Sunday, March 31, 2013

Curious Cat Question: Unhand my Culture, Varlet!

After watching Quentin Tarrantino's "Django Unchained", I wondered what discussions had been set-off by Tarrantino's alt-history/revenge fantasy movie. After all, Tarrantino's a white guy doing a movie about blacks in American history; I'm sure this has to stick in someone's craw.

A quick google-check soon pointed me to director Spike Lee's criticism of the movie despite not having seen it, to wit (or tweet): 
American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them. 
(Quick survey question: Is an opinion justified if the person hasn't seen the movie or read the book? Let's also thrown in books like "Fifty Shades of Grey" and "Twilight" into the discussion pot and let simmer for an hour.)

My first thought about this was: would it have made a difference to Spike Lee if a black man had directed the movie? Obviously, the fact that Tarrantino's white was be a sore point. But were there other factors that would make such cultural appropriation of black history in America by a white man despite the movie's satirical, almost absurdist viewpoint-- um, unappropriate? Or is the color of the skin enough?

Ask a question, find the answer. I like the point raised by this review, which wonders why is Tarrantino giving his white audience an "escape hatch" from the historical crimes with the 'Good White Man' as opposed to the more black-and-white "Inglorious Bastards". Would the movie have been better if it was more unforgiving? Given that Tarrantino didn't pull any punches with his anti-Nazi movie "Inglorious Bastards", it's pretty interesting he took this direction with "Django Unchained". 

Personally and after some long thought, I suppose my main problem with the movie is Tarrantino's basis for his alt-western: it's not based on actual history but rather on Movie History, with its obvious influences in spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation films. Think about it: if you're going to present a skewed version of history, maybe your perspective shouldn't be skewed enough to begin with, right? Tarrantino's use of Movie History as the lens to create his own skewed history unfortunately distorts whatever message he's trying to convey to the point that all the images come out looking like they're from Bizarro-World. 

Undoubtedly, questions like these interest me because of concerns raised about writing and cultural appropriation. I've read a bit of the blog Requires Only That You Hate and its intense hatred of Western appropriation, specifically by Paolo Bacigalupi. Here, I thought the parallelism of Tarrantino's situation especially apt: can someone (white, Westerner) not from a particular world (black, Asian) write about that world?

The answer I've heard in return is always: yes, but with respect and understanding. But who's going to judge? What is the standard of respect and understanding? After all, to skew an old saying, one's white man's burden is another white man's escape hatch, right? In Tarrantino's case, was he respectful of the material-- or the history? 

What do you think? 

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