There's a first time for everything. Last Friday at Eso Won Books I was invited to participate in a panel discussion of "Django Unchained," the Western-style, lock-and-load slave-avenger fantasy by Quentin Tarantino that's stirring up talk among black people like no single cultural event has in a long while. I saw the movie before Christmas and for most of the its nearly three hours, I sat repulsed by the violent spectacle Tarantino ultimately made of slavery.
Of course he makes violent spectacles out of everything, but his brand of unrestrained, almost joyous bloodletting and fetishizing of black street culture mixed with -- rubbed into -- the still-raw wound of slavery was particularly noxious; the whole thing left me dizzy and depressed. Tarantino had been touting this movie as the second coming of "Roots," but much better because it's hipper and irreverent. That's like saying casting Lincoln as a vampire is an inherently better way to understand one of America's most complicated presidents. It strikes me that a society that some have called post-fact is also post-serious, and the aggressive lack of seriousness in "Django" was not liberating or vindicating or refreshing, but insulting. (By "serious" I mean not solemn or academic, but thoughtful and well-observed. Great comedies are always serious.)
Anyway, I went to the panel expecting to talk about all this with people I tend to see at these kinds of gatherings. The first thing I encountered but didn't expect was the size of the crowd at Eso Won. The panel was scheduled to start at 7, but when I pulled up to the store on Degnan Bouelvard at 6:30 the place was packed, with a crowd of dozens starting to form outside the door. The energy was running feverishly high, though I couldn't really tell what direction it was going. But I was heartened to see so many black people gathered on a Friday night for a bookstore talk when they could have been doing any number of things -- like going to the movies.
I shouldn't have been so encouraged. After about half an hour the event settled (though that's not really the right word) into a gripe session about my disparagement, or any disparagement, of "Django." People defended the movie as passionately as if it had sprang from their heads. It was empowering, they argued, because it showed slavery so graphically, and wasn't that better than not showing it all, which Hollywood largely does? Wasn't its shock value the point? They (women especially) also effused about the love story between Django and the wife he was seeking to free from a plantation where she'd been sold. When was the last time a black woman experienced such chivalry on screen, they said? Who was I to deny such progress?
I countered that it's not progress when the filmmaker is presenting it all as genre mash-up (slavery, unlike blaxploitation, is not a genre) and a comedy/caper headlined not by slaves or any black characters, but by clever-talking and villainous white men. Not when it's essentially yet another expression of Quentin Tarantino's enduring fascination with gunplay and bad-ass blackness, "Jackie Brown" circa 1858.
People weren't having it. Everything I said disturbed their fantasy of racial revenge and romantic love, a rather odd combination to anybody, perhaps, but a psychologist. The stuff really hit the fan when I commented on the nature of the violence that everybody found so courageous. I said that the violence was indiscriminate and gratuitous and moved me not at all. It both numbed me and hyper-sensitized me to the point where I felt sorry for anybody getting blown away limb by limb, including the white folks.
What, I was sympathizing with white folks? I wasn't happy that they were being mowed down like hogs? What kind of black human was I? It did me no good to say that I am and have always been anti-racist, pro-black, etc. That was far too intellectual a stance for the crowd. One woman in the audience in her seventies said that after years of suffering indignities that included being called "nigger," she was absolutely ecstatic to see white folks getting what they deserved. To be black and to feel anything less than that, she implied, was disloyal. While I strenuously disagreed, it occurred to me that antipathy toward whites was truly something you had to live to appreciate. It's not just a talking point.
That was the most unexpected thing: the level of bloodlust in the room expressed as soul satisfaction that would have outdone Tarantino himself. Over the years I have written a lot about the pain of black people, occasionally tried to make poetry out if it, but I'm here to tell you that much of it isn't poetic. It's primal. That raw wound of slavery was on full display that night in a way it had never been for me. I'm glad to have seen it, though I'm certain most people in the room didn't see the same thing; I think they thought quite the opposite, that they were healed. I'll never change my mind about "Django." But I'll never forget what it has made visible for me last week. Overall, a Friday well-spent.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.