Coonskin: Redux

What I find surprising in the critical and personal responses I’ve heard to Django Unchained is the unwillingness to discuss what notions of race the film traffics in. What is Tarantino’s vision of blackness and whiteness and how does his aesthetic mode of borrowing from every movie he’s ever seen contribute to his notion of race, cultural difference, and racism?

The feud between Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee is one point of entry for discussing Django Unchained. Lee refuses to see the film arguing that “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.”

At the heart of Lee’s critique, and much of the debate over Django Unchained are the questions of historical appropriation — who has the right to tell particular stories — and the question of realism. The latter question really asks, how can we tell particular stories? Is it disrespectful, irresponsible, or racist to depict slavery as a spaghetti western or in an unreal fashion?

I find it interesting that the question of race and the representation of racial difference always seems to gravitate around notions of realism. First of all, these forms of representation are haunted by the question of whether race, itself, is real. If we agree that race is not, of course, a scientific reality, then what is it? Secondly, what forms of cultural representation can do justice to the very real historical and contemporary practices of racism without affirming race itself as somehow real?

This is a particularly prescient problem given what appears to be a new mutability of both notions of race and racism.

I suggest that Django Unchained is haunted by this paradox of racial realism: it wants to assert the reality of racism but slides into the trap of representing race itself as real and not a series of cultural and discursive practices that emerge in response to racist practice. I find it interesting that this paradox of racism seems to haunt avant garde and postmodern cultural production — this is perhaps spurred on by postmodernism’s own anxieties about an already-ephemeral realism. Steve Reich’s “Come Out” seems to grapple with the same problems…

Ralph Bakshi’s Coonskin contains many of the same contradictions and tensions as Django Unchained and offers an early instance of a white writer & director struggling with representing the contradictions of race within a postmodern mode of representation. Coonskin attracted much of the same criticism as Django, particularly as a white director represented / parodied / satirized the reality of blackness in America:

Harlem … Harlem … Harlem

Al Sharpton and other members of CORE protested the film’s release, arguing that it was a racist depiction of blackness that trotted out all the old stereotypes of black people under the guise of irony and pastiche. Elaine Parker explained that Coonskin “depicts us as slaves, hustlers and whores.”

In a strange twist of racial ventriloquism, Bakshi wrote the opening song for Coonskin and the film begins with Scatman Crothers performing the song. The song is a toothless attempt to parody the very stereotypes that it ends up enforcing:


I’m a minstrel man
The cleaning man
The poor man
The shoeshine man
I’m a nigger man
Watch me dance

How do we begin to extricate irony, authenticity, racism, parody, pastiche from a film like Coonskin? The form of the film suggests that authenticity is impossible, that we all speaks in multiple fragmented, contradictory voices. Yet the content of the text suggests the exact opposite: that blackness is there to be spoken about, assessed, measured, worried-about, policed, and regulated by white observers and commentators. Furthermore, is Bakshi’s atttempt to represent blackness, both in this song and in the film, mere ventriloquism, a middle-aged white guy attempting to speak in the subaltern voice of cool young black men? Or is there something else at work here, an affirmation of a particular concept of race that, despite its ironic stance, still affirms old stereotypes of blackness.

In what ways, then, is Django Unchained, participating in the same affirmation of singular, authentic blackness that I suggest Coonskin traffics in? Certainly there is Tarantino’s addiction to the N-Word, a word he seems to enjoy using for its badass effect. i.e.: you say it = you are a badass.

For Tarantino the use of the word is not merely a means for him to gain access to a regulated world of badasses and men, but it also seems to signify authentic blackness. Is Tarantino, in this scene, attempting to signify that despite his whiteness and his undeniable geekiness, that he is ‘down’? That his use of the N-Word, his friendship with The Rza and his aspiration to be the world’s first 50-year-old white male Wu Wear model, signifies some kind of Tarantino-brand of authentic blackness?

Is Tarantino struggling with this paradox of racial realism — using anti-realist cultural forms (that throw the very distinction between representation and reality into question) to present narratives that insist upon the realism of particular notions of race?? If so, what is the position of the black subject rendered ‘real’ in his films and of the white subject who writes / enjoys these films?

Tarantino on writing his characters: “I’m now those people. I’ve learned more about them. I am them. They are going their own way. And I might have some places I want them to go. Usually they take their time about getting there. But sometimes they get there.”

At once a statement about his method for writing his characters while also suggesting the overlap between Tarantino and his characters… I’m now those people … I am them…

In Tarantino’s recent films, particularly Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds he plays within this paradox of racial realism. He attempts to navigate the paradox through his attention to acts of performance and by insisting on the film as a space of performance itself. In Inglorious Basterds he breaks the fourth wall of film representation, implicating the audience in the pleasure they take from watching Nazis being gunned down all while showing them the face of Jewish vengeance. These meta-narrative moments in Inglorious Basterds force the audience to reflect on their own activity of happily consuming images of violence without necessarily suggesting any alternative to these images.

