What are YOU arguing about?

February 1, 2013


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.

Take “Django”: Different things about this film seem to upset or delight different people. Depending on whose commentary you read, this film was a work of genius, a vastly entertaining – if bloody and shocking – story about an empowered black man, freed from slavery, getting some measure of revenge by releasing his wife from slavery as well.

Or was it a gory clown show, making sport or even light of our tragic history of slavery? Did it trivialize this stain on our nation’s past? (Umm, about those action figures…) Was it racist for Tarantino to hammer the word “nigger,” even in a context where it would have been historically accurate? Did depicting this kind of violence register as an endorsement of it?

I didn’t think so. But in discussing it with a black friend who violently disliked the film, he finally said, “You’re a brother, but this is my area.”

Fair enough. And yet, theoretically, empathy is a trait that all humans share. That should mean that we can all feel the horror of this shadow on our past, even if our individual ancestors were not part of the enslaved minority snatched from their homeland and forced into shackles, who subsequently suffered a second-class status for almost a century after the end of slavery and still feel and experience reverberations from that time.

It’s the same argument I had a number of years back, about films like “Cry Freedom,” “Ghosts of Mississippi” or even “The Blind Side,” in which the films focused on the acts of white heroes, working together with or on behalf of black people. Why, the critics demanded, didn’t these films focus instead on the black characters?

“Cry Freedom,” for example, was about Donald Woods, a South African journalist who befriended anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko, then was himself harassed to the point of having to flee South Africa with his family, for trying to investigate Biko’s beating death in prison. Why, they wondered, was a film about Biko focusing on Woods instead?

To which I replied – and would still reply – that while apartheid was a vicious system that degraded and enslaved the majority black population in South Africa for far too long, blacks weren’t the only victims. Apartheid poisoned the lives of whites as well. Their rights weren’t limited the way blacks’ rights were – unless they wanted to help the oppressed. And the institutional racism infected generations, whose embrace of this kind of hatred ultimately caused their own kind of soul rot.

But the arguments about “Django” seem all over the place. I’ve heard it decried as a minstrel show, barely a step short of blackface, and proclaimed as powerful, transgressive art. I’ve heard black critics on both sides of the issue – and that doesn’t even begin to address the arguments about the film’s graphic violence (a Quentin Tarantino film in which bullets fly and blood splatters? Shocking!) or complaints about stereotypes, black and white.

The best films, of course, provoke strong reactions – and a film like “Django” has so many people sniping at it – or praising it from so many different positions – that I can only conclude that Tarantino has done something meaningful, even if that meaning (and subtext) is the source of controversy. Our attitudes about race in America are so conflicted and defensive that a film like this is needed sometimes, just to shake things up, to shine a light on just how confused and unsure we are.


The arguments over “Zero Dark Thirty” are similarly convoluted and even misdirected.

For example, there are far too many critics and others who seem to believe that, by depicting torture without commenting on it (indeed, without pointing a finger at it as reprehensible), director Kathryn Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal are somehow endorsing it – a conflation that says more about those doing the conflating than Bigelow does in the film. Depiction and endorsement, as Bigelow has repeatedly said, are not the same thing.

I’ve seen “Zero Dark Thirty” twice and think it’s a masterful film, made with nuance and restraint. Yes, it depicts torture, but you have to go in with a preconceived notion of what it’s about to actually come away thinking that it somehow says that torture works and therefore was justified.

As I noted when I reviewed the film, there are those who undoubtedly will watch the mistreatment of prisoners by American intelligence officers and say, “Damn right. Should have done more.” Just as there are those who believe that this movie seems not to take a stand one way or the other, there are others who probably decry it for seeming to take issue at all with the fact that we committed torture in the name of American security.

The further discussion – about the fact of torture as American policy during the Bush administration – never seems to come up. Or it gets lost in the shuffle of people declaiming Bigelow’s offenses as filmmaker who does or doesn’t seem to “get it.”

There is, however, a difference between drama and propaganda, and it’s a line Bigelow and Boal refuse to cross. The best filmmakers present their material in a way that allows the audience to interpret it, to take from it what they will. The fact that David Clennon would publicly decry that film as endorsing torture says more about Clennon, an actor whose work I admire, than it does about the film.

Here’s my take: For years, the Bush administration committed these kind of unlawful and barbarous interrogations, while denying that they did (even as evidence against them mounted) and then downplaying it as “harsh interrogation techniques” once they were caught. Now comes “Zero Dark Thirty,” a kind of international police procedural, based on fact – and there has been little to no outcry about torture itself, only the fact that the filmmakers would depict it without wagging a finger and tsk-tsking about how wrong it is.

They don’t have to; that’s the takeaway for any sentient audience member. But the Left, in its inevitable rush to form a circular firing squad, wants to punish this messenger. Which is why the Right continues to be able to rally its troops to its own reprehensible ends: Because they know how to craft a message (no matter how dishonest that message is) and stick to it.

Unfortunately, we live in a time (well, it’s not unique to this time but this is the time we live in) when too many people have no interest or time to actually make up their own minds. Too many people want someone else to tell them what to do and what to believe, so they don’t have to take responsibility themselves.

Here’s what I’d advise: Forget what you’ve read and see the movies to decide for yourself. Think about what you see, rather than letting someone else do the thinking for you.

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