Wednesday, January 16, 2013

I Know You Know

I Know You Know:
Esperanza Spalding's Hybrid, Intertextual, Multilingual, Relevant Jazz Aesthetic

For all of you who supported blog on Esperanza Spalding, I promised to let you know when the academic version of the piece got published. It is currently available at the below link on Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-Present). The article is a far more thorough examination of the so-called "death" of jazz and Spalding's positive influence on the genre. More detail, more theory, more analysis of her music. Enjoy! And thanks to all of you for your continued support!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Don't Call Me "Nigger," Whitey: Django Unchained and the Cinematic Debut of African American Slave Insurrectionist Agency

Nicholas L. Baham III, Ph.D.

Far from being a mere "spaghetti western" in blackface, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012) rightfully restores the agency of African Americans who fought the system of slavery through violent insurrections from 1619 to 1865 and launches a new cinematic tradition of the African American warrior maroon. Make no mistake, Django Unchained pays scant attention to moral suasion and oratory, although Django's developing command of the English language is central to his freedom. Tarantino's buckets-of-blood narrative revels in the violence of insurrection and drinks liberally from the well of sweet revenge. Django Unchained is a raucous, unruly and unapologetic celebration of a freedom born of violent resistance and brilliantly effective in foregrounding both violence and the African American struggle for freedom as a quintessentially American. Along the way, Django Unchained also offers a stinging and sardonic critique of the construction of whiteness in the antebellum South, reminds us of the ever-present sadism behind the genteel veneer of the slaveholding class, savagely ridicules many of the fundamental assumptions of the pseudo-science of race, and leaves little doubt about the importance of class disparity and betrayal amongst the enslaved as a factor in maintenance of this peculiar institution. 

Django Unchained is fundamentally an ode to the agency and the violent resistance of enslaved Africans, and, as such, is unique in American cinematic history. There has never been a successful American cinematic treatment of Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner -even in spite of the possibilities afforded by William Styron's novelization- Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, the Dismal Swamp Maroons, the 1st and 2nd Seminole Wars, nor even of Frederick Douglass, to name a few. With the exception of Glory (1989), a film about the Massachusetts 54th Regiment of the Volunteer Army, and Amistad (1997) few American films give proper due to the role of African Americans in obtaining their own freedom. Glory suffers on one hand in its tendency to focus more on the life of the 54th Regiment's European-American commander Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) than the soldiers in this all-Black regiment and, in so doing, cannot make any necessary historical statement on the critical importance of African American soldiers  in turning the tide of the Civil War nor of the courage of the 85% of all eligible Black men who volunteered to fight in the war to end slavery in America. When Amistad abandons its most passionate moments aboard the titular vessel and bogs down in court room debates, the agency of Cinque -albeit heroically portrayed by Djimon Hounsou- is replaced by an emphasis on the skill and good intentions of John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) and trial lawyer Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey). In spite of the presence of Black abolitionist Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), Amistad takes a narrative turn, becoming more of a paean to white liberalism and moral suasion than a celebration of Black revolt.

Violent resistance is a central trope of cinematic renditions of almost every American war, and particularly the American Revolutionary War. Contemporary American Revolutionary War films that glorify violence as a medium of independence include the HBO mini-series John Adams (2008), The Patriot (2000), and Revolution (1985). In each, whiteness, violence, and independence are conflated as the fundamental variables of American identity, reaffirming violence as central to American discursive concepts of "independence" and "manhood." That our founders seized their independence from the British by force is highly consequently in American self-characterizations of independence and indeed is a fundamental building block in the subsequent constructions of the "frontier spirit," the notion of Americans as a "can do" people, the more contemporary conservative political notion of "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps," and the fierce allegiance to Second Amendment principles. 

The same racialized contradictions that were present at the birth of our nation are present in cinematic representations of the era. While American Revolutionary War films celebrate violence, there are no major American films that celebrate the violent resistance of African Americans against the system of chattel slavery. This is perhaps the most substantive and as of yet unnoticed aspect of Django Unchained. Tarantino's film creates a space for African Americans in particular -and perhaps people of color generally speaking- to participate in core American discourses of violence as a medium of independence. There can be no doubt that in the long term such creative myth-making contributes to the sense of democratic belonging. Contrary to many of the contemporary conservative critics of race, democratic belonging can never happen under the conditions of historical amnesia, a mere forgetting of racial trauma, but can perhaps happen in an atmosphere where all of our histories are presented, debated, and creatively constructed.

Django Unchained does more than present the justifiably embittered violence of the enslaved. As Frantz Fanon might suggest, the violence of Django Unchained is central to the transition from slave to free status and the emergence of the identity of what Richard Price chronicled as "the maroon" and the culture of the runaway slave (Price 1996).  The "maroon" is properly defined as the escaped slave who not only runs to freedom but establishes a settlement often within proximity of the plantation and engages in protracted war against his or her former plantation and the system of slavery. The term "maroon" derives from the Spanish word "cimarron," meaning literally "living on mountaintops."

Django Unchained is not the first cinematic presentation of the warrior maroon, but it is the first American presentation of this historical figure. Carlos Diegues' 1984 film, Quilombo, for example, presents the history of Quilombo de Palmares, a 17th century mountain settlement of escaped slaves who revolted against their Portuguese masters in 1605 and waged a protracted war against the system of slavery in Brazil. Led by the likes of the charismatic Ganga Zumba and later King Zumbi, these warrior maroons developed the fighting style of capoeira and guerrilla tactics and held off Portuguese incursions against their settlement until 1694. Quilombo, like Django Unchained,  is noteworthy for maintaining the point of view of the insurrectionists.

