Black director Spike Lee has been very hostile to Django Unchained.
He said, “I’m not gonna see it. The only thing I can say is it’s disrespectful to my ancestors to see that film.”
His longstanding feud with Quentin Tarantino lies in his belief that the white director has picked racial issues simply because it is cool.
Lee and many others have also condemned the extensive use of the term “nigger”. But this film is set in a racist slave owning society where black people are treated as dirt.
“Nigger” is used as an insult without the associations with hipness that it had in Tarantino’s earlier Jackie Brown.
Tarantino overtly references two strands of popular cinema, Spaghetti Westerns and Blaxploitation movies.
Both radically revitalised existing genres far more sharply than Tarantino’s wisecracking scripts did for the gangster genre in the 1990s.
At their best both forms used popular culture to undermine the system that produced them.
Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite combines the Mexican revolution with Irish Republican politics.
Blaxploitation emerged in the same period and also inspired the young Spike Lee.
Attempts to bring the experience of the black power movement into cinema, such as Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, were soon overtaken in popularity by thrillers like Shaft.
The name of the genre encompasses both the idea of exploitation films for black people, and the speed with which it came to exploit them.
One set of stereotypes of black behaviour was soon replaced with another.
It would be great to see mainstream films about the real black rebels, like Bass Reeves, a former slave who became a marshal or Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti. Both have failed to get funding.
Django Unchained is very much a genre film. But it can’t be blamed for the absence of more engaged historical epics, like the classic Glory.