Sunday 26 January 2014

That Slavery Malarkey: Django Unchained versus 12 Years a Slave

There is a famous Billie Holiday song called Strange Fruit (written by Abel Meeropol). It's a powerful and savage indictment of lynching and Southern racism. It's acknowledged as a classic and a milestone and it is to be admired. And I admire it. Unfortunately, I also rather think it's a heap of junk.

Why? Because, although it may be an excellent polemic, it's a lousy song. There is no pleasure to be had in listening to it. It is tedious, glum and strident. I'm sure some of its adherents would argue that it shouldn't be a pleasurable experience. Such serious subject matter, they'd say, demands an equally serious (read "po-faced") treatment.

I beg to differ. To support my argument, allow me to direct you to the delightful Count Basie Jimmy Rushing number It's the Same Old South (written by Jay Gorney and Edward Eliscu, from their revue Meet the People). This is also an assault on Jim Crow laws and racist atrocities. But instead of being doleful, blunt and overblown it is sarcastic, satirical and hilarious. And its lyrics are set to a jaunty, catchy tune that will have your foot tapping.

Instead of bludgeoning us with horrors as in Strange Fruit — "Pastoral scene of the gallant South/The bulging eye and the twisted mouth" — in It's the Same Old South we are offered snarky humour: "Let the Northerners keep Niagra/We’ll stick to our Southern pellagra."

This song shows that a pitiless attack on Southern bigotry can be swinging and upbeat and fun — it doesn't have to be a painful dirge.

This brings us to my argument about 12 Years a Slave versus Django Unchained. I think Tarrantino's Django is a vastly better movie and, even though it is a prurient, overheated pulp fantasy it is a better denunciation of slavery. No, strike that. Because it is a prurient, overheated pulp fantasy it is a better denunciation of slavery.

You come out of both movies hating slavery. But with Django Unchained you are also exhilarated, uplifted, and entertained. With 12 Years a Slave you are just numbed, dulled and deadened — and quite possibly bored. This is because the film makers of 12 Years are enslaved — if you will forgive the term — by the silly and simplistic notion that form must reflect content.

Thus 12 Years a Slave must be austere, horrific, tedious and repellent, because that is the experience it depicts. I say no. I say if you want to make an effective polemic against slavery why not couch it in the form of a hugely enjoyable, utterly lurid neo-Spaghetti Western?

Why is it better to take this approach? Because you will reach a larger audience. It will also be a more receptive audience because people enjoying an art work will be more open to the ideas it conveys.

Early in Django Unchained, Christopher Waltz dismisses "That slavery malarkey." This brilliantly throw-away line is a more effective reproach than hours of explicit polemicisim.

I'm not suggesting that 12 Years could, or should, have been reconfigured as Tarrantino style pop-art action movie. But neither did it need to be so solemnly numbing and ultimately dull. 

(Footnote: Amazingly the lyrics for It's the Same Old South are only available online in one place, and the geniuses who transcribed it didn't know what 'pellagra' meant, so they just invented a word. In any case, you can make a mental correction and read the lyrics here.)

(Image credits: Jimmy Rushing by great jazz photographer William P. Gottlieb is from Jazz in Photo. Billie Holiday by the equally great Don Hunstein is from Jazz Dot Com. The posters for 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained are both from the reliable Ace Show Biz.)


  1. After reading this I was reminded of LeVar Burton's comment about Tarantino's claim that Roots was inauthentic in contrast to Django Unchained:

    “Too many people who look like me bled and died for you to have the opportunity to satirize the slave narrative. There’s a place for satire in culture. Taken at face value, as a piece of satire, I went and enjoyed it. It was fun. Let’s just not get it twisted. Django was not real.”

    Let me say that I am a white male, have a black significant other, and have never seen 12 Years as a Slave.

    Having said all this, I disagree with:

    "It will also be a more receptive audience because people enjoying an art work will be more open to the ideas it conveys."

    In my opinion, very few people watched Django Unchained and came out of it wrestling with moral conundrums and the ideas it conveys about slavery. I'd offer that most people went to it to get a visceral thrill from the violence, because it has big-name actors in it, and because of Tarantino 's reputation for rehashing 70s genres, i.e. - it was a Spaghetti Western/blacksploitation mash-up - and thusly came out of it having enjoyed it or not on the basis of these things.

