Jamie Foxx as Django and Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz. (Photo credit: Columbia Pictures/Newscom)
Critique and controversy surround Quentin Tarantino’s movie Django Unchained, a phenomena that may increase due to Tarantino’s Oscar win last night. In particular, many lament the depiction of violence in the film. While cinematic violence is a worthy debate topic, it’s ironic that this critique is levied on this movie when innumerable films in the cinematic landscape merit such criticism. Of particular note, however, I have been mulling over the relationship between violence and religion in the film.
The portrayal of white men in American action films speaks to cultural religious beliefs within American culture. White males in the role of the “action hero” embody a messianic persona – one that is roughly consistent with conservative evangelical beliefs in a raptured white Jesus, returning to save believers while exacting vengeful punishment on fallen sinners.
Django challenges this imagery more by locating its protagonist, portrayed by Jamie Foxx, in the role of messianic deliverer. Django functions as a black Messiah in the most explosive period in American history, exacting punishment on a white supremacist culture that has neither come to terms with its sins or acknowledged them but instead misappropriated them on the very people and person (in the form of Django) who has come back to punish them. In this way, Django recalls the theologian Karl Barth’s notion of Jesus as the Judge who was judged in our place.
This inversion of conventional character development is unheard of in American cinematic history. It can also be interpreted as a response to the mythology and utter fabrication of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth Of A Nation”, which casts the “Christian” Klansmen as the heroic protagonists saving “innocent whites” from the dark evil of the American Negro. Arguably, every narrative since the screening of that movie in the White House in 1915 has been a sort of archetype for American cinematic hero narratives.
As a black Messiah, Django challenges long held socio-religious notions of good and evil that are reinforced by the pervasive imagery of avenging white heroes in American cinema. He challenges the very existence of a white Jesus used to justify slavery by inverting the “avenging white Jesus narrative” onto the very culture that has always externalised that evil in the face of the black or brown alien “Other“.
White supremacist culture is confronted with itself and with the idea that their deliverer may not look like them; that the one they have reviled is in fact their ultimate judge, jury and executioner. In the context of the movie, Django functions as a black Messiah in the vein of Ezekiel 25:17: “I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them”.
The “white savior” narrative – so central to American culture – was used to establish, reinforce, and maintain American chattel slavery. Tarantino’s film counters that narrative by creating cognitive dissonance: it unearths the racist dynamics of a society that simultaneously cheers for and yet remains uncomfortable with Django’s violence. Race-neutral critiques concerning Django’s violence abound, but few social commentaries explore what it means to see a black messianic figure in the antebellum era. We avoid the latter task at our own peril – to grapple with the artistic portrayal of Django as a black messiah is to understand something of the social and religious vision that motivated Nat Turner to ignite a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.
PLAY THAT FUNKY SOUL: The Kashmere High School Stage Band, circa 1976.
The new Mark Landsman documentary Thunder Soul may be relying on the glitz of executive producer Jamie Foxx’s name to get attention at the box office, but this magnificent little film about the musical achievements of an all-black Texas high school stage band hardly needs Foxx’s help.
Like a PSA on the lifetime value of music education in secondary schools, Thunder Soul captures the reunion of Kashmere High School’s funk band 35 years later as the alumni get the band back together to perform a tribute concert for their famed band leader and accomplished jazz musician Conrad O. Johnson. “Prof,” as the students call him, served as a father figure, drill sergeant, and part-time life coach, for the group of mainly at-risk African American kids, pushing and inspiring them to grow into award-winning musicians who innovated the world of high school stage band music with their smooth James Brown-inspired sound.
ALL TOGETHER NOW: Conrad “Prof” Johnson conducts the Houtson, Texas, Kashmere High School Stage Band.
Once tapped to be a musician for Count Basie’s touring band, Prof eventually passed on the glamorous lifestyle of professional music, choosing instead to settle into marriage and a quieter life of purpose as an educator for a local high school. Or so he thought. It was at Kashmere High that his creativity blossomed, leading him to craft a catalog of songs for the school band that are still being sampled by contemporary DJs and artists on hip-hop records and pop tunes today.
