs and waiting for a film about a black woman being rescued by her man. I don’t consider that a revolutionary plot line. A love story? Yes. And a narrative as old as patriarchy itself. Besides, I don’t need nor desire a Tarantino depiction of black-on-black love in the Age of Obama, when we have a real-life Brother President with a real-life black wife who is the president’s equal in intelligence and charisma.

      3.)     Christoph Waltz’s character serves as the archetypal white savior. The fact that he dies towards the end doesn’t change that fact.

      4.)    Sam Jackson’s character, Stephen, is the archetypal Tomhttp://cityarts.info/2012/12/28/still-not-a-brother/. The funniest criticism, and signifying moment, that I have read about Stephen was by Ishmael Reed in the Washington Post blogs. http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2012/12/28/black-audiences-white-stars-and-django-unchained/.  Reed wrote, “Samuel L. Jackson, who starred in Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction,' plays himself.”

Here are a few more thoughts I’ve had about this film:

1.) The problems listed above could have been solved with better writing and editing. In the end, I take issue with all of Tarantino’s movies (see #4 below) because of their “cool cynicism” and nihilism as bell hooks calls it. But I have also seen evidence that Tarantino can create cinematic moments that disrupt our accepted mythologies.  

      The writing and editing for this latest movie doesn’t do that so much, not compared to moments we’ve       seen in earlier Tarantino flicks, like Inglourious Basterds or Kill Bill.  Take the fight scene between Vivica Fox and Uma Thurman in the first Kill Bill movie. That scene is an image of modern womanhood that challenges our ideas about women as victims. In it, you have two assassins, one black, one white, and both equally bad-ass, engaged in a bloody death fight inside a Pasadena bungalow. The house has pastel colored walls and kid toys scattered on the lawn. The fact that the women take a brief break from their bloody knife fight when Vivica’s daughter comes home from school simply highlights the incongruity between the characters’ violent capabilities and the placid environment and nurturing roles that they must play in their community.

In fact, all of the women in Kill Bill are strong and have a lot of agency as characters. QT messes this up by portraying Bill as the boss in charge of the women assassins. And he includes gratuitous violence that lacks any enlightened purpose. This is what bell hooks means when she writes that Tarantino seduces you with subversive potential and then fails to deliver, choosing instead to affirm the status quo. But for the sake of argument, let’s acknowledge what is radical in Kill Bill: that the focus is on women and not Bill who you never see in Volume I. Bill is always off stage, a disembodied voice, like Charlie in Charlie’s Angels.

Tarantino could have started that movie with Bill since he’s the main target of Uma Thurman’s revenge, but he doesn’t. Tarantino could have included one continuous and gratuitously violent scene of the failed assassination of Thurman. Instead he spliced up the failed assassination and went back to it throughout the movie. It served as backstory for the revenge that Thurman’s character seeks. The mentoring that Thurman receives from a master swordsman is a short scene in the middle. The main focus in Kill Bill is always the big payback.

The problem in Django is that it takes too long to get to the payback. More than half of that movie is mentoring and build-up to the revenge. And the revenge is not personal because Django was never a slave on the Candie Land plantation and was never directly harmed by those in charge of that plantation. By comparison, the revenge is extremely personal in Kill Bill. Uma Thurman is trying to kill women who tried to kill her. And the first scene is the fight between Vivica and Uma. In other words, that movie starts with violent female wrath which felt more radical than Jamie Foxx’s brief shoot-out at the end of a nearly 3 hour movie. In Kill Bill I knew I was watching a strong and fearless character from the beginning. In Django, Foxx seemed restrained throughout the whole movie. Where was his anger and cunning? Why should I believe that he was going to be capable of unmerciful killing?

And where were the bad-ass women in Django, characters with strength equal to a Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth? Why couldn’t Kerry Washington have held a gun sometime before the final seconds as she rode off with her man? Why couldn’t she have blown off one or two heads in the course of the movie? In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino revises the history of WWII so that the war is ended by two Jewish men, one Jewish woman, and a black Frenchman. And they kill hundreds of people, including Hitler, with explosives and gunfire.  That felt more subversive than Jamie Foxx riding off on a horse with his wife.

Django Unchained also missed opportunities for metafictional commentary (a staple in Tarantino movies) that could have solved his imaging problems. What if he’d allowed some “meta” moments regarding black archetypes in Hollywood films?  I believe this is what Sam Jackson was going for with his over-the-top portrayal of the house negro, Stephen. But the portrayal fails in the end because it’s too cartoonish and we end up laughing at him instead of with him. Yes, Stephen is despicable, but where’s the ironic reference that this archetype, the Uncle Tom, is despicable?

How might the film have been changed if Django had repeatedly interrupted the long monologues of his mentor, Christoph Waltz, during the first half?  Hushed him, in fact? What if Django had said “Ssh,don’t speak, don’t speak” to his mentor a la Diane Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway, stealing the spotlight from Waltz? How might this upending of Waltz’s archetypal savior have added to the film?

2.)  For a truly riveting, page-turning  portrayal of a slave rebellion I’d recommend The Book of Night Women by Marlon James. This novel has descriptions of violence and torture on a Jamaican slave plantation that still haunt me years after reading it. In James's fictional account, the slave rebellion is planned and led by women.

      3.) Django Unchained reminds me of why we need more stories by black women writers and  filmmakers. I would never think to write a black female slave as a damsel-in-distress, and certainly not without a transgressive twist that was obvious. If QT’s purpose is to get us to think in new ways about history or movie genres, why not use Kerry Washington’s character to challenge accepted conventions? 

4.) Years after she wrote it, bell hooks still provides the most insightful explanation of Tarantino’s shortcomings as a filmmaker. I’ll end with a quote from Reel to Real: Race Class and Sex at the Movies:
    "Tarantino has the real nihilism of our times down. He represents the ultimate in 'white cool': a hard-core cynical vision that would have everyone see racism, sexism, homophobia but behave as though none of that shit really matters, or if it does it means nothing, 'cause none of it's gonna change, 'cause the real deal is that domination is here to stay--going nowhere and, everybody is in on the act..... Tarantino's films are the ultimate in sexy cover-ups of very unsexy mind-fuck. They titillate with subversive possibility (scenes that are so fine you are just blown away--like that wonderful moment when Vincent and Mia do the twist in Pulp Fiction), but then everything kinda comes right back to normal. And normal is finally a multicultural world where white supremacy is intact."