Wednesday, January 30, 2013

“Django Unchained”: Slavery is no satire

“Django Unchained” is clearly a Quentin Tarantino production: from painting walls with blood to a bullet that launches “Miss Laura” like a spitball across the room—and throw in a twenty-minute massacre of blood popping out of bodies like puss from pimples—there is gore galore.  The grim Reaper of bloodbath, Tarantino has done it again while this time wielding his camera at the nation’s most vulnerable moment in history—slavery.

Even though violence may be what cinemagoers are looking for, especially fans and followers of Tarantino’s work, “Django”, a film taken place during the slave trade, leaves viewers wanting less slaughter and more solemnity.

Newsflash: slavery is never silly.  And please, can African Americans stop being patronized?  Django (Jamie Foxx) is an enslaved African American who is rescued and freed by—let’s guess—a white man, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), with a suitable name.

Yet, Dr. Schultz’s omniscient and sneaky, creepy character—he resembled an old western, historical Joker (Heath Ledger, of course)—is played remarkably, that is, until the end.  He seems to lose steam as Django gains it; Django starts to wear the sass in the bounty hunting business. Maybe the point was to create a good bounty hunter, bad bounty hunter vibe, but at the end of the film, the character that at first gave goose bumps was left in the dust. 

A more disturbing than disappointing element is the opening scene, which focuses on five chained, shirtless, sun baked and barefooted African Americans herded by two white men with whips.  This somber moment is insulted when the spaghetti Western soundtrack, a Johnny Cash wanna-be, starts trilling. As if it is mocking the barbarity of slavery, the song’s corny twang juxtaposes against the open wounds of the dark men’s’ chiseled backs.

This is not to say that serious events can not have a touch of comedic relief, “Inglorious Basterds,” another film by Tarantino, captures the butchery of WWII in Nazi Germany and also arises a harmless chuckle from the audience.  The problem with “Django” versus “Basterds” is that slavery is a blade closer to the heart than Nazism, U.S. being the home team. 

“Django Unchained” not only gashed its jagged teeth into a delicate, aching wound of the nation, but its’ fantastic morbidity and grossly offensive nature “unchained” vicious memories of the country’s racism.  Tarantino set out for an inevitable failure-- no one can turn slavery into satire.

Monday, January 28, 2013

“The Queen of Versailles”: A King-sized Slice of Reality

Astonishingly enough, while the gluttony and arrogance of America’s 1% cannot be justified, it can be explained.  In the documentary, “The Queen of Versailles,” it becomes evident that the filthy rich are painfully oblivious and permanently lost in their own pink play land.  Even though it is easy (and delightful) to snigger at the pathetic Botoxed-Barbie and protagonist in the documentary, the director, Lauren Greenfield, makes it unfortunately difficult to scorn Mrs. Siegel and her lavish lifestyle.

Now, let’s not get too upset, Greenfield’s exposure of Mr. and Mrs. Siegel’s absurd self portrait, a spray-tanned bronze couple perched on top of a noble steed, does merit some snickering, but the director creates a well-balanced, to the point of neutrality, portrayal of the former billionaire David Siegel and his family.

Greenfield, like the warriors straddling their horse, set out on no small feat:  David Siegel is the founder and CEO of Westgate Resorts and most importantly the owner of the “brightest sign on the strip” in Las Vegas.  His spouse, Jackie, can easily be branded as a trophy wife, yet such a remark would be mildly wrong.

Despite the Siegel’s affection for taxidermy, their deceased pooches are showcased throughout the house, Greenfield hints to the viewer that this lavish lifestyle is not all it is powdered up to be.  Their house is littered with “doggie ca-ca” and crammed with expensive junk, Mrs. Siegel’s compulsive behavior is clearly masking a deeper social disorder, and Mr. Siegel is practically wasting away on the camera during the Great Recession, he even gains the humility to confess “nothing makes [him] happy these days.”       

