Can Quentin Tarantino Challenge Confederate Nostalgia?

Over on BrowBeat, Debra J. Dickerson suspects that Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a popcorn revenge flick starring Will Smith as an escaped slave out to liberate his wife and punish his former masters, might not do much to change attitudes because white audiences won’t see it, and because turning slavery into a caricature obscures the realities of that hideously peculiar institution:

White America loves itself some Nazi-hating, Apartheid bemoaning, and Communist-bashing, but their Confederate forebears? Their slave-raping relatives? Their lynching great-great-grandfathers who bequeathed them land stolen from blacks? Not so much. I doubt that even Tarantino can pull this off (i.e., get enough white butts into theater seats for a success), but my hat’s off to him for trying. Also, I’m having fun writing dialogue for all the Tarantino devotees devising their excuses for skipping this one…

Among all the other things slavery was, it was absurd and it was cruel in ways that could transcend whips and chains. As an armchair slavery historian, those absurdities and bizarre cruelties floor me, and I long for a filmmaker to plumb those depths. I think of stories like these: A kitchen mammy was trying to use coded talk to signal to her son that she knew his sale imminent. But he was the young master’s personal valet. They were basically brothers and the slave loved his life, travelling, whoring, and gambling with his “charge.” He’d forgotten he was slave, but his mother never did. Finally, Mammy literally had to slap her son upside the head with a frying pan to snap him out of his delusions. I hated myself for laughing, but laugh I did.

More than that, though, I wonder if white audiences who do see the movie will be able to reassure themselves that slavery and less violent but no less virulent forms of discrimination aren’t part of the same bloodline, that they’re not the monsters they see on screen. In a world where people who do racist things are desperate to avoid the label, it feels a bit like giving in to narrow the definition of racism to make it so you have to have held a lash to fall under it. In a sense, movies that turn slaveholding into a cartoon are, in their own way, as unproductive as movies where the intervention of a kindly white person makes everyone around them realize the good intentions they just didn’t know they had: the former allows audiences to narrow the definition of prejudice so they can feel it’s gone, while the latter at least acknowledges that maybe it’s still there. It’s harder to yank up the roots of institutions than to take a match to the newsprint comic villains are printed on.