But it’s Prof’s lasting influence over the students’ lives, not the music industry, that looms largest in the film. Still eager to please the man who taught them so much of what they know, the alumni painstakingly turn the dissonance of decades passed and instruments left untouched into a stirring symphony paying appropriate homage to their 93-year-old professor. In awe of their ability to still play, Prof exclaims almost with a well-deserved wink of ego, “You mean they were taught so well, that they can remember what they did then … and do it?”
The answer is yes. And to hear the alumni speak, many of whom hadn’t touched a trombone or flute in over 30 years, those sacred hours spent in the band room during the 1970s were about more than just instruction on notes and harmony. Prof taught the students that they had the power and potential to play as well as any professional band, if they would only work hard. It was that inspiration that pushed many of the students out of the Fifth Ward of Texas with life sentences to poverty and raised them into adults who ultimately became doctors, lawyers, musicians, and even pastors.
Rhythmic and multi-faceted, the film itself is a bit like jazz — always progressing yet lingering over the notes. Landsman, aided by the phenomenal editing of Claire Didier, maintains the backbeat of the band’s story while weaving in colorful snippets of the Black Power movement, the racial segregation of the south, the cyclic nature of poverty in America, and the charm and intimacy of black families. Whether you love niche funk music or are simply a sucker for the sentimentality of a good underdog tale, Thunder Soul, even without a powerhouse star to headline the movie, is worth your time.
Thunder Soul opens today in Atlanta, Houston, and New York. Check the film’s website to find out when it opens in your area.
The water-cooler reviews are in, and BET’s 2009 awards show has got people talking. Unfortunately, much of the talk is not favorable. Indeed, Sunday night’s show was kind of a mess. But I think we should give BET a little grace. When Michael Jackson died last Thursday, BET completely overhauled the show to weave the King of Pop throughout and accommodate the mass number of celebs wanting to offer tributes. The show was quite literally thrown together. And so, yes, in many instances it looked like it.
To take a show that normally takes six months to plan and totally revamp it in a couple of days was an unenviable but admirable undertaking. Certainly there’s plenty to bash BET about — the network’s shoddy and sometimes downright trashy programming is now legendary.
But perhaps, in this case, we should give BET credit for attempting to pull off the impossible in order to honor one of the Black community’s — and the world’s — greatest entertainers. Some additional thoughts about BET’s show:
Ne-Yo did a phenomenal performance of “The Lady in my Life.”
Jay-Z rocked it with his new single “DOA.”
Joe Jackson sat up front all show long with Al Sharpton — which was weird, to say the least. Don’t we all dislike Joe Jackson because of all he put Michael through as a child? I’m confused …
All of the other celebs who came out of the woodworks for MJ tributes, like New Edition, were totally subpar.
The O’Jays tribute with Tevin Campbell was painful to watch…just a bad performance.
Jamie Foxx was a great host but went a little heavy on promoting his own upcoming tour.
The vignettes spliced between performances and awards offering tributes to MJ were awkward. The celebs shared MJ memories off the cuff, and since they were likely unscripted, the stories were rambling and sentimental, but not well-communicated.
Janet Jackson showed up on behalf of the Jackson family to say “to you, Michael was an icon, but to us, he was family.” It was the most touching moment of the night but lasted about 5 seconds after the show was already running behind 40 minutes.
The whole night was a little low-budget and unrehearsed. But in a way, it was like one big ghetto funeral. People were just there to show their love, raw and uncut. I kind of liked it.
BET has never been one of my favorite networks, but when it announced that it would change its awards show at the eleventh hour, working overtime as a labor of love, to pay tribute to the King of Pop, I had to tune in. And though there were a number of times I wanted to tune out, I did not, hoping that it would get better. I am sad to report that it never did.
I expected BET to honor Michael Jackson last night in a way befitting a King. I expected BET to have a tribute that was thoughtful, meaningful, memorable, and inspirational. I expected to be proud after the show was over and to have my spirits lifted. I expected to see those most influenced by Michael Jackson to collaborate and show an anxiously awaiting world how much Michael Jackson meant to them and their careers. I never expected to be so embarrassed and ashamed at this substandard expression of blackness … ever.
