[Marxism] Hollywood's Nigger Joke
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jan 1 12:08:07 MST 2013
Tarantino's "Django: Unchained"
Hollywood’s Nigger Joke
by CECIL BROWN
I had little dog, his name was Dash
I’d ruther be a nigger than be white trash
–African American saying
In order for a joke to work, Mary Douglas, the eminent British
anthropologist, wrote that one had to have a social context for it to
operate in. “We must ask what are the social conditions for a joke to be
both perceived and permitted,” she asked in her wonderful little essay,
“My hypothesis,” she writes“is that a joke is seen and allowed when it
offers a symbolic pattern of a social pattern occurring at the same time.”
With Django: Unchained, the symbolic pattern–I’d call it historical
context–is Hollywood itself. “If there is no joke in the social
structure,” Mrs Douglas observed, “no other joke can appear.” In
Hollywood, there are lots of jokes in the system!
The social pattern that allows Quentin Tarantino’s “Nigger joke” to work
is set in the South, two years before the Civil War, but my point is
that this is only a pretext for Hollywood itself.
Some critics, like Betsy Sharkey in the Times, think this film is a
masterpiece. Sharkey calls it, “the most articulate, intriguing,
provoking, appalling, hilarious, exhilarating, scathing and downright
entertaining film yet.”
African American critic Wesley Morris hated it. He called it
“unrelenting tastelessness — [...] exclamatory kitsch — on a subject as
loaded, gruesome, and dishonorable as American slavery.”
Ishmael Reed, the novelist, pointed out how the Weinstein Company
promoted an advertising campaign to get a black audience by promoting
Jamie Foxx as the star. In fact, Foxx is only one of the stars, along
with Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio. As Reed points out, Foxx
spends most of his time looking at Mr.Waltz and then looking at Mr.
DiCaprio, with a puzzled look on his face, as if to say, What’s dese
white folks, talkin ‘bout?
My aim in his essay is to examine the way in which the symbolic system
is a reflection of the social system. “What are the social conditions
for a joke to be both perceived and permitted,” Mrs Douglass wrote in
that little essay, “Jokes.”
What are the social conditions that wold permit Django to be the big
howling, empty nigger joke that it is?
One of these social conditions, certainly, involves the relationship
between black actors and Hollywood as a symbol of the plantation system.
In his review of the film, for example, Mr. Reed said that Sam Jackson,
in the role of the conniving, omnipresent, evil slave, is “playing himself.”
If Jackson had not dominated the Hollywood system in such a sly way,
then his role as Stephen, the master-worshipping house slave to Calvin
Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) would not have its loaded, edgy, uncanny
realism. The plantation is called CandieLand (Candyland) and is meant to
refer to Hollywood itself as a producer of entertainment (Candy). Get it?
If Jamie Foxx is not known in Hollywood as a resourceful hustler, who
will play almost any role, then his part as the “bad nigger” Django
would not be so compelling (and lubricous). If he was not the “New
nigger on the block,” then the confrontation between him and Sam
Jackson’s character, Stephen, the off-the-hook house slave, the scene
would not be powerful (and dumb) at the same time.
The dramatis persona forms a homology with the enacted characters on the
screen. The key that unlocks Tarantino’s sensationalistic mosaic is that
it reveals the inner game of how the Hollywood studio and the plantation
slave institution exploited black people.
Unwittingly and unconsciously Tarantino has provided us with a scenario
that makes the plantation system the symbolic equivalent of Hollywood.
It is a film a clef.
In other words, Hollywood forms a homology with the slave plantations
system– in both cases making money is being underlined as the goal, and
it does not matter how many people are hurt or offended.
Tarantino approaches Hollywood–that is, the Weinstein Brothers
production company as if it were a plantation, and as if he were an
aspiring poor white trash overseer trying to get into the closed system
by manipulating the slave code.
Instead of presenting the Weinstein Company with a script, Tarantino
screened a film– Django (1966.), a Spaghetti Western.
