Celebrated director Spike Lee has a history of voicing his opinion regarding his colleague’s project. The latest fellow director under attack from Lee is none other than Quentin Tarantino and his upcoming film, Django Unchained.
Lee voiced his displeasure on Twitter earlier today when he stated that out of respect for his ancestors, he would not see Tarantino’s film. “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa.I Will Honor Them,” Lee tweeted.
Tarantino’s latest “revenge” drama tells the story of slave-turned-bounty hunter with the help of his mentor, a bounty hunter sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner. This is not the first project that has critics livid with Tarantino.
Back in 2009, his Inglorious Bastards inflamed both Jews and Germans for its rewriting of history as well as its blending of fantasy and fact. One critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum, called Bastards “deeply offensive as well as profoundly stupid … morally akin to Holocaust denial.” New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis alleges that “Tarantino is really only serious about his own films, not history.” It is this very point that brings us back to Lee.
The incendiary Lee has never been shy to voice his opinion when it comes to representing and protecting African-American history and culture. Many people forget that he launched a campaign over twenty years ago to oust director Norman Jewison off of his dream project, Malcolm X. Lee argued that it was appropriate for a Black person to tell Malcolm’s story.
In 2008, He also famously faced-off with Clint Eastwood over the charge that black US troops, who fought in a munitions company at Iwo Jima, had not been given a second of the four hours in Eastwood’s two films, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Eastwood response to Lee was simple and direct telling him he should “shut his face.” Lee, in his trademark style, refused to back down to the celebrated Hollywood heavyweight. “First of all, the man is not my father and we’re not on a plantation either,” said Lee. “He’s a great director. He makes his films, I make my films … And a comment like ‘A guy like that should shut his face’ – come on Clint, come on. He sounds like an angry old man right there.” That same year, Lee released his own World War II film, Miracle at St. Anna spotlighting the story of four Black soldiers.
This latest dust-up between Lee and Tarantino reopens a sensitive wound that was opened ironically 15 years earlier with the release of Jackie Brown. The 1997 Pam Grier vehicle ignited a feud between both directors, who sparred publicly about Tarantino’s promiscuous use of the dreaded “n-word” in his movies.
“The problem with Jackie Brown,” Lee reportedly said. “I will say it again and again. I have a definite problem with Quentin Tarantino’s excessive use of the n-word. And let the record show that I never said that he can not use that word – I’ve used that word in many of my films – but I think something is wrong with him. You look at Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and even that thing with Christian Slater, True Romance. It’s just the n-word, the n-word, the n-word. He says he grew up on Blaxploitation films and that they were his favorite films but he has to realize that those films do not speak to the breadth of the entire African-American experience. I mean the guy’s just stupid. [Tarantino] said he and Ricki Lake were the two most revered white celebrities among the black community. Where did he get that from? Because Sam Jackson kisses his butt, that means black people love him? That’s wrong. I am not the only African-American in this world who has a problem with this excessive use of the n-word.”
In his defense, Tarantino argued in a Playboy interview: “I am working with The English language. I am not just a film director who shoots movies. I’m an artist, and good, bad, or indifferent, I’m coming from that place. All my choices, the way I live my life, are about that.” Grio writer, Javier David in an article from earlier this year, remarked that “Like its predecessor Jackie Brown, Django is virtually guaranteed to be saturated with racially intemperate language. . . It also betrays the lack of consensus that still exists about a particularly troublesome word.”
Lee may have a point – and he’s not alone. Nation magazine correspondent, Ari Melber collaborates many of the same issues that Lee raises with Tarantino’s stories. “The problems begin with the script,” says Melber. The n-word is not a bug here. It’s a feature. It is the connective tissue of the screenplay. It is the epithet setting the opening scene. It is the relentless insult that follows Django, played with abiding intensity by Jamie Foxx, from slavery to freedom. And it is the recurring personification of the antebellum South’s racist hierarchy, as white and black characters alike say they’ve never seen a (black man) on a horse.”
Melber’s prediction is “that alone will leave many people cold, even if audiences recall the n-word’s ostentatious use in classics like Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and, most chillingly, as the trigger of the climactic hostage scene in True Romance, when Dennis Hopper used the word to bait Christopher Walken into a rash murder.”
In Django Unchained, the n-word is used over 100 times and features two especially violent scenes of slavery – one a Mandingo brawl, the other involving a dog, that even Tarantino calls “traumatizing.” Tarantino, who has worked with Samuel L. Jackson, Pam Grier and now Jamie Foxx, assumes that those associations give him a special insight into the Black psyche. “With black audiences, they laugh, they just get it,” says Tarantino discussing his latest. “Part of the humor is stemming out of: `We were afraid of these idiots?’”
Even as we agree that Lee has a legitimate point, let’s not paint the fiery auteur as cinematic choirboy. It also is public record that Lee’s defense that he won’t see Tarantino’s film because it is “disrespectful to his ancestors,” has had a Black woman play a crackhead, a Black man get drunk and kill his wife and a Black teenager have a threesome with White women.
Do you agree that although Lee’s cinematic history is flawed that his insight into Black culture gives him the right to criticize Tarantino over the excessive use of language in his films or does Tarantino’s love of the same culture give him the right to emulate or re-create it for entertainment purposes as he pleases?
We await your feedback!