Jamie Foxx’s monologue was terribly inappropriate. Many of his jokes were out of line and just not funny. I understand the notion of celebrating Jackson’s life; but humor, in my estimation, was not the best way to commemorate his life, legacy, and contributions — not this soon at least. His death is too fresh, and too many people were still in the first stages of the grieving process. But I don’t blame his shortcomings on his poor judgment or even on the alcohol he openly admitted to consuming before the show. Rather, I blame the executive team of BET who should have demanded that Foxx’s tone be serious, solemn, and respectful of the Jackson family and millions of adoring fans who were watching the show to process the loss of a musical genius who forever changed the way we view entertainment.
Instead of a video montage of all of the times Jackson appeared on BET, or a montage of all the artists who were heavily and noticeably influenced by Jackson, or even something as simple as a short bio of his life, there were 10-second snippets of Jackson dancing scattered randomly throughout the show. Is this what chairman and CEO Debra Lee was talking about when she said the show would be an ongoing tribute to Jackson throughout the evening’s festivities? I hope she wasn’t referring to the few celebrities who were selected to share their personal encounter with Michael Jackson before the commercial breaks; and I certainly hope she wasn’t talking about the arbitrary and thoughtless statements too many of the artists inserted extemporaneously before they presented or received an award.
Perhaps the most humiliating and embarrassing aspect of the awards show was to witness the disconnect between what Black entertainers said they received from the now late-and-forever-great Michael Jackson and the vulgar, offensive, and tactless lyrics with empty messages of individualism, materialism, misogyny, and self-aggrandizement. My suspicion is that had Michael Jackson been there that night, he would have probably felt more insulted than honored.
CNN reported from the red carpet before the show began. During this special presentation, Danyel Smith, the editor in chief of Vibe magazine, had an exchange with CNN anchor Don Lemon. In summary, Lemon said that many people expressed to him that they had never heard of the BET Awards and admonished him to explain. She replied that everyone knew what the BET Awards were and went on to give them accolades. Regardless of whether she was right or wrong, the international coverage of the first big awards show since Michael Jackson’s untimely passing invited new people to the audience. I, for one, am sorry they were invited. Though there were a few artists who had moving tributes, as a whole, the night’s celebrations were overwhelmingly sloppy, disorganized, distasteful, and unsophisticated. In a word, the 2009 BET Awards was a disappointment.
The BET Awards is just a small piece of its greater programming. The advertisements for new shows that will broadcast in the cable network are indications of the buffoonery that is to come. Personally, I am in favor of starting a campaign to take BET off the air. The network does nothing to edify the Black race and seems more interested in working against the ground we have gained as it relates to a more positive portrayal of Blacks in media.
We have come too far to let one cable network turn us around. I am reminded of the song made popular by the Civil Rights Struggle: “Ain’t gon’ let nobody turn me around!” — especially not self-serving Blacks and media conglomerates who care more about the bottom line than they do about the future of the Black community.
It’s rare that I mention a movie twice, but I would be a total fraud if I didn’t encourage you to at least think about seeing The Soloist. Last week, after getting caught up in Jamie Foxx’s drama with Miley Cyrus, I almost skipped one of the best films released this year. Based on a true story, The Soloist is about Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), who develops an unlikely friendship with a homeless man on Skid Row named Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx). While walking through the park, Lopez discovers Ayers and eventually learns that the musician is a former student of Juilliard who dropped out due to mental illness. I wouldn’t say the film is Oscar-worthy. Having spent time hanging with the homeless in Los Angeles, I was a bit put off by the film’s one-sided depiction of the people on Skid Row as drugged-out, crazy, and violent characters. However, the movie does spark an interesting question of what it means to unconditionally love a friend and the lengths we must go to help someone in need. Check it out, if only to watch a moving recitation of “The Lord’s Prayer” and sweeping shots of life on the streets.