How hard was that? In an age where even Hollywood execs don’t read,
Tarantino made it easy for them. As it turns out, Django (1966) was
itself a take-off of the Spaghetti Western, Fistful of Dollars, a film
(and a genre) invented by the Italian director Sergio Leone.
Tarantino’s task (as he probably explained to the Weinstein Company) was
to map characters, incidents, and plot points from the original Django
(1966) onto the target, his proposed plantation script,
Let us now compare the original Django (1966) directed by Sergio
Coerbucci with Tarantino’s Django: Unchained (2012). In mapping, some
things are easily transferrable and somethings are not. What Tarantino
took from the original films were the characters, plot, and gross
details of violent acts. What he added–and what was not in the
original–was African American nigger humor, the joke. Tarantino
ransacked Black folklore for the Trickster, the slave John, and the Bad
Nigger, and the Jezebel. For music, he takes some of the original
Italian, but for the most part, he overlays the film with James Brown’s
“The Big Pay Back” and hip-hop music.
If we compare the plots with each other, as summarized in the IMDb, we
can see what Tarantino transferred over from the original source the
target: “A coffin-dragging gunslinger enters a town caught between two
feuding factions, the KKK and a gang of Mexican Bandits. Then enters
Django, and he is caught between a struggle against both parties.”
The plot of Django:Unchainedis: “With the help of his mentor, a
slave-turned bounty hunter sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal
Mississippi plantation owner.” And: “Former dentist, Dr. King Schultz,
buys the freedom of a slave, Django,and trains him with the intent to
make him his deputy bounty hunter. Instead, he is led to the site of
Django’s wife who is in the hands of Calvin Candie a ruthless plantation
In the opening scene of the original movie, a beautiful woman (Loredana
Nusciak) is rescued from rape by Django (Franco Nero). This female
character is mapped over by changing the name and character to
Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington).
Imitating the original scene of desperation, Tarantino opens his film
with a slave coffle. First, a long shot of the slaves chained together.
Then, close-up shots of the shackled ankles. Then, overlay of the
moanful voices, Aint Nobody Gonna Hold My Body Down. Next, close-ups of
raw stripes of blood lashes on a black backs.
It makes for a painful, depressing sight, and it is photographed in a
realistic mode. The audience is taken in, because the scene depicts the
holocaust for many blacks who sat in the audiences across the country.We
see the strips from the whips across the backs of the slaves.
Then, there is an incident: a light in the dark. Who goes there? The
owner of the slaves calls out.
“Just a fellow traveler,” returns a Dr. King Schutz (Christop Waltz), a
bounty hunter. Dr. Schutz examines the slave , picks out Django (Jamie
Foxx), and when the slave owner tries to prevent him from talking to
Django, pulls out a gun and shoots him dead. Shooting the white slaver
point blank, Dr. Schutz laughs and turns the gun over to Django, who is
miraculously transformed from a lowly slave to—Presto!–into a “Bad
Nigger” with a gun and a mean attitude. Now we are rolling!
As a spokesman for the director, Dr. Schutz is a white Negro. His
action and trickster character lift the action out of serious mood ; and
suddenly, we hear the pounding music of James Brown’s “The Big Payback!”
We are roaring with laughter at the punchline in an ethnic joke. Some of
Django’s lines include, as he shoots a poor white man, “I like the way
you die!” When Dr. Schultz offers him a deal of working with him as a
bounty hunter, Django exhales the punchline, with panache, “Kill white
folks and get paid for it?”
We realize that all that had gone before, the shots of the black slaves,
the sad music, the spiritual music and lyrics—all of that was just a
set-up, a pretext. The real text, the underlying message was the
punchline that Blacks in slavery were fools and cowards.
Throughout the rest of the film, this is Tarantino method: begin with a
serious treatment, suck the audience in, and then, he hits
you—Bang!–with a punch line that catches you off guard. The problem
with the ethnic joke is that the joke is always on the black man, who,
has no recourse to respond.
