Slave Ownership As Seen Through Roots

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This may surprise you, but slavery is still a pretty hot-button topic in America. Despite being in a “Post-Obama” America, most people still have a hard time taking an objective look at the slave trade that existed roughly between the mid-1700’s till the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. And this is for good reason: we’re still suffering the effects of it. African Americans still lag behind their white peers economically. Culturally, we still deal with many of the hang ups that began in slavery (anti-intellectualism, self-hatred, etc). It often feels as if the chains of slavery have loosened, but not broken.

This is evident in mainstream film as well: most works dealing with the period have to be so weighed down in sentiment that they have a hard time saying something productive. Surprisingly, despite being created when the Civil Rights movement was still very prominent America, Alex Haley’s Roots (1977) is one of the few even-handed portrayals of slavery. For some background, Roots was a miniseries that ran on ABC for six episodes. It was based on a (loosely) historical novel by Haley which follows his direct ancestors from Africa to his present day.

The series was enormously successful, winning 9 Emmys, being nominated for 28 others, and to this day being in the top ten most successful series of all time. What’s so striking about the series to me is that despite mainstream success, it actually makes a subtle and nuanced commentary on slavery. Granted, there’s tasteful sentiment, but along with that we have characters that elucidate aspects of the slave trade.

Of particular note in Roots is the governing structure of slave owners. Any major industry or organization needs varying roles in order to sustain itself. You just can’t have accountants dealing with your legal problems or your human resource manager doing location scouting. This extends to institutions as well. For example, most major religions thrive due to both casual and devoted followers. The zealousness of devotees maintains structure while fair-weather followers allow for numbers. Slavery was supported by both division of labor and sentiment, with those who owned slaves rarely overlapping with those who actually worked with slaves. In Rootsthis is best exemplified by the first slave owner and overseer that we meet, John Reynolds and Ames.

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Reynolds (seen above) is first introduced buying Kunta Kinte (the protagonist for the first three episodes). The first thing we get from the guy is that he depends heavily on his house slave – Fiddler –  since HE’S the one who actually scouts Kunta as a good slave. He’s also kind of smug. On the way back to his plantation, he has Fiddler put new shoes on his horses. When Fiddler rationally asks why the task needs doing in the middle of the road, he states “The beast is property…a wise man always takes care of his horses and his slaves “. What sage wisdom coming from guy lying down while eating an apple.

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Even worse, he leaves Fiddler alone with Kunta on the same road. Fiddler rationally brings to his attention that two unattended slaves could lead to them being viewed as runaways (which would be costly for the slaves and Reynolds). Reynolds’ retort? ” Then i wouldn’t take too much time shoeing that horse if i were you “, followed by a dickish grin.

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The demeanor of Reynolds is very similar to another douchebag superior: Bill Lumbergh in Office Space (1999).

In the Google eBook Reading the Everyday (2005), social historian Joe Moran postulates that Lumbergh’s non-confrontational phrasing (‘Uh, great, yeah, listen, I’m going to have to go ahead and ask you to) “masks the reality of management coercion“. That guy HAS to do what Lumbergh tells him to do, no matter how he phrases it. Office Space‘s satirical tone means that Lumbergh attempts to obscure this are hilariously unenthusiastic, he doesn’t even wait for employees to respond to his cordialities before making his “requests”.

Likewise, Reynolds owns Fiddler, so there’s no need for him to have a dialogue with him. Reynolds is masking the realities of slavery by affecting a paternal tone towards Fiddler. In the horseshoeing scene, Fiddler is making a valid, mature point about the danger for Reynolds’ “property”, but, like an aloof father, he has a casually dismissive reaction. This is similar to how Lumbergh never acknowledges his employees’ desires when giving orders. Granted, whereas Peter from Office Space is merely a beleaguered employee, Fiddler is a slave. In a modern office setting, there are checks and balances to make sure that superiors aren’t callous towards their subordinates. Even simply cursing at an employee can make a labor lawyer’s ear perk up in America. For his own protection, Lumbergh has to at least make some effort to be polite. Slaves had no such protection, so Reynolds could literally have just told Fiddler to shut the fuck up both times he contested him. So why did he engage in shallow banter? I would wager to guess it’s because Reynolds DOESN’T think its shallow. He thinks that their paternal relationship is actually genuine. He really does believe that he “takes care of his horses and slaves“, as he claimed earlier.

Reynolds confirms this perspective later when he has conversation with his family and Ames about slavery.  He incredulously asks Ames if he does not believe in “the natural ability for the white men to dominate the black“. For him, slavery is the natural way of things. Racial hierarchy was a large component of white support for black enslavement. Thinkers of the time such as Frenchman Arthur Gobineau believed that blacks existed at the bottom of the racial totem pole, even if they did have some positive traits. As such, they thought slavery couldn’t be thought of as detrimental. Hell, many thought it was BENEFICIAL for blacks to be enslaved if it meant they can get some positive influence from whites.

What’s intriguing about the character of Reynolds is that the series takes a surprising interest in him as a character outside of being a slaveholder. When he returns home after buying Kunta, we get a family scene that wouldn’t be out of place in The Brady Bunch

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The scene sets up his very charming relationship with his family. He’s not afraid to be silly with his daughters and is affectionate towards his wife, constantly referring to her as “my love”. This image of a idyllic family structure is challenged during Reynolds slavery argument with Ames and his brother. While Reynolds is engaging in the debate about his confidence in white superiority, there are several conspicuous cuts to his brother and his wife looking at each other in a…friendly manner.