‘Godfather of Gospel’ Passes
The Reverend Timothy Wright passed away on Thursday, April 24th at the age of 61, due to injuries sustained during a devastating car crash last July. That crash killed his 58-year-old wife Betty, as well as his 14-year-old grandson. Known to many as the “Godfather of Gospel,” Wright founded Grace Tabernacle Christian Center in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. The Grammy-nominated singer most recently recorded the live album Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, featuring a song (the title track) written by his late wife. His son David Wright told the New York Daily News he is “glad his suffering is over. He was a great man of God and a great father.” Reverend Al Sharpton, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Governor David Paterson all expressed kind sentiments, calling Reverend Wright a monument and pillar to the community.
Queen of Soul, Ph.D.
She’s been called a living legend, an original diva, and the Queen of Soul. But now Aretha Franklin can add “Doctor” to her long list of titles. On May 24th, Brown University will present her with an honorary doctorate of music for the phenomenal contributions she has made to the music industry. For nearly 50 years and over 40 albums she has been the sound of soul music, and whether she’s singing “Respect,” “Amazing Grace,” or humming “Happy Birthday” while doing the dishes, her voice is the definition of gospel. Of course this isn’t the first time Franklin’s been recognized. In 2005, Franklin was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And who could forget her hat … I mean, her rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration?
And We Still Can’t Remember the Real Winner’s Name
The Carrie Prejean Watch continues. The tall blond who didn’t win the Miss USA Pageant, but who impressed lots of folks — and infuriated others — when she gave a respectful but politically incorrect answer to a question about gay marriage, is featured in a new television campaign launched this week by the National Organization for Marriage. Pageant officials for the Miss USA competition were quick to express their disappointment over her decision to lend her voice to such a “divisive and polarizing issue” while abandoning her platform of the Special Olympics. If their public disapproval wasn’t bad enough, now pageant directors are selling Prejean out by exposing the cosmetic surgery she had six weeks before the Miss USA competition. It’s getting ugly. Actually, out of all the press about Prejean, I found this post at Christianity Today‘s Her.meneutics blog last week to be particularly thought-provoking. The gist of writer Katelyn Beaty’s argument: With the evangelical media’s rush to celebrate Prejean’s defense of traditional marriage, have they conveniently forgotten that the Miss USA competition (unlike Miss America) is primarily driven by how sexy the contestants’ bodies look in their two-piece bathing suits?
The Clark Sisters Keep Bringing It
After serenading comedian Sherri Shepherd on The View last week for her birthday, the Clark Sisters are coming back to the small screen. The Grammy-winning gospel quartet is set to perform “Higher Ground” on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, airing May 5th. The song appears on the new Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration album, an interesting project from EMI Gospel records honoring the impact gospel rhythms have made on all forms of music, from hip-hop to country. The project pairs contemporary artists with popular gospel singers to remake gospel standards like “This Little Light of Mine” and popular radio hits like “A Change is Gonna Come.” Also contributing to the album are Mavis Staples, with singer-songwriter Patty Griffin, and Jon Bon Jovi, who collaborates with the Washington Youth Choir.
The Really Beautiful People
People magazine has released its “Most Beautiful People” list for 2009, and it’s no surprise that Halle Berry is back on the list at #2. Can someone just remove her from the running entirely or give her a lifetime beauty award? She should bow out of every future competition, like when Oprah decided to withdraw her talk show from Emmy consideration after winning every year. Other notable beauties on People‘s list this year are singer Ciara (#4), Slumdog Millionaire star Frieda Pinto (#7), 90210 actor Tristan Wilds (#14), and First Lady Michelle Obama (#12). I’ve always viewed People‘s “Most Beautiful” list as a chance to gauge the world’s current standard of “who’s hot.” But what if the list recognized a higher standard of beauty? Just think, we might get a special issue full of food pantry volunteers or women like sweet Mrs. Winslow from across the street who faithfully prayed for you every day when she saw you jumping rope in your front yard. Ah, but that would be horrible for magazine sales. Anyway, if you were compiling the “Most Beautiful” list, whom would you include?