    Besides, what ideas does Django Unchained convey? That slavery was wrong? Is that it? If that's all the film has to say on a thematic level then it's pretty thin gruel.

    I saw Django Unchained and loved the cinematography because Bob Richardson is great, but it added absolutely nothing to my ideas about slavery and race. When I think about slavery, race, etc., I think about my significant other coming home crying after having dealt with racist a**holes; I think about her father telling me stories from Montgomery, Alabama where he witnessed the bus boycott first-hand; I think about the stories he has told me about being active in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, e.g. - being arrested in voter registration drives and being setup by the FBI; I think about being in Montgomery and walking from the Alabama River up Commerce Street to Court Square and then being told that this was the route walked by slaves herded off boats and then auctioned off on the Square; I think about standing where the bus Rosa Parks was on was parked when she refused to move and then seeing that very bus in the Rosa Parks Museum. And so on.

    to be continued...

  2. Again, Django Unchained added nothing to my ideas about slavery and race. It didn't contextualize anything nor did it enliven, enlighten, or in any way complement my experiences with race in this country (America). It was a fantasy action movie that featured a lot of killing and a black protagonist who was interested in finding his love, not freeing his people. DU is a movie about an individual and the pursuit of his narrow goal, not anything even approaching a conversation about slavery and its aftermath. An action/shoot 'em up movie that slips in the simplistic notion that slavery is wrong - something most people agree upon already - is not an effective way to purvey or discuss the issue of slavery and race in America. The already threadbare thematic material cannot be heard over the gunshots.

    Regarding the songs you mentioned, I can tell you that black people in my family think "Strange Fruit" to be anything but a heap of junk. But I'm sure they could also appreciate "It's the Same Old South" as well as, say, "Mississippi Goddamn" by Nina Simone. The problem I have with this blog post is that you're a white person in the UK essentially dictating to everyone what constitutes the "best" or "most effective" way of using art to mediate racial issues/experiences in the United States. It makes me uncomfortable that you, a white man, are, in essence, telling my black family members who lived through Jim Crow that the cultural artifacts they enjoy, that accompany their experiences and their identities are somehow inferior. That a white man, Quentin Tarantino, knows best how to discuss slavery. These do not sit right with me.

    P.S. - Hope to see you again at Chicago TARDIS soon.

    P.P.S. - Are any of your newer books going to be printed or available solely as e-books?

  3. Hi there, naturally I respect your opinions greatly. I'd only say that I'm not dictating to anyone, merely offering my own heartfelt opinions. And I strongly believe that an engaging and enjoyable work of art will deliver its message more effectively than a cold, alienating one. I think -- I hope -- that I gave the impression that I respect the message in Strange Fruit and 12 Years while still taking issue with the way in which the message was conveyed. Hope to see you at Chicago again soon, too. I'm angling to get another invite! Did you know Script Doctor has been reprinted? An e-book edition of it is due out this year but the paper version is very nice, with many pages of color photos. Thanks for reading!

  4. Hi again - trust me, you need not respect my opinions *greatly*. :) I take your opinions seriously because I enjoy your work and creating stories is your area of expertise, not mine. I don't deny that something that is engaging and enjoyable can convey a message better than cold, alienating story. I just don't think Tarantino's movies are conveying messages. They're the cinematic equivalents of roller coasters (or whatever you folks across the Pond call them). Besides, viewers bring biases and prejudices with them and use them in parsing any given work of art/entertainment. And I understand that you respect the message in Strange Fruit and 12 Years while not necessarily finding them interesting musically/cinematically. No problem.

    I did see that Script Doctor was reprinted. I hope to purchase it soon. Right now I am in the midst of a DW BBC/Virgin novel buying spree.

  5. Palmer: Strange Fruit's songwriter Abel Meeropol, like Quentin Tarantino, was white. Does that make you uncomfortable too? Had to ask.

  6. Paul - why did you have to ask? I don't understand. Where did I write that white people cannot make films or write songs about race, slavery, etc.? Did Meeropol at some point make a comment that his way of approaching the issue the was the best or most effective?