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This obvious eye-fucking is not a throwaway moment: it’s later revealed that not only have the two been engaged in an affair, her youngest child is a product of it. What’s important to remember is that this occurs DURING Reynolds’ conversation with Ames (Reynolds is sitting down)

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At any time, Reynolds could’ve just looked over and thought “that looks suspicious”. What’s even worse is that when Reynolds does see them flirt with each other, he states that his brother is a ladies man in an offhand manner. Even when reality stares Reynolds in the face, he’s too fucking stupid to realize it. Years later, after Kunta has already attempted to runaway and has been insubordinate for a decade, Reynolds STILL trusts him to leave the plantation to work for a neighbor. Why? Because Kunta promised he wouldn’t run away, and why would an infinitely-indentured servant with a history of escapes break a promise like that?

As with Calvin Candie and his french fetish in Django Unchained (2013), these aren’t necessary elements of the plot, but it illuminates Reynolds’ worldview. A wealthy, comfortable man like Reynolds doesn’t have to question much about his existence, so he doesn’t. It’s easy for him to have trust in the fidelity of his wife and his slaves, even when a quick spot-check would reveal why he shouldn’t. His feelings dictate his relationships and not logic. Reynolds could be thought of as the “clueless” buffer that made up a good chunk of slave owners, who were more ignorant than malicious. Most cultures believe that they have a degree of superiority to someone, Americans just had the unfortunate benefit of being able to institutionalize that perception. Personally, I had a hard time hating Reynolds when I first saw this series, since he just seemed like a bumbling dad who happened to live during time when you could buy slaves. He actually treats most of the slave characters decently (in comparison to his contemporaries). He’s still a smug jerk, but it once again feels like a product of his sheltered upbringing. Unfortunately, his ignorance (as representative of the country’s at the time) allows for slavery to thrive, as otherwise most would hesitate to be party to the enslavement of those they consider equals.

The thing is, not everyone could have been as ignorant as Reynolds. While slavery has always been a thriving business, the sheer quantity of African-American slavery required more work to maintain as an institution. You needed someone to turn men into slaves. This work needed those who understood the underwriting of slavery and could counterbalance morons like Reynolds. And in Roots, that man is Ames.

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The first mention of Ames establishes him as a foil to Reynolds:  at one point Fiddler reasons that Reynolds’ care is what keeps slaves from running away, but Reynolds corrects him as Ames believes it’s “fear of the whip” that keeps them in line. Fiddler notes that Ames is a very different man then Reynolds.

Part of that difference we see is that he’s much more pragmatic than Reynolds: when Kunta is brought to the plantation, he recognizes that Reynolds shouldn’t entrust him with regular slave duties since he hasn’t been broken in. Whereas Reynolds has a much more fanciful relationship with the slaves due to his naivete, Ames is much more wary of them. What’s funny is that it isn’t due to racism, quite the opposite actually. Ames KNOWS blacks aren’t inherently inferior, which is why he cautions Reynolds during their debate to not underestimate them.

The film gives some backstory to explain Ames’ worldview: before becoming an overseer, he was an indentured servant for 7 years. Despite the common assumption that all slaves were of Afro-origin, there were several colonies that took slaves of Anglo-origin (Virginia, Massachusetts, Barbados, New York, just to name a few). Scotsmen like Ames were particularly easy targets as they were vastly poorer than other Englishmen and thus could be bought and sold without much recourse. Slave owners (and slaves themselves) often treated black slaves BETTER than white ones because they lacked the paternal relationship that whites built up with blacks (which led to the creation of the term ” white trash “). With all this in mind, it makes sense why he states to Reynolds that “slaves aren’t born, they’re made“, which makes his acts in the series all the more cruel.

In case you weren’t aware, Ames is responsible for the series most famous scene, where Kunta Kinte is beaten until he accepts his slave name. The episode builds to this moment earlier on, when Ames himself recognizes why Kunta won’t accept his new name. Reynolds and his brother believe that if Kunta is as smart as Ames says he is, he should be able to learn it, but Ames claims that BECAUSE he’s smart, he won’t accept his name. As a former slave, he recognizes that one of the first steps to becoming an inferior is giving up your identity. Oddly enough, Ames is one of the few characters (without even including other slaves) who recognizes the kind of man Kunta is.

Notice how different his manner of speaking is compared to guys like Reynolds and Lumbergh. Ames makes no attempt to hide “the reality of management coercion” and instead speaks to them with direct brutal assertion. Rather than employing defusing humor like Reynolds (“Then i wouldn’t take too much shoeing that horse if i were you“), he uses hostile innuendo: “If you don’t understand my meaning, i’ve got a dictionary at the butt end of this whip that’ll make my meaning clear .” He also, unlike Reynolds, knows when slaves are fucking with him, not accepting the excuses Fiddler gives for Kunta’s insubordination. Nor does he seem to fall for Kunta’s faux earnestness at the end of the scene (once again, in contrast to the later scene where he pulls the same act on Reynolds). Ames sees Kunta as an equal and therefore knows he has to be broken severely.

Most viewers would probably agree that Ames is one of the most despicable character in the series. That isn’t just due to his torture of Kunta, but also the fact that he’s perfectly aware of what he’s doing. ” Modern wisdom ” dictates that racism, and most  of what results from it, is a result of ignorance. We see here that while ignorance does account for several actors, a sizable amount were just taking advantage of the opportunities of slavery. Working-class whites were able to get jobs that allowed them some power, which wasn’t possible without a slave workforce. The series even acknowledges that Africans themselves were the biggest suppliers of slaves.

For many, slavery was just an economical choice, not a racial one. As Ames himself points out, “was a slave for 7 years and got my freedom, but in 7 years a nigger will still be black.” Blacks couldn’t reintegrate into society, making them the perfect engineered underclass. It just made SENSE to use them as slaves from a fiscal perspective. And as dark as that sounds, that’s how the horrors of black slavery began: with a fiscal decision. Ames represents the opportunistic spirit of slavery, which is what kept it alive for so long. Combined with the fanciful worldview of men like Reynolds’, American slavery became an institution that continues to weigh heavy on America.