Similarly, in Django Unchained performance is a central element in Django’s quest. He plays a valet and a black slaver and it is Django’s ability to perform these roles that enables him to rescue his wife from slavery and enact revenge upon the plantation slavery system. Thus Tarantino seems aware, in the structure of his narrative, that identity is about performance. Django outsmarts Monsieur Candy and others because of his ability to transform his identity and project different images of blackness to a believing white audience. Is this incorporation of acts of performance into the narrative a means out of this paradox of racial realism that was unavailable to Bakshi?

In another sense though, I argue that despite the importance of performance within Tarantino’s narratives, blackness remains a privileged sign of alterity, difference, and badass-ness. Django is able to perform different identities within a range of possibilities but this range remains circumscribed by a conception of ‘real blackness’ that Tarantino has obviously drawn from the Blaxploitation movies he loves. Django is not free to transform his identity at will but is able to perform particular identities that align with a white audience’s conception of blackness — both in terms of the white audiences he encounters in the film and the audiences that will watch Django Unchained. Tarantino traffics in particular depictions of black people that he alleges are at once realistic, in that they are not racist stereotypes, but that are in fact shaped by his conception of what constitutes real blackness.

The fundamental trouble with Django Unchained is not merely that it decontextualizes slavery, transforming hundreds of years of bondage into a videogame-like shoot-em-up narrative, nor that it is historically inaccurate, nor that it depicts every slave as silent, submissive, and subservient, nor that it neatly and inaccurately represents the transformation of the black subject from slave to capitalism entrepreneur, nor that the images of brutal violence against black bodies do not merely admonish slavery but become a component of pleasure in a broad spectrum of stylized, fetishized and generally cool violence in the film. Of course these are problems.

The fundamental problem with the film, however, is that it cannot escape this paradox of racial realism that attempts to represent some ‘core’ or ‘reality’ of what it means to be black that ends up reproducing the very racist stereotypes that the film claims to counter. Despite Tarantino’s aesthetic achievements, he is unable to disrupt the fundamentally racist claim that there is such a thing as real blackness and that it is fundamentally different than whiteness.

Paul Gilroy has discussed the transformation in racism from the “crude biologism” of phrenology to a “new culturalism” that treats race as a form of cultural difference while smuggling old conceptions of racial difference and racial hierarchy in through the back door. I suggest that this is new culturalism is at work in Django Unchained. As with Spielberg’s Lincoln black people in Django Unchained do not speak in their own voices but rather reflect back a performed version of blackness that does little to disrupt concepts of racial difference. Indeed in both films black people are primarily talked about, discussed, worried over and instructed by white actors. Tarantino’s film suggests a number of possibilities for employing narrative to disrupt the paradox of racial realism but he never really achieves this within the film.

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6 Responses to Coonskin: Redux

  1. Acclamation of the Fiends says:

    “The fundamental problem with the film, however, is that it cannot escape this paradox of racial realism that attempts to represent some ‘core’ or ‘reality’ of what it means to be black that ends up reproducing the very racist stereotypes that the film claims to counter.”

    That’s an apt description of much of today’s “anti-racist” discourse.

    “he is unable to disrupt the fundamentally racist claim that there is such a thing as real blackness and that it is fundamentally different than whiteness.”

    First off, we are now trafficking in projections placed upon the film by the viewer, not the film itself. Perhaps instead of “the film” or “he,” these statements should instead say “My viewing experience.”

    Second, the “fundamentally racist claim” described above is a viewpoint that is dogmatically embraced by progressives while being rejected by many moderate conservatives and liberals.

  2. Inflatable Ideals says:

    First off, the idea that Tarantino is, in his quest to “become” his black characters (as quoted in Barret’s piece), unable to escape the fallacy of suggesting that they are inherently and *irreducibly* different from white people is not an especially subjective statement that needs to be qualified by phrase “in my opinion.” It is a general statement about the way Tarantino renders black characters. No one asks other film critics to qualify their observations in that way, so why ask for that here?

    Second, what the hell does your stereotype-ridden statement about the “dogmatic embrace” of progressives (look, “extremists”!) and the “rejection” of “moderate” (hey, look, the normative viewpoint!) conservatives and liberals have to do with anything Barret has said? To see Django Unchained is to have an inkling of what Barrett means whether one agrees with him or not, but how is it relevant or ever fair to assert that a group of people who fall into a progressive, liberal or conservative camp always feel the same way on every issue, let alone with the same intensity? Talk about a red herring.

    • Acclamation of the Fiends says:

      Of course it’s subjective. The fact that you don’t think it is reveals why it’s good to point it out. It’s not a statement about the way Tarantino renders black characters, it’s a statement about the way these characters function within a discourse that is framed and guided by constructs brought to the table by the author. And relying on phrases like “he is unable to escape the fallacy of suggesting…” is a way of coyly insinuating something problematic via rhetorical cleverness that would result in an immediate and credible denial if presented in a straightforward manner. It’s a favorite strategy of fundamentalist preachers, too.