Greenfield’s all-inclusive devotion to depict every pore of the Siegel life provides the audience with an exclusive insight to the hidden blemishes of a world that is commonly overlooked or falsely labeled.   In a society mind-controlled by image, money, and lip-‘stick’ models, it is amusing to observe the zombies lost under media’s trance.  Come on, no one with common sense would make a bet of $10,000 on some mundane fact dispute, or build the biggest house in America because “[he] can.”

There is no doubt that the hoity-toity snobs are ridiculous, like the Siegel limousine in a MacDonald’s drive-thru.  Yet, Greenfield ventures beyond a pragmatic approach and enlightens the viewer that the rich are capable of genuine reflection and perhaps worthy of empathy—well pity—as they mosey through life like vulnerable, fluffy white bunnies.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: Not just a day without classes

Whenever students, myself including, think of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, usually the first thought that flashes through our mind is NO SCHOOL.  However, the day is more than a vacation and far beyond sleeping in.  Martin Luther King, Jr. day is an awakening of a dream, even a revitalization of the dream, as lost brothers and sisters unite in one social movement at the beginning of every new year. 

On Monday, Kalamazoo College offered a memorial service for Dr. King, Jr. and invited Harvey Hollins, III, the Director of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives for the State of Michigan and also Kalamazoo College alum, to redirect our social justice lens during an invigorating and sincere speech.  Now, it is a hard feat to shine amongst one of the best speeches the world has ever heard, Dr. King’s I have a Dream was playing through the speakers as attendees filled the rows of Stetson Chapel.  However, Mr. Hollins’ words were assertive, succulent and crisp, like an apple pie fresh out of the oven, and the audience was left with their spirits nourished in hope for a better tomorrow. 

It was like Dr. King was there himself, Mr. Hollins captured the audience with his audacity to dare us, yes, he dared us individually, to address a problem of our nation as he listed off the United States’ appalling statistics on poverty, hunger, homelessness and unemployment.  He challenged everyone, all generations, to join together in the dream that can be achieved, and he scolded us for being so divided. 

Mr. Hollins’ closed on an encouraging note, and as his voice faded into the silence of the falling snowflakes, a sunbeam emboldened his promising words and we left the chapel, each one of us, as believers.

Monday, January 21, 2013

“Django Unchained”: Tarantino’s Reaper Side Goes Racist

We can all agree that “Django Unchained” is a Quentin Tarantino production: from painting walls with blood to a bullet that launches “Miss Laura” across the room, and throw in a twenty-minute massacre of blood popping out of bodies like puss from pimples, we’ve got gore galore.  The king Reaper of bloodbath, Tarantino has done it again, wielding his camera at the nation’s most vulnerable moment in history, “Django Unchained” leaves the viewer either wanting more, or less.

Even though violence may be what cinemagoers are looking for, especially fans and followers of Tarantino’s work, to over-exaggerate the barbarity of slavery in a society that is still sensitive to race and racism, is never a good idea.  Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave set free by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), which parallels the idea of Cinderella waiting to be saved by her Prince Charming, or enslaved African Americans rescued by a white hero. 

The disturbing plot does not stop here, Django mimics Dr. Schultz’ career as a bounty hunter, where Django learns the importance of revenge and the trivial nature of solidarity as he kills white people and insults black people, alike.  You niggas gon' understand something about me! I'm worse than any of these white men here! You get the molasses out your ass, and you keep your goddamn eyeballs off me!” 

Although Django plays a “role” as a black slaver to distract the faux French and aggressive slave owner, Mr. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the perverse character of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who is Mr. Candie’s slave, makes even the theatre seats sink in shame and screech with discomfort as he ousts Django and Dr. Schultz’ scheme.  

“Inglorious Basterds,” another film by Tarantino, that captures the butchery of WWII in Nazi Germany, works.  The difference between his slavery film and Nazi film is the distance, emotionally and physically, that it has on the home audience.  Our country is far from WWII remnants, but racism, the father of slavery, still lurks in broad daylight, as it does in the film “Django”. 