For more posts on African American race relations:

Django Unchained: Reflections on Calvin Candie

Black Masculinity in Narrative Media Part 1: Cornball Brothers

Black Masculinity in Narrative Media Part 2: Black Supermen

Black Masculinity in Narrative Media Part 3: Noble Savages

 

Black Masculinity in Narrative Media Part 3: Noble Savages

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If you haven’t, read the first two parts in the series, “Cornball Brothers” and “Black Supermen”

While black male caricatures have vacillated heavily over the years,  some have stuck more than others. The most prevalent ones refer to black men’s “badassery” (I missed out on that gene). This has roots in the slave trade where “big black bucks” often got attention from slave owners due to their strength and stamina. In the same way a pet owner can feel a sense of pride in a pet’s prowess, slave owners were able to feel a sense of pride in what their slaves did. It didn’t help that blacks were also bred as chattel by forced mating, which caused whites to associate them with “bestial” sexuality. While these attributes furthered the separation of slaves and owners (and thus lessened slaves’ humanity), it also created an odd sort of respect towards the slaves. Everyone wants physical and sexual prowess, even if it is due to circumstance. As I mentioned in my reflections on Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, black male fetishism exists because of these perceived strengths. And it actually makes a lot of sense: the often-invoked narrative of the “negro’s journey” is a more “American” tale than actual white Americans; a group of people under the thumb of an oppressive government eventually break free and forge their own identity. Sounds familiar?

Americans’ collective pride is commonly attributed to our perserverance, adaptability, and boldness. We frame our progenitors as romantic warrior-kings, not politicians or ambassadors. America LOVES tough rebels, it’s how we were born. Once African-Americans became more prevalent in media, they became perfect racial shorthand for badass rebels due to their history.

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Most attribute the first “badass” portrayals of African-Americans to 70’s “blaxpoitation” films. These films were defined by the presence of all black casts in mostly action or crime dramas. Most of these protagonists were anti-heroes (due to their propensity for violence and promiscuity), but also could be considered “noble savages” which (according to Wikipedia) “expresses the concept of an idealized indigene, outsider, or “other”. The most common target of this trope has been Native Americans, who’s virtues were praised by Benjamin Franklin and have been romanticized in films such as Dancing With Wolves (1990)and The Last of the Mohicans (1992). Unlike Native Americans , modern African Americans’ are romanticized for their urban prowess: in the same way that the traditional “noble savage” embodies an earthy power, the black equivalent has adapted to the urban jungle; thus developing street smarts, comfort with violence, and sexual bravado. As such, many of these films established the locale before anything else, examples including Super Fly (1972), Black Caesar (1973)and of course, Shaft (1971).

Even films that didn’t place in the city ( or even the appropriate time period ) had a modern funk soundtrack to generate the “urban” miasma anyway, like the film Boss Nigger (1974) which is a western.

Probably the biggest element of this archetype is it’s intense sexual power. Before blaxpoitation films, the only times mainstream media alluded to black male’s sexuality was to demonize it, most horrifically shown in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation (1915) where a black Union soldier attempt at raping a white woman leads to her jumping off a cliff. If that were Shaft, the only place that white woman would have jumped into was his leopard printed bed. The ultimate threat of black male autonomy that Birth of A Nation alluded to was the corruption of the white race by black rapists. Black male sexuality was a threat to whites, which helped create a mystique among some women about what’s so “wrong” about it. This was helped by more attractive black figures in mainstream media like athletes and actors. This made viable the “romantic” black heroes we see in blaxpoitation films, who had the “terrifying” sexual aspects of previous characters, but in a more attractive way. The film considered the first blaxpoitation film is Sweet Sweetback’s Badassssss Song (1971) (and yes,that’s spelled right), which centers on the titular sex performer Sweetback attempting to go to Mexico after interfering with police brutality. Or at least that’s what Peebles claims it’s about; i’d call it an overly long porn movie.

sweet5pThe character of Sweetback is such a sexual dynamo that his first sexual experience is as a fourteen year old boy being propositioned by a hooker (for FREE,mind you) and his large penis and prowess leads her to dub him “Sweetback”. As you can see in the picture above, even white women aren’t immune to his charms. What’s funny is that he has sex with the white woman to actually gain the support of the biker gang surrounding them. One could argue that the spectacle he creates for the audience in-universe represents the spectacle blacks in this genre created for the American audience. Of course blacks were happy to see romantic protagonists, but it’s important to remember that these were mainstream films that whites saw as well (not to mention these films were almost entirely directed by whites). Why these audiences enjoyed these portrayals has been controversial for years: was black masculinity being celebrated or, as the genre’s title insinuates, being exploited in the same way it was during slavery? Was Sweetback a performer or a prostitute?

The notion of “exploitation” has always been a bit murky. Romanticizing a race puts them in a positive light but also caricaturizes them. Portraying East Asians as skilled in math turns them into two-dimensional cartoons and ignores the nuances of their culture. But at the same time, aren’t we supposed to celebrate these differences? It is an important part of East Asian culture to be skilled in math so shouldn’t that be acknowledged?

In the 19th century, the theatrical tradition of “blackface” (where white men made up their faces to appear African American) was at it’s highest.

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For some reason, a lot of people found this kind of offensive

Blackface performances went beyond just make up and involved vaudevillian comedy and upbeat singing and dancing (as seen here). This popularized the “ever-jovial shine” stereotype which persisted until guys like Malcolm X started scaring white people. This form of art is almost unanimously denounced by the African American community, to the point where any white man who puts on brown makeup is immediately given negative attention, as actor Ted Danson found out in regards to his controversial award show outfit at the roast of Whoopi Goldberg.