Jamie Foxx as a slave agrees to help him if he will help him go back and
get his wife (Kerry Washington ) out of slavery. Tarantino centers on
the exotic notion that it beautiful slave’s name Broomhilda and speaks
German. Mein Gott!
We know that there was a KKK in the original model. That was easily
mapped over to slavery, but Tarantino makes a mistake here. He choses
1858, two years before the Civil War, as the fictional time for his
film. But the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t until some 20 years later, in the
1880s, after the Civil War.
Just because it was in the original source, Tarantino included it in the
target material. He wasn’t following Black history, but rather he was
following his original template.
In the original, Django (1966), the hero is a “anti hero, ” but
Tarantino mapped him over to the target as the “bad nigger.” Black
culture is full of images of the “bad nigger,” including Stagolee,
Deadwood Dick, and Dolomite. They all are screaming, “I’m a bad
motherfucker and I don’t mind dying!” (And all of them signified by a
large brimmed hat.)
Tarantino didn’t limit himself to lifting the characters, incidents, and
plot elements from the Spaghetti Western, but the grossness of imagery
In the original Django material, for example, the hero cuts the
bandits’s ears off and force them into his mouth. Tarantino has one of
the sadistic slaver turn Django turned upside down so he can cut his
testicles (symbolic equivalent of ears) off. In another scene, he has
dogs eat a black man to death on screen. In yet another scene,
DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie is watching his Mandingo fighters kill each
other; Calvin offers the winner, a hammer to beat his brains out.
There are 5 or 6 instances where I had to look away from the screen,
because it was so violent and and the violence was so gratuitous.
The film is soaked in pretentious drivel. For example, in one scene,
Calvin Candie instructs his overseer to set a pack dogs on a black slave
and we (the black audience) watch the dogs eat the slave alive (on
screen). Dr. King Schultz wonders what Alexander Dumas, the Black
French writer, would have said of that scene.
This gross and ludicrous non-sequitur is meant to show how hip Tarantino
is to Black history. Here is notion that Tarantino really knows
something about French literary history Dumas was black! No shit?
I’m willing to bet that when Jamie Foxx Jamie Foxx read this in the
script, he turned to Tarantino and asked, “Who the hell is Dumas?”
Tarantino proposed to the Weinstein Company to deliver an audience on
Christmas Day that would make them a lot of money. An equivalent was
the poor Irishman who approached the plantation owners with the proposal
to save the plantation money by managing his slaves (through beating
them and yielding a profit).
What was this audience that Tarantino promised to deliver to the
Where I saw the film, at the AMC theater, in Emeryville California, the
audience was the same one that had voted for Obama. When I waited in the
long line to see the film, people’s faces were glowing with
expectation. The hype about Jamie Foxx and Sam Jackson and Kerry
Washington was like voting for a Black man for President.
But after seeing the film, their faces were empty, their eyes were
blank. Sure, they had laughed at the scatological humor, had flinched
at the gruesome ugly scenes, had been insulted by the self-deprecating
humor, and had been lifted up by the antics of the “bad nigger” And
don’t forget the ending–with the hero and his slave bride ridding off
into the sunset and the glowing flames that consumes the CandyLand
Plantation! And all this, with this synched to beat of rebellious
hip-hop music. Burn, Hollywood, Burn!
For many of them, Tarantino had delivered. In essence, they had their
cathartic laugh, and yet they still felt dirty from the guilty
pleasure. Their empty faces were drained understanding. They had been
used, and they were beginning to know it. You could see that they had
In one scene revealing scene, the slave master, Calvin Candie shows his
dinner guests the skull of a Black slave, Ben. “Old Ben never revolted
against the white man? Why didn’t he? Because when you cut his skull
open, you find that there is something in his brain that won’t allow him
to rebel against the white man.”
