Modern Melting Pot

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Saying You’re Black Doesn’t Make it So!

President Clinton is but Quentin Tarantino isn’t

The Hollywood feud between Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino is more than skin deep.

In a post last year about white folk who claim to be blacker than black folk, I mentioned that disgraced and now imprisoned Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich said in Esquire Magazine: "I'm blacker than Barack Obama. I shined shoes..."

I also mentioned that there must have been some images in Quentin Tarantino’s mind that prompted him to say that he is blacker than Spike Lee. No doubt those images boiled to the surface in Tarantino’s new feature film, “Django Unchained,” in which Tarantino dramatizes his vision of black (and white) people during slavery.

“Pulp Fiction” is the only work by Tarantino that I’ve seen from beginning to end. .” So this is not a film review of “Django Unchained”, but rather a commentary on the image of blackness in the minds of Americans like Blagojevich, Tarantino, and who knows how many others.

Spike Lee said: “I'm not gonna see it (“Django Unchained”). All I'm going to say is that it's disrespectful to my ancestors, to see that film. That's the only thing I'm gonna say. I can't disrespect my ancestors. I can't do it.” I can’t see a film on slavery either by the same mind that created “Pulp Fiction”.

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At both the conscious and subconscious level there is in all of Lee’s work a vision of redemption for both blacks and whites. Shining through all his films is the possibility that the spirit can rise above whatever is happening on earth.  Tarantino’s work seems to take a perverse delight in depicting how people are totally degenerated by what happens to them.

The Wikipedia plot synopsis of “Django Unchained”, Tarantino’s “epic film about slavery,” speaks of “male slaves trained to fight to the death for sport and female slaves forced into prostitution.” These things certainly happened in slavery but I certainly did not want to see Tarantino vision of how these atrocities played out in the lives of a race of people he does not have the spiritual depth to understand.

Quentin Tarantino is not blacker than Spike Lee. Rod Blagojevich is not black because he was once a shoe shine boy; and the dark-skinned people that Tarantino put in “Django Unchained,” would not have any clue about a spiritual way of seeing reality, as blacks in slavery did. 

When a black character in “Pulp Fiction” got sodomized,” I asked: “why did the black character get humiliated that way on screen?  In this film Tarantino’s vision of white people is not exalted either; but would he have scripted such humiliation for Bruce Willis, a white star in the film, playing a white character?

We know that slaves were subjected to extremes of physical violence and humiliation.  Humiliation happens in the world all the time; and for some there is a perverse fascination watching it. Police psychologists say that an extreme example of this fascination is at the heart of rape fantasies and rapes.

I was afraid that watching “Django Unchained,” I’d find myself watching a filmmaker getting perverse satisfaction in depicting the nation’s black ancestors being raped.  To my mind, The Hollywood feud between Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino is about more than race as a skin color. It is a feud between a believer in a spiritual connected universe and a believer that we are all spirits set adrift.

This difference between the two filmmakers can be seen not only in how they depict blackness, but also in how they depict women. It is more than obvious in Lee’s film “She’s Gotta Have It” that he loves the female main character, Nola Darling. In Tarantino “Kill Bill”, a pregnant woman, lies badly wounded at her wedding. She tells a man that she is carrying his baby. The man shoots her in the head. I stopped watching “Kill Bill” at that point.

Lee’s works, ("Do the Right Thing" and "Miracle at St. Anna" are the clearest examples) show that Lee believes that people, both black and white, can be redeemed. Even the crack house scene in “Jungle Fever” is rendered with the possibility of salvation lurking within reach.

In “Red Hook Summer” Lee’s August 2012 film, out on DVD at about the same time that “Django Unchained” is released in theater, Lee shows, more than anything else, how spirituality in black American life has, unfortunately, gotten trapped in church. But in black life it is still very much alive. In the bits and pieces of Tarantino work that I have seen the bleak landscape is totally devoid of any spiritual life.

It is the empty world that comes from Tarantino’s love for what he calls "grindhouse cinema" --Hong Kong martial arts flicks, Japanese samurai movies, blaxploitation films and Italian spaghetti westerns.

Until an associate sent me a review of “Django Unchained”, I had decided to ignore it. I did not want to think of Tarantino perverse delight in making the black characters more degraded than he would make white ones.  I did not want to think of Tarantino’s delight at releasing this story of degradation on Christmas Day.

Blackness is easy to use as a metaphor for human degradation.  Only the mind blessed with grace can see blackness as the wormhole to redemption. It would take an excursion deep into astrophysics and relativity theory to explain the relationship between black and white as a metaphor for spiritual transcendence. Enough said might be in the April 9, 2010 edition of National Geographic News:

“According to a mind-bending new theory, a black hole is actually a tunnel between universes—a type of wormhole. The matter the black hole attracts doesn't collapse into a single point, as has been predicted, but rather gushes out a "white hole" at the other end of the black one, the theory goes.”

This theory gives some scientific support for the black-white metaphor at the basis of all of Lee’s work. Interaction with the African American experience redeems all of Lee’s characters regardless of their race. There is more scientific support for the metaphor in Dark Light Consciousness, by Edward Bruce Bynum Ph.D. The book reveals how the body’s neuromelanin (a black and blackening substance) provides the biochemical connection between human cells and the matrix of primary particles of light  out of which all life is generated.

More on this subject is in my series of posts starting with, “Biochemically Connected to God”. One of these posts, “Good Church” and the Super-Conscious Mind, is fundamentally about how slaves kept from being degraded by slavery.It quotes Black Theologian Howard Thurman’s “The Binding Unity.”

 "The imprisoned self seems to slip outside its boundaries and . . . one becomes an indistinguishable part of a single rhythm, a single pulse. . . One enters through a single door of suffering into the misery of the whole human race with no margin left to mark the place which was one's own. Pain, sorrow, grief, are seen as joy ‘becoming' and life gives a vote of confidence to itself, defining its meaning with a sureness that shatters every doubt concerning the broad free purpose of its goodness,"

To me “The Binding Unity” is about the imprisoned or enslaved human spirit. I will cover the innocent, free-of-church, spirit-in-the-state-of-nature more extensively in my review of “Doctor Bello” by Nigerian-born filmmaker Tony Abulu when it opens across America in February 2012.

As I said in my last post there is a character in Abulu’s film who pleasantly talks to God by talking to plants. The scene is not fantasy but African realism. Quentin Tarantino could use some African realism to heal his vision of what it is to be black.

But he likely has only enough of a hint of spiritual existence to prove, if anything, how little he really understands the blackness that he futilely wants to claim for himself, and which he degrades, probably, because it’s saving grace mocks him as it eludes him.

George Davis is author of the new spiritual spy novel, The Melting Points, about three women pursued by danger as the clockwork universe melts around them. In development is a television series based on his soon-to-be-published nonfiction novel, Branches, which continues the spiritual journey that Alex Haley dramatized in “Roots.”  It continues the journey of America towards becoming an exceptional, multiracial nation.

George Davis is professor emeritus at Rutgers University. His latest book is Until We Got Here.

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