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One of the most famous practitioners of this art was Al Jolson (pictured above). One would assume Jolson would have no respect for African Americans due to his routines, but reality suggests the opposite. In Al Jolson: A Biography (2003), he describes his love of blackface was because it “gave [him] a sense of freedom and spontaneity he had never known“. He was also one of the first non-black civil rights supporters back in 1911, openly fighting theater restrictions against black attendance. Even if it was an affectation for the sake of whites, much of early African American culture was shaped by enthusiastic song and dance.  The slaves often enjoyed it as much as the owners, hence why it was adapted into art forms like jazz and ragtime. Jolson, a Russian Jew who knew the hardships of discrimination, took solace in the exuberant method of coping that blacks developed. Film historian Eric Lott feels as if this attitude pertained to other blackface performers as well:

For the white minstrel man to put on the cultural forms of ‘blackness’ was to engage in a complex affair of manly mimicry…. To wear or even enjoy blackface was literally, for a time, to become black, to inherit the cool, virility, humility, abandon, or gaité de coeur that were the prime components of white ideologies of black manhood.”

Like blackface performances, blaxpoitation films allowed for an audience to “put on the face” of black manhood Lott alludes to. The strengths and struggles of the heroes become our own and we immediately recognize them. Who doesn’t want to “stick it to the man”? Who doesn’t want women to lust after them? This sentiment carries over to modern media as well, primarily in hip hop music. Just as whites reveled in the abandon of blackface, suburban whites get the chance to revel in a world they fear yet wish they were “strong” enough to live in. Does this kind of art pander to the lowest common denominator? Pretty much. But what is art if not a way to connect people together? Is it the best thing in the world that the first black person people think of is 50 Cent? No, but at least it’s something that brings African Americans into the mainstream. At one point blacks weren’t even hired to be in film (Birth of A Nation had whites play blacks, for example). As much as I bristle at filmmakers like Tyler Perry and Spike Lee, they are at least getting some amazing black actors a chance to become household names. And this was partially due to the “big black bucks” and “ever-jovial shines” of Hollywood’s past.

For most posts on Afro American History in Media:

Black Masculinity In Narrative Media Part 1: Cornball Brothers

Black Masculinity In Narrative Media Part 2: Black Supermen

Django Unchained: Reflections on Calvin Candie

Slave Ownership As Seen Through Roots

For those who would care enough to buy it, there’s a great documentary titled White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books which inspired some of this post and the previous one. You can find it here:

http://newsreel.org/video/WHITE-SCRIPTS-BLACK-SUPERMEN

Black Masculinity in Narrative Media Part 2: Positive Discrimination

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See, it’s not enough for the new black kid on the team to be just as competent as everyone else on the team, oh no. He has to be Super Negro and beat the snot out of everybody else in the entire gymnastics world“— The Agony Booth‘s recap of the Mister T episode “Mystery of the Golden Medallion”.

To read the first part of the series,”Cornball Brothers”, go here  . For the third part, “Noble Savages”, go here

Post-Civil Rights Movement, many writers realized that African Americans were given a pretty bad shake when it came to cultural depictions. They were at best benign pets and at worst, savages. As such, many tried to rewrite the image of blacks in the media through “ positive discrimination ”. Whites (particularly heterosexual male WASPs) are independent entities in the minds of most Americans. The default audience is white, therefore whiteness has become the “non-race” of America. Race was only pondered when whites came upon others who were not them. This is why many misguided youths often want to appropriate culture from other races in order to be part of a “cause” so they can feel distinguished in some way (a phenomenon dating back to the first ” hipsters ” during the rise of jazz). Because whites have no “culture”, their flaws are viewed as individual and not representative of a whole. In contrast, other races appear homogeneous (hence stereotypes). Therefore, if a minority is portrayed as having ANY flaw, this becomes a commentary on minorities in general.

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This issue vacillates heavily: The Cosby Show was accused of portraying an “unrealistic” African American family because they were upper middle class, nuclear (mother, father, daughter, son), and college-educated. On the other hand, shows like House of Payne are often thought of as going too far in the other direction by over-representing African American cultural tropes such as being loud and boisterous. It’s much easier to deal with singular blacks in terms of narrative; and since this is still a man’s world, these singular blacks will more than likely be men. On the other hand, we’re still dealing with mainstream (i.e. white) media, so that singular black is more than likely going to be surrounded by plural whites. As such, it’s hard for the black guy to not be discriminated against, even tacitly. And here’s where positive discrimination comes in: what if the one black guy is actually BETTER than his peers? What if he’s stronger, smarter, and more noble than they can ever hope to be? This satiates the audience’s desire for “diversity” and “acceptance”. As with many narrative tropes, there are several problems with this narrative device.

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Probably the first consistently positive black male actor in America was Sidney Poitier, an academy award winner who was most prominent from the mid 40’s till the late 60’s. As a character actor: Sidney was typecast as intelligent, authoritative, and all-around awesome professionals. In The Heat of The Night ( 1967 ), he played a high ranking police officer who goes to the district of a racist slob of a sheriff. In All The Young Men , he played a hyper-competent Sergeant to a bunch of idiot white privates. If you’re in a film with him, he’s better than you. Given the romance of Poitier, it was inevitable he would end up in a film that centered on a romantic conflict.

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In one of his most famous films, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967), Poiter drops by the home of Spencer Tracy as his daughter’s fiancée. She of course neglects to tell her father about his chronic skin condition, which he doesn’t take well. Now let’s be honest; in real life this situation statistically would have had an African American of average means, average looks, and average averageness. But since this is SIDNEY FUCKING POITIER, he’s an Ivy League educated physician. Spencer Tracy is portrayed as having a huge crisis over their engagement because of his blackness, completely ignoring that he’s significantly  more successful than most white men. Hell, the couple don’t even seem to have sex (neither of them seems to care that they sleep in separate rooms during their visit), implying that he’s even chaste enough to wait for marriage. Tracy’s turmoil is portrayed sympathetically, as most whites at the time would have been taken aback at the notion of interracial marriage. Sidney’s obvious superiority, however, has a very unfortunate implication. Most Romance films focus on protagonists with flaws that obstruct a relationship. In the film She’s Out Of My League (2010), 50% of the main cast (the dorky Jay Baruchel) is vastly outclassed in every conceivable way by the other 50% (the luscious Alice Eve).