What Tarantino is asking in his meta-language, Why don’t blacks take
over Hollywood? Why do they allow the likes of him and the Weinstein
Company along with Sam Jackson and Jamie Foxx to run a game on them?
I ask myself the same question. Why do Blacks, who can elect a
President, not prevent themselves from being exploited by Hollywood?
Why can’t they demand more black directors and better scripts from the
likes of the Weinstein Company?
Why do we continue to allow Sam Jackson and Jamie Foxx to clown us?
As I watched the long line of Blacks que up for the movie, and as I
listened to their guffaws in the darkened theater, I realized that
nobody likes a “nigger joke” more than Black people themselves. Are
Black people themselves deeply masochistic? Would a Jewish American
audience tolerate a film that makes fun of their history and their
holocaust? I doubt it. Would the Weinstein have made a film about the
Jewish Holocaust that ridicule and belittled the Jewish experience
during Hitler? I doubt it.
Much of the problem has to do with Black people themselves. You would
think that Samuel Jackson would have enough clout to produce his own
films. Every Hollywood black have their own “company,” but they never
produce any films.
Even though we have rich black men, they do not have the intellectual
heft to confront Hollywood, which is supported by a culture of literacy.
After four hundred years of being told that you can’t write, blacks
tend to stay with “acting” and sports. They do not have the respect of
their own authors to use their work in films. The literary codes that
Hollywood uses depend on a culture that reads books, but for Blacks,
literature is not a high priority.
Blacks seem contented to be consumers of the movies and not producers
of them. In the past, Blacks attended film schools and produced Spike
Lee (New York University) and John Singleton (UCLA), but there are few
Blacks attending film schools. This year at UCLA, one of the most
important film schools in the country, admitted not one single Black
You can’t present a project to a studio about Black Dumas if you never
heard of Dumas? How can you talk to a Hollywood producer if all you
know is the lyrics from Snoop Doggy Dog?
In reality, both Hollywood (Weinstein Bros) and the plantation system
are closed systems, despite the fact that slave-owners say they’re
taking good care of the slaves and despite the fact that Hollywood says
that the success is based on talent alone.
Another important similarity between Hollywood and the Plantation is
that they are both controlled by literacy. On the slave plantations, no
black is allowed to leave the plantation without a pass.
In order to get a pass you have to consult the white man since no black
can write one, as Blacks are not allowed to read and write. Therefore,
literacy controlled the plantation and the enslavement of enslaved
Africans–enslaved mainly because he technology of writing was withheld
for them. The attending rhetoric was that Blacks were too stupid to
learn to read and write.
I read Mick Lasalle’s the review of the film in the San Francisco
Chronicle. He loved it, “entertaining” for every minute. While putting
down Spike Lee’s “The Red Hook Summer” as one of the worst films of
2012, he puts Django:Unchained at the very top of his best list (second
to Lincoln). He didn’t like Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, which
is about A Jewish man who uses humor to survive a Nazi death camp.
Even if he is a fan of white male racist jokes against blacks, he should
have warned African American readers that the film is racially offensive
in its exploitation of black humor.
The 4th Estate, in a recent study of American newspapers, “Bleached,
Lack of Diversity on the Front Page,” claimed that 98 percent of all
newspapers headlines are written by whites. At the San Francisco
Chronicle, the study found that there were no Black writers at all.
Given the social conditions in Journalism, LaSalle was obliged to tell
black readers what was really inside the wrapper.
Whites control the newspapers, like Hollywood, and use their print to
keep the public stupid and dumb. Like the blacks ancestors on the
plantation, African Americans are held in check so that the pockets of
the cultural producers (ruling class) can be filled.
Cecil Brown, screenwriter and writer, is a visiting scholar in the
English Department at U C Berkeley. is the author of I, Stagolee: a
Novel, Stagolee Shot Billy and The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger.
Brown directed the film “The Two-Fer” (produced by Ishmael Reed). He can
be reached at:
stagolee at me.com
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