Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" has become embroiled in the second major controversy of awards season. The director's liberal use of the N-word, and his brutal, graphic and at times cartoonishly violent depiction of slavery, has drawn fire from some prominent African-Americans and impassioned defenses from others.
Like the turmoil stirred up by the depiction of CIA-sponsored torture in Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," the "Django" fuss has been caused by a filmmaker tackling a hot-button issue.
Ishmael Reed wrote at Speakeasy that the movie “was the talk among blacks during two Christmas parties that I attended," comparing African-Americans who said they wanted to see "Django" to "When Time Ran Out: Coming of Age in the Third Reich" author Frederic Zeller, who said that as a child he applauded the Aryan characters in pre-World War II German cinema.
"Django," he wrote, is an "abomination" that distorts history: "It’s a Tarantino home movie with all of the racist licks that appear in his other movies."
On The Root, writer Hillary Crosley said she was one of only about 10 African Americans who attended a screening of the film that was followed by a Q&A with Tarantino moderated by director Peter Bogdanovich.
"[A] black woman interrupted their conversation, saying, 'A lot of black people are not going to like this movie. I'm about to have a heart attack,'" wrote Crosley, who defended the film. "Then a few audience members began to heckle Tarantino from the balcony, shouting: 'This is bulls—.'" Tarantino, she said, offered to speak to the hecklers later.
The movie has become both a flash point and a free-for-all, and the issue is particularly sensitive among African-American viewers – not a large audience for the film, but a key one for principals like Jamie Foxx, who plays the title role.
"If this movie does what it does and black people hate it, that doesn't do nothing for me," Foxx said on BET. "Because I feel like the reason I exist is the black audience."
Spike Lee was one of the first to weigh in, saying that he would refuse to see the film out of respect for his ancestors.
"Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It was a Holocaust," he wrote on Twitter.
Others, including "Training Day" director Antoine Fuqua and "Chappelle's Show" star Donnell Rawlings, immediately came to Tarantino's defense. Fuqua blasted Lee for making his criticisms public and added, "I don't think Quentin Tarantino has a racist bone in his body," while Rawlings told a TMZ video crew that Lee should tone down his complaints.
"Let us live, man," he said. "We shootin' white people in this movie. The black dude leaves with his girl into the sunset. There can be no happier movie than that."
He added, "It's a very entertaining movie. Spike Lee – yo, relax, man. It's only a damn movie."
Then again, TMZ also caught up with comic Katt Williams, who threatened to punch Tarantino in the face over his use of the N-word. "Quentin Tarantino thinks he can say the N-word," said Williams. "But I checked with all of n—–dom and nobody knows where he got his pass from."
African-American film critic Steven Boone also came to Tarantino's defense at indieWIRE, pitting the filmmaker against his accuser: "Both Spike and Quentin have a Sam Fuller tendency to go all-caps, tabloid large when staging bits of provocation that would be juicy all on their own. But let's just lay it on the table: Tarantino is the better filmmaker, by many miles ."
"Tarantino has more interesting things on the 'Django' plate than the ugliness or savage beauty of the word n—–, but they all orbit around the global condition for which that word is merely a place card."
Author and political correspondent Keli Goff, who participated in a roundtable discussion that touched on the film on BET's "Don't Sleep" show, concluded that Tarantino's use of the N-word was justified, given the circumstances he was depicting, but that its explicit violence directed at black characters was gratuitous.
"[W]hy in 'Django Unchained' did Tarantino feel it was necessary to depict black men being pummeled and tortured in such graphic, gory, and yes, gratuitous ways?" she wrote at the Huffington Post. "Yes, slavery was brutal, but when films like 'Roots' depict a slave being maimed it is not done in a voyeuristic way that goes on for several minutes, and that film was not any less effective in conveying the institution's brutality."
Wrote Crosley: "Let's all agree up front that a film about a newly freed slave enacting revenge on those who abused him and his wife can seem problematic when the director is a white man," wrote Crosley, who said she hadn't been a fan of Tarantino's since his use of the N-word in "Pulp Fiction." "There is no way around this."
But despite that, and despite scenes that she found difficult to watch, Crosley came down in favor of the film. "Taking the film at face value, without dipping too far into the visceral hurt of slavery, I enjoyed 'Django Unchained,'" she wrote.
Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, didn't agree with the film's harshest critics when asked about "Django." He discerned a deeper motive in the film, which presents a former slave rising up and gunning down his and his wife's captors.
Said Farrakhan in a video interview with Your Black World, “To me, the movie had a purpose. If a black man came out of that movie thinking like Django and white people came out of that movie seeing the slaughter of white people and they are armed to the teeth, it’s preparation for a race war …
“Do you think that they don’t think that if black folk had a chance to do what they had done to us… that is what the movie is saying, that one out of 10,000 will be like that and maybe more.”
African-American critic Armond White, a noted contrarian, savaged both the movie ("a white hipster’s voyeuristic pleasure in black vengeance") and co-star Jackson, saying his role as the house slave who supports his racist, vicious boss (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the climax of "the profane, deceitful racial self-hatred that he has accustomed us to in his detestable roles for … Tarantino."
Jackson would not doubt disagree, but you have to be careful how you approach him on the topic. When the actor was asked by a Houston television reporter to address the controversy over the film's use of the N-word, he refused to answer the question until the (white) reporter used the word himself.
When reporter Jake Hamilton refused, Jackson laughed and declined to address the topic. "We're not going to have this conversation unless you try it," said Jackson. "You wanna move on to another question?"
As for Tarantino, he has defended the film's violence by saying that slavery itself was much worse, and defended the language by saying it's appropriate to the time.
"I do want to shake up the conversation," he told BET. "Here's the deal: I want the conversation to start."