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It’s not just looks either: he doesn’t have advanced education, is the butt of his friends’ jokes, and has no career trajectory. Despite being so lacking, Jay is still accepted by Alice throughout most of the film, which he eventually accepts as true love. The general idea is that when someone loves you, you have objective value. By extension, Romantic film affirms the value of the audience, since most people have felt like they were in love, and most people would like to be objectively valuable no matter how unattractive or batshit crazy they are.

Positive discrimination subverts that idea, as we see in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Poitier’s fiance loves him, but he’s such a paragon of manhood that we never feel it’s because of who he is as a person. In any other romantic film, he’d be a better fit as a romantic rival given his awesomeness. Spencer Tracy’s character being suspect of someone arguably more successful than himself is laughable. As such, it’s difficult for an average man (black or white) to relate to Poitier’s character. This points to the larger issue of many of his roles (and Hollywood in general): Sidney Poitier was more of a “model minority” than a foil for the audience. This happens even today: if not funny/thuggish/poor, a black actor pretty much has to be infallible (Denzel Washington, Idris Elba, etc). For fear of racial backlash, creators feel that a black man in fiction has to be AMAZING in order to be a respectable character.

One of the most common instances of this occurs in modern mainstream superhero comics, where token black characters are often even more heroic than other heroes.

Backstory of Mr. Terrific

Backstory of DC superhero Mr. Terrific

In the series Reign of the Supermen (1993), four super-powered dudes attempt to become the protector of Metropolis after the death of Superman (he got better). Most of them fail to live up to the legacy: one of them is a kryptonian clone who nukes muggers, two of them attempt to actively subvert the legacy of Superman in order to boost their own cred, and one is a cyborg (inventively named “Cyborg Superman”) who ends up becoming a mass murderer.

3364126-steel Of course, the only one who is heroic happens to be John Henry Irons aka “Man of Steel” – which was later shortened to just “Steel” (yes, that Steel) – an African American engineer who builds a suit that allows him to be a Superman stand-in ( albeit at a drastically lower level ). Despite being the only human in the bunch, Steel is not only capable, he’s arguably more heroic than Superman himself. After being orphaned at a young age, Irons realizes that (according to his origin story)  the only way to protect his family was to become rich and powerful “. Well obviously. So he got into Yale on a football scholarship where he studied engineering, got money, and started developing weapons for the government. He then uses his money and resources to become a hero.

This character’s primary trait is his perfection: he’s a self made genius millionaire athlete superhero who takes up the mantle of SUPERMAN, yet is humble, pacifistic, and always deferential. And he’s boring as shit. Few writers delve into how ANY of these elements affect the character’s personality. Does he have a chip on his shoulder due to having to struggle so much? Is he cocksure due to his vastly superior abilities? Does he date/have sex? How does he feel about violence? Mind you, this is a character who debuted in the nineties, where every hero who wasn’t comically intense was at least fleshed out a bit more than before. Like Steel, Iron Man is an industrialist who’s inability to control his products led to the series Armor Wars (1987-1988) where he became paranoid about who was using his weapons. Like Steel, Batman lost his parents and had to forge himself at a young age, which is heavily implied to have given him a very abnormal mental state, which we see in series such as Arkham Asylum (1989). I’m not saying Steel should mimic these heroes, but I do think the lack of equivalent character exploration is suspect. Steel has no more depth than a superhero version of the ” Successful Black Man ” meme. Characters such as Black Lightning, Black Panther, and Luke Cage similarly tend to be written shallowly. Even black villains aren’t immune to this.

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The Thor villains dubbed the “ Wrecking Crew ” consist of a bunch of working-class hoods who accidentally got empowered by an Asgardian goddess. All of them are white except Eliot Franklin aka ” Thunderball ” who’s a fucking physicist who invented a gamma bomb superior to Bruce Banner’s. He’s only in the crew because he committed robberies to fund his experiments, which landed him in jail with the rest of the team (because it’s not like anyone would PAY a genius level nuclear physicist for R&D). And of course, he’s the only character who considers it blasphemous to attack Thor’s homeland of Asgard, so he’s even the most moral of the thieves. Not only is the juxtaposition of a genius level physicist street thug extremely silly (even by comic book standards), it’s not even at least handled sincerely. Thunderball never parlays his genius into becoming a more effective villain, at best he attempts to overthrow his boss in order to become leader of a shitty gang. He only serves as a token and as a “testament” to the writers’ lack of racism. As with Steel, the desire to make a non-offensive character eclipses actually making a good character.

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While seemingly innocent, positive discrimination is often caused by discomfort with race rather than acceptance of it. Political correctness requires people to ignore race, to ignore people in favor of a two dimensional image that “equalizes” us. True diversity requires a recognition of humanity not avoidance of it. In the play/film A Raisin In The Sun ( 1961 ), protagonist Walter Younger ( ironically, played by Sidney Poitier ), is the patriarch of a black family living in the impoverished south side of Chicago. Unlike Poitier’s other roles, Walter is a established early as a schlub: his introduction parallels his difficulties getting out of bed with that of his son’s, equating him with a pre-pubescent child.

African-American men’s ” arrested development ” is a commonly touched upon topic socially, but rarely in media (at least not explicitly and especially not in regard to fathers). Here we see a man who’s immediately painted as being not much more mature than his own son: he hides his inadequacies through misogynist remarks, he constantly obsesses over his own success over others’, and he avoid responsibility whenever possible. He’s several black male stereotypes given form.