      Articles like this legitimize concepts of racial difference as much as (and often more than) the texts they purport to explain. These deconstructive tactics can work in any direction, and when the same analyses are applied to the practicioners they often reveal some very disturbing ideological tropes at play. And sometimes they are merely benign excercises in moral authoritarianism. Does the author of this article think that “blackness” and “whiteness” are legitimate concepts or not? It appears to depend on the point being made.

      As for the “stereotype-ridden statement” you have such a problem with, insert “many” before “progressives” and the problem is efficiently solved. Your “always feel the same way on every issue” red herring is a straw man. Half a century ago an aspiration to “color-blindness” (which is the inversion of that “fundamentally racist claim”) was a progressive ideal; today it is considered by progressives – oops, many progressives – to be a cynical ploy to maintain oppression. There may be a legitimate critique at the heart of this, but unfortunately the groupthink echo chamber has led to some seriously dysfunctional and retrogressive messages that are often strangely resonant with those of militant white supremacy, but reaching a much different audience.

      • I appreciate this healthy debate and am thankful for your responses to my article. I take issue with the latest claims however that “Articles like this legitimize concepts of racial difference as much as … the texts they purport to explain” and that “These deconstructive tactics can work in any direction.”

        Firstly, I don’t necessarily see what I am doing as deconstruction. Instead I think this is a form of close reading of a film and trying to understand the notions of race that the film represents. There are deconstructive elements in my reading but I would describe this piece as far more of a critical race analysis of film than some kind of attention being paid to sliding signifiers or infinite chains of meaning. Perhaps though you are referring to the second commentator.

        Secondly, I don’t see how this critique legitimizes racial difference. Your question, “Does the author of this article think that “blackness” and “whiteness” are legitimate concepts or not?” does not “depend on the point being made” but instead on what you mean by “legitimate concepts”. Do I think that blackness and whiteness constitute some kind of atomic biological difference that segments human beings into meaningful categories of difference? Of course not. Do I think that there is no such thing as race and that the cultural, political and economic ramifications of race and racism can just be ignored? Of course not.

        The discussion of ‘what is race’ is obviously a huge and complicated one, but what I am trying to get at here is that despite the play of form in Tarantino’s work — his own deconstructive tendencies — race remains fixed and constant. In other words, where I argue that race exists as material (not biological) reality, cultural concept and performance, he suggests that it exists in a far more stable and identifiable way in his movies. Thanks again for your thoughts.

      • Acclamation of the Fiends says:

        shwarmability: Thanks for taking the time to respond.

        “Do I think that blackness and whiteness constitute some kind of atomic biological difference that segments human beings into meaningful categories of difference? Of course not. Do I think that there is no such thing as race and that the cultural, political and economic ramifications of race and racism can just be ignored? Of course not.”

        This distinction is largely irrelevant these days. Most contemporary discourses on race, including problematic ones, occur within the parameters of the second statement, not the first. This distinction largely exists to provide cover for racialized arguments by situating them in the second, while accusing the target texts and representations of being situated (either secretly or unconsciously) in the latter. It’s a rhetorical ploy. If “blackness” and “whiteness” can be considered commensurate to “race” (and I don’t see why it can’t be), then these statements say less than they appear to and they do not exist in harmony with other statements made in the article.

        “where I argue that race exists as material (not biological) reality, cultural concept and performance…”

        In my circle of experience, most of the racist attitudes I have personally witnessed (and fallen prey to myself) are derived from perceived differences of precisely this kind, not from a belief in “atomic biological difference.”

        “he suggests that it exists in a far more stable and identifiable way in his movies”

        I don’t know what kind of a scale one could use to measure this distinction. I suspect that his ideas about race are not so different from your own.

        I am reminded of a critique of West Side Story in which the author complained that the Jets were presented as “strong, dynamic and healthy” while the Sharks were portrayed as “greasy” and “skinny” and “criminal and barbaric” (these are the author’s actual words to describe the representations), and that this reflected the filmmakers’ racist attitudes towards Puerto Ricans. Having previously watched the film without having these reactions myself, I could not help but wonder who was really supplying the racist attitudes being put on display in the critique.

        His recklessness has little to do with you, of course, except as an example of the dangers inherent in unchecked “critical race analysis.” These days one can go to “anti-racist” message boards and post strategically framed commentary that is overtly representative of white supremacist attitudes and yet be greeted with a chorus of nods and amens. People have been conditioned to accept or reject arguments on the basis of the framing, not the content. This is common across spheres and ideologies, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less problematic.

  3. Acclamation of the Fiends says:

    One correction: where I said “…while accusing the target texts and representations of being situated (either secretly or unconsciously) in the latter” I meant to say “…in the former.”

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