In “Basterds” as well as his other films, Tarantino balances violence with comic relief and solemnity, but here, the scale is tipped with “Nigger” after “Nigga” after “Nigger” and no comedic effect can remedy the awkward cloud floating over the audience.    

“Django Unchained” not only gashed its jagged teeth into a delicate, aching wound of the nation, but its’ fantastic morbidity or grossly offensive nature took the nation a leap backwards in history, it made Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream” into a “nightmare”.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Underground Railroad: The key is solidarity

Many of us believe in the Underground Railroad as a secretive network that only a few knew about.  Indeed, the network was referred to in a hushed tone, but everyone who needed to know about it knew about it.  After attending the Southwest Michigan Underground Railroad Tour, led by FIRE Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative (Kalamazoo, MI) this past Sunday, I learned that these abolitionists and conductors were hardcore networkers. They joined forces, providing room and board, food, clothes, and safe locations for people in need, and they rallied Michiganders all throughout the state to attend anti-slavery
meetings and to strengthen the abolitionist movement.

I also learned that conductors solicited their houses as safe place for enslaved African Americans to seek refuge.  This seemed peculiar, because I had assumed that the Underground Railroad was kept “quiet”, for fear of being caught and penalized under the law, but this was not the case.  Although conductors were smart about where they posted their signs and whom they talked with, they were not afraid to be vocal and express their beliefs.  Their comfort came from solidarity; they joined arms with neighbors, friends and colleagues to fight against slavery and the law.  If at times the location was compromised, the townspeople came together and physically did not permit the slave catchers or law authorities to enter their village.  During many occasions, they organized and won by demonstrating the power of numbers. 

Solidarity is an organizing technique that has yet to founder.  Many social movements, like that of the Underground Railroad, have used the power of human-connectedness and community to see their interests achieved and carried on.  It may be difficult at first to establish the idea of solidarity or to install trust and faith in strangers, but this is all part of the process.  If we are to be strong and united, we need to begin thinking about the best interest for not just ourselves, but for the rest of our brothers and sisters.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Django: “Unchained” and still Biting

I walked into the movie theatre with the highest of expectations: I was looking forward to viewing a movie that would bring light to a social unionism for this New Year.  Yet, instead, Django Unleashed not only gashed its jagged teeth into a delicate, aching wound of the nation, but it also perpetuated the same hegemonic discourse, the same oppressive culture, that activists from the 1860s (even earlier) to today are fighting to change and re-direct. 

Yes, it was probably Tarantino’s agenda to use and repeat negative stereotypes, which he did so magnificently as he portrayed enslaved African Americans as passive, helpless and obedient, even after they just witnessed an uproar, for example, in one of the beginning scenes where Dr. Schultz shoots the slave owners and hands the enslaved African Americans the key to their freedom (literally), all five of them, including Django, appeared dense as they robotically obeyed the counsel of the white doctor.  And again at the end of the film, when Django himself murders the slave tradesmen in front of the sculpted, strong (yet cowardly and dumbfounded?!) dark brown men gawking wide-eyed in the cage of a wagon.  Adding fuel to the fire does nothing to rehabilitate, Quentin.  

After a couple of years in a liberal arts college, where students are taught all of the sides of history, not just the majority’s “reality”, I am left shocked and disturbed, and I demand more from Tarantino and from all modern cinema.  Time and time again humans have proven to be resilient and daring in the face of evil, and regurgitating enslaved African Americans as absent to this force is a profound insult to history, as if white supremacy outweighs Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, William Still, Samuel D. Burris, Abraham Shadd, Sojourner Truth, and David Ruggles – to name only a few. 

Instead of using film as a weapon, a means of revenge, anger and anguish, what if we use it to instigate solidarity, a revival of humankind?  The movie I want to see is individuals coming together and resisting the social norm, collaboratively taking action, as equals, not some white guy or black guy with a game plan.  A hero is not one person, but rather a collection of people.  It is time that media loses its “sensationalism” and morbid nature, and starts taking advantage of its true potential.  After all, you have to admit Dejango “Resilient and Organized” has a better ring than Dejango Unchained, like some savage pit-bull.