Many writers would have dismissed the character as a two-dimensional asshole. For example, it’s tragically common in Tyler Perry films that black men who are flawed are portrayed as unsympathetically as possible. In I Can Do Bad All By Myself (2009), Taraji P. Henson’s boyfriend is so laughably evil that in his first appearance he lobs racial slurs at a guest, threatens small children, and even implies raping one of said small children.

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This is all in his FIRST SCENE, by the way

Rather than making Walter a one-note stereotype, the film establishes sympathy for him by expanding on what made him who he is. His mother Lena (to the left in the picture) describes a father who passed on his own unattainable dreams to his son Walter, who had no more resources than his father. Walter’s so poor that he can’t afford to give his son $8 for school, signalling a continuation of poverty for his son as well. As such, Walter’s obsessed with using his dead father’s will money to open a liquor store, which would give him the fiscal autonomy he or his father never had. His mother objects to this immediately. Walter continues to perform several selfish acts throughout the film, including using the money to fund a liquor store anyway, only to be robbed by his supposed partner.

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What makes Walter such a great character is that he’s pathetically human. He embodies several of the challenges black men (and men in general) face even today. As such, his personal journey throughout the film is compelling. His triumph over his own compulsions at the end is impressive due to his weaknesses: when offered enough money to recoup his losses from a white man who wants he and his family to not move into his neighborhood, he considers then rejects his offer for the sake of his family.

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The film’s realism doesn’t presuppose the family or Walter go on to success, what it gives us at the end is a man willing to try to do what’s best. Walter isn’t perfect, and the film wants us to sympathize with him anyway. The film acknowledges some of the hard truths of black manhood while at the same time making a nuanced character, something several black directors (*cough*Tyler Perry*cough*)  have either avoided or failed at. Race will always continue to exist no matter how many writers try to ignore it. Rather than attempting to whitewash the notion, I believe it’s more important to recognize it, or at least not be afraid of invoking it.

For more thoughts on African American race relations:

Slave Ownership as Seen In Roots

Django Unchained: Reflections on Calvin Candie

Black Masculinity in Narrative Media Part 1: Cornball Brothers

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In case you didn’t know, I am black. This is shocking, I realize. Nevertheless, as a black man, i have grown up realizing just how coded race is in America. Now obviously i’m not saying that African Americans are the only citizens to experience racial pressures; what i’m trying to say that the community’s racial pressures are more identifying. Model minorities (mostly East and South Asians) are coded as “others” by Americans, but also compete on the world stage at such a high level due to economic and cultural wealth that said distinctions are at least ignored, if not applauded. Non-American Caucasians have a few foreign markers, but still share enough phenotypes and history to become regular ole white people after a generation or two.

African-Americans, on the other hand, lack the cultural history to stand on proudly (given that, for all intents and purposes, our culture begins with slavery), have no international capital, and can’t assimilate nearly as well. As such, African American cultural tropes are “hyper-realized” due to a combination of outside and inner influence, to the point where “blackness” for many people is the only thing that makes African Americans valuable. Stereotypes are enforced because they define us and create an identity. American masculinity exacerbates this, since men have to constantly assert value in order to retain their manhood, which means black men have to constantly assert blackness to retain their black manhood. As such, black men make very extreme figures in media, where they have historically vacillated between often contradictory caricatures.

For most of Western history, “masculinity” was based on a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) model. Paragons of masculinity were defined as the ruling class (royalty, landowners, etc), so just not being WASPy in the Western world meant you were inherently “unmanly”. This is seen in visual depictions of the Irish and East Asians, who were often short, unattractive, and slight.

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This was true as well for African American males. A great example of this are the illustrations of the prominent 1800’s print-makers Currier and Ives, which charted the growth of the nation through their pictorials. Part of the American flavor they depicted were the perceived whimsy of African Americans. Several illustrations focused on the fictional “Darktown”, especially a notably recurring series that features the “Hook And Ladder Corps” responsible for fighting fires. And boy are they great at their jobs!

Drawn by “Knig [sic] & Murphy.” Currier & Ives, 1884

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Notice how one member throws water in a person’s face, another dangles a child over the ground, and two use a hammock to catch a LIVE STOVE which most likely caused the fire in the first place. Firefighting is one of the mostly blatantly manly jobs in the world; you go into burning buildings, chop shit with axes, and save women that tacitly consent to sex with you. These guys manage to take all the piss right out of it with their buffoonery,which is kind of the point.

Calling a black dude a man was inherently contradictory at this point in history: they were ‘boys’. As such, any feat they attempted would be bungled in the same way a child would. Their purported physicality reflected this: blacks had the grace and physique of baby calves. They had lanky limbs that assisted in making their odd movements seem even more exaggerated. Rather than having chiseled or at least plausibly defined bodies, they had overly-rounded faces and either gangly or rotund bodies. In short, there wasn’t much that was “masculine” about black depictions at the time. One of the worst examples has to be the infamous Warner Brothers 1943 Merry Melodies cartoon Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs (yes that’s spelled correctly) that has some of the most grotesquely imagined blacks you’ll ever see.

When black men appeared in narrative media, the best they could hope for was being a benign sidekick meant to emphasize the manliness of a white man, which is seen in works such as Will Eisner’s famous 1940’s comic series The Spirit with Ebony White and,to a lesser extent, the 1962 James Bond film Dr. No with Quarrel.