Tarantino's frequent mise-en-scene of Django crossing mountain passes on horseback as a newly minted bounty hunter is a persistent allusion to the literal meaning of the warrior maroon. Django's acceptance of employment as a bounty hunter (because it means that he can kill white men and get paid) and his emergence as a free man vis-a-vis the power of the gun (for which he displays a natural talent) is another nod to the transformative potential of violence within American discourse.

Tarantino's critique of the conclusions of the racist "pseudo-science" of phrenology further underscore his commitment to Black agency and his understanding of the warrior maroon. Calvin Candie's (Leonardo DiCaprio) presentation of the skull of his father's servant and his terrifying soliloquy on the three indentations at the base of the "negro skull" that predetermine servility is textbook phrenology. So powerful are the fictional discourses of race that even as Django's presence as an articulate free man of color - posing as an "expert" on Mandingo fighting- powerfully contradicts his conclusions, Calvin Candie can only conclude that Django must be an exception to the rule, an example of the "one in ten thousand," and he reluctantly admits that the one in ten thousand Django's will perhaps ultimately "evolve" as the norm. 

Tarantino plays Django against the pseudo science of race brilliantly. In spite of the gun violence in the film, Tarantino largely accomplishes this through a nuanced understanding of the intellectual power of Django. In effect, Django's tongue is frequently as powerful as his gun, and this lends Django's experience of freedom a fully three-dimensional quality. The repeated motive of Django spelling his name for whites -"The 'D' is silent"- testifies to Django's growing intellectual independence in a setting in which literacy is palpable power and freedom. Django's developing literacy is always played against the foil of hilariously inarticulate poor southern whites who serve as overlords on the plantations of the wealthy as a means of diminishing the fear they elicit as they bear the whip and the gun. His boldness in calling Calvin Candie's lawyer and his overlords "niggers" is indicative of a linguistic re-appropriation of this slave term far more sophisticated and powerful than we have seen from a 40-year history of hip hop. His chastisement of Candie's bodyguard for wearing his hat indoors also testifies to his critique of the pretension of southern manners and gentility and his ability to call out the contradictions of the ruling class at every turn. When Django deceives the Australians as they transport him to another plantation where he will meet certain death - after his ploy with Dr. King Schultz is discovered -  it is his literacy that saves the day when he produces the saved hand bill from his first kill as a bounty hunter. 

But it is the memorable line, " I sound like a slave to you?" uttered in the midst of that deception that most powerfully resonates Tarantino's construction of Django's literacy as a weapon. It is a line that I've found myself repeating over and over again after watching the film.

Tarantino's film not only returns historical agency to the African American warrior maroon as the central agent in the struggle for freedom, but he also gives agency to the enslaved in maintenance of the system of slavery. The house negro is generally an easy target in the critique of slavery, but Samuel L. Jackson's nuanced portrayal of Calvin Candie's house slave Stephen locates the maintenance and survivability of the peculiar institution on the complicit and profoundly invested shoulders of enslaved persons. Stephen, who feigns a limp and enjoys many of the privileges of the house, including the freedom to drink his master's brandy in his posh sitting room, is presented as a co-conspirator who sheds self-interested tears upon the death of his master. He attempts to remind his master that "niggers" cannot sleep in any of the rooms of the big house and ultimately reveals his suspicions as to the true motives of Dr. King Schultz and Django. In spite of the ultimately horrific consequences of this confession for Calvin Candie, his family, and his property, Stephen is presented as a catalyst and an active player in the maintenance of Candyland. He is more than a mere house slave, he is an absolutely indispensable co-conspirator.

Much has been made of tonal comparisons between Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and Tarantino's Django Unchained. Speilberg's Lincoln is pious and reverential of the period. Tarantino's Django Unchained is irreverent and mocks the Southern planter classes.  

But the humor of Django Unchained is the comedy of abjection, eliciting audiences to laugh at the very fact that they find themselves laughing at a movie whose subject matter is slavery. It's the laughter we all experience when we find ourselves laughing at socially awkward and uncomfortable situations. It's the kind of laughter that the great stand-up comedians of the 1950s and early '60s like Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory drew from us when talking about racism and religion and sexuality in an era of repression and racial segregation. It's the kind of laughter that has long been the perfect vehicle for social commentary. And interestingly, in spite of the relative piety of Lincoln, the script is riddled with far more historical inaccuracies - the greatest of which is the absence of Frederick Douglass as Lincoln's true voice of conscience- than even the fictional Django.

In fact, Tarantino's brief historical inaccuracies can be forgiven as a necessary evil for ridiculing the southern planter class and the system of slavery itself. For example, his depiction of the Ku Klux Klan, or at least a proto-Klan posse led by Spencer "Big Daddy" Bennett (Don Johnson), is historically misplaced, since the KKK was largely a child of the Reconstruction era. But the sight gag of poorly cut eyeholes for the flour sacks that members of the posse wear allows a powerful and reaffirming laugh at the white southern underclass who have bought into the ideology of white supremacy without being able to lay claim to any of its material spoils. This is but the first of many such critiques of the complicity of the southern white poor.

In light of the historic presentation of African American insurrectionist agency -as well as house negro agency- controversies surrounding the film (e.g. Tarantino's use of the word "nigger" over 110 times in the film) are misplaced. Spike Lee was among the first to rebuke the film, albeit without having seen it: "I can't speak on it 'cause I'm not gonna see it...all I'm going to say is that its disrespectful to my ancestors. That's just me...I'm not speaking on behalf of anyone else."  He subsequently tweeted, "American slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It was a Holocaust. My ancestors are slaves stolen from Africa. I will honor them."

As much as I revere Spike Lee's work, I beg to differ. Wherever the agency of ancestors is invoked, particularly with respect to their struggle for freedom, my ancestors have been honored and represented.