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If archetypal racial caricatures have paragon saints, most would attribute the pathetic black man stereotype to the eponymous Uncle Tom from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.Legree

The novel was an anti-slavery narrative that predated the Civil War. Stowe’s method of communicating the sinfulness of slavery was by portraying African Americans as ideal Christians, which was exemplified by Uncle Tom. Tom is so pacifistic and gentle that he actually forgives the men who beat him to death at the novel’s end. Oddly enough, anyone who reads the novel carefully sees that Tom is actually clearly meant to be a POSITIVE character, who stuck to his morals even in death. He was also a dutiful father and servant who inspired characters of both races to better themselves. The character Jim in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) is often considered a slightly more dignified iteration of the character, given that despite having Tom-levels of fealty towards Finn, has enough autonomy to run away from his master and call out Finn on his disrespectful nature.

Unfortunately, most imitations of Tom simplified the character by leaving out his saintliness and only focusing on his passivity and subservience. Pop culture osmosis has turned Tom into a pussy who does what ever a white man tells him to do, leading to his very name becoming an epithet for “weak” black men. Despite a century passing, this is still a prevalent trope, even though it’s transformed somewhat. Characters like Tom, Ebony White, and Quarrel are subservient to whites, but still very much members of African American culture (it’s their only real personality trait, after all) as shown by their speech and mannerisms. Modern “Uncle Toms” are often identified as actually mimicking whites to the point of parody, with the assumption that their personalities are affectations created as a form of cultural subservience.

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This trope is played with in The Boondocks with Tom DuBois, whose mistreatment by pretty much everyone portrays him as the prototypical Uncle Tom and also, in the series’ satirical tone, highlights how exaggerated the cultural prejudice is. He’s wealthy, educated, attractive, fit, honest, and even has a hot wife. Yet, he’s constantly being mistreated by his mostly lower-class neighbors for not being ‘black enough’. 

The shift in the stereotype is strange, but one could presume that it’s an evolution of resentment towards the “black elite”. For slaves, the black elite would have been the house slaves, who’s devotion to white masters has landed them the indentured servant equivalent to a CEO position (just look at the amount of power Steven wields in 2013’s Django Unchained). As blacks have been afforded more opportunities, some can now achieve the success of their once masters, which invariably includes adopting some of their culture as well (pretty much becoming black yuppies).These African Americans become figures of resentment for two primary reasons: 1. they invalidate the culture as a whole by connotating success with whiteness or at least rejection of blackness 2. they often have more money, education, and overall acceptance than their less fortunate kin.  The paragon saint of this version of Uncle Tom is a character who’s been the bane of un-black black men for years: Carlton Banks.

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For the two people who have never seen the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, it focuses on a street wise youth from West Philadelphia – born and raised – who moves in with the posh Banks family (I see what they did there). People in the screenwriting biz would call this a “fish out of water” plot: Hilarity ensues because Will is out of place in high society. In order to hammer this conflict home, a comedic foil was needed: Carlton Banks. Carlton was the mirror opposite of Will: he was studious whereas Will was lackadaisical, he was serious whereas Will was flippant and so on. Carlton also served as enough of a contrast to sell us on Will’s “street-ness”. Will Smith was one of the whitest black men in media, narrowly being beaten by Al Roker. His acting credits pre-Fresh Prince consisted of after-school specials. Despite all that, he’s still “streeter” (i.e. blacker) than Carlton, who’s nothing more than a preppy straw-man made for derision. As the show matured, most of the characters’ became more nuanced and realistic, especially Will, and yet Carlton got even goofier, as if to remind us that Will is still supposed to be a cool black guy. This becomes even more evident once Will’s friends Jazz and…that other black guy…become recurring characters, establishing an official in-universe “black culture” for Carlton to be rejected by. Will in one episode directs a poetic jab towards Carlton that sums up his role quite well: “Roses are red / violets are blue / we’re all black / Carlton, what are you?

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Not only is Carlton coded as un-black, his un-blackness marks him as inadequate in every conceivable way. He loses out in every endeavor that black men purportedly succeed in ( sports, humor, sex ). He’s also consistently insufficient in non-stereotypical things as well: Will ends up being a better student than him and his own father tells Will in secret that he feels he has more potential than all of his children, including Carlton. Carlton fails so much because he isn’t street smart, he doesn’t have “swagger”, he overall just isn’t cool (i.e. black) enough. One could say that this is more a function of him being the designated nerd than his blackness, but I would contend that he’s portrayed too negatively for that to fly. Urkel was a laughing stock, but was also the most moral character in Family Matters. Same could be said of Screech from Saved By The Bell. Carlton’s closest analogue, Alex P. Keaton (played by Michael J. Fox) from the 90’s sitcom Family Ties, was also a conservative, short, douchey nerd, but was at least treated as a legitimate person with who regularly displayed strengths. Carlton is not only unmanly and unsuccessful, he’s a snob who’s supposed to suffer misfortune.

This character could be viewed as a deconstruction of the cultural promise that The Cosby Show asserted: while black men like Philip Banks can grow up in black culture, become successful, and reconcile that success with their upbringing, their successors will be detached from said upbringing and be “weaker” because of it (like Carlton). In contrast, Will is a wish fulfillment character who has blackness AND success, further diminishing the already diminutive Carlton. And the audience, whether they realize it or not, love seeing the poor guy diminished. Carlton Banks embodies a very real prejudice in the African American community (and to a lesser extent, America in general) against black men who don’t practice traditional black masculinity.

EDIT: Now to be fair, The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air at least had enough self-awareness in later seasons to acknowledge the unfortunate implications of Carlton in this episode

Go here for the other parts of the series: “Black Supermen” and “Noble Savages”

For more posts on Afro Americans in media:

Slave Ownership As Seen Through Roots

Django Unchained: Reflections on Calvin Candie

Supplementary Viewing/Reading:

Basketball Website “Grantland”‘s article “The Rise of The NBA Nerd” by Wesley Morris: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/7346656/the-rise-nba-nerd

For those who don’t get the “cornball” reference, here’s former ESPN commentator Rob Parker’s infamous debate which led to his firing:

A 1930’s animated adaptation (and i use “adaptation” loosely) of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Django Unchained: Reflections on Calvin Candie

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As I’m pretty sure many have heard, filmmaker Spike Lee (among many other black celebrities) have denounced the film Django Unchained (2013) as making a mockery of the still sensitive subject of slavery. While I can see how many could jump to that conclusion, it’s important to remember that the director hasn’t even SEEN the film. More importantly, astute viewers would realize that the film actually makes a very nuanced commentary on what was the backbone of American slavery: the common slaveholder’s mindset, as exemplified through Calvin Candie.

Before I go further, let me give you some background on how an institution like slavery persisted for so long in the first place. Venkatesh Rao, an accomplished writer, proposed a theory of organization that applies not only to businesses, but also cultural institutions. If you can, read his entire series here, it’s brilliant. His proposed structure is made up of three layers: losers, clueless, and sociopaths.

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The sociopaths are the top of any organization, they recognize how to manipulate those below them and they also are unburdened with the common sentiments that keep underlings at their stations (camaraderie, pride, etc). The layer beneath them are clueless: who are the polar opposite of their superiors. These people think that instutions are concrete, transcendent structures. Far from being stoic, these people are mostly driven by sentiment, their combined delusions turn worthless concepts like “ethics” and “political correctness” into a reality. Remember the lost boys from Hook (1991) who imagined food into existence? These guys are those kids in the workplace. Losers are just the guys at the bottom, who through unfortunate circumstances or sloth have ended up as the butt monkeys of capitalism. They are not necessarily losers in the social sense: they might get laid on the weekend and be in a decent garage band. It’s just they are not “winners” in the capitalist sense (i.e. they eat ramen every day). How does this relate Calvin Candie? Don’t worry, I’m getting there

Using Rao’s concept of organizational structure, we can get an idea of slavery worked. It’s important to realize that America was not the first country to enslave a group of people. For example, England had an extensive trade in flesh, particularly of the Scottish. Americans also had “indentured servants” of United Kingdom descent and even managed to enslave a few Native Americans as well. The fact is, for a certain group of sociopaths, slavery was nothing more than a logical economic choice: the minimal investment of seizing a group of people (who were often WILLINGLY given up by other Africans who had already enslaved them) who had little defense, for the massive gain of a lifetime of mostly unpaid labor. The fact is, slavery just had a chilling logic too it. Too chilling, in fact. Sure, everyone would love to have a personal servant who did everything for them, (just think of how many 90’s sitcoms had precocious youngsters blackmailing their peers to do their chores in a French maid outfit) but most people aren’t THAT malicious. Therefore, the only way this institution could exist was if the common slaveholder,clueless to the ramifications of his actions, didn’t think of himself as a monstrous tyrant, but instead merely part of a cosmic order. And yes, I’m getting there

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Calvin Candie’s introduction communicates much of his schema to the audience immediately. The first thing we hear about him is that he’s obsessed with French culture, with the *minor* caveat of him not understanding the language. What kind of man claims to be a connoisseur of French culture without speaking the language?  A pretentious white man, that’s who. Calvin Candie’s francophilia is nothing more than a fetish, something which he feels gives him an aire of sophistication but doesn’t compel him to actually learn about the culture, which is highlighted when he’s shown to not know a prominent French author is (gasp) black.

We find out later on in the scene that his fetishism extends to blacks as well, as he revels in the spectacle of  his “mandingo” fighting match. Whereas everyone else in his leisure room is disgusted by the sight, Candie is not only enjoying it, but is literally sitting right next to the men as they battle. The ostentatiousness of everything in the room, including Candie himself, jars with how primal the fight is. The men are shirtless and writhing while battling; a purposefully ugly display of violence in a film that otherwise makes light of such matters. Candie is wealthy. Stupidly fucking wealthy. There’s not one part of him that identifies with these poor creatures. His world is wholly different, which is why “mandingo” fighting holds such appeal. ‘Mandingo’ is a common epithet for black men, referencing their sexual prowess. The term denotes a powerful, exotic savage, unhindered by the restrictions of society that dilettantes like Candie are shackled by (the poor creature!).

Andrew Jackson had a similar sentiment towards the Native Americans, who he often dubbed “noble savages” for their wily tactics despite, you know, kicking them out of the homelands and stuff.  This is why Candie’s so enamored with Django,he has the refined brutality of a rapier, as opposed to the cudgel-like nature of someone like D’artagnan. Candie is impressed by the brute power he associates with blacks, which gives him a short reprieve from his more refined existence. Of course, we later see that Calvin is still capable of violence himself.

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While Candie clearly loves his mandingo fighting, he also seems to have some softer sentiments towards his negro underlings. His relationship with Stephen is clearly familial; he treats him with the bemusement one would have towards a doddering, drunk uncle. And as stated, he practically becomes erect over Django. We must once again remember that a large section of slave owners didn’t so much hate slaves, as much as they just merely think them inferior. This is akin to how a parent feels about a child, or how a master feels about a dog. A child is a person, but, as Louis CK put it “they’re the only human being you’re allowed to hit”. Ditto for dogs, who you can legally castrate “for their own good”. Simply put, one can have an affectionate relationship with someone and still treat them in a diminishing manner, which includes slave owners as well.

Thomas Jefferson, famed opponent of slavery, owned a lavish estate called the “Monticello” which treated its slaves to the finest clothes and work incentives. Despite this, in his 1785 book Notes on the State of Virginia, he said “blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distant by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind”. While Jefferson clearly wished his slaves no harm, he also thought of their positions as being a matter of fact, something which should never be challenged, which is why he fervently opposed the helping of runaway slaves.

Candie is not nearly as benevolent as Jefferson, but he clearly has a place in his heart for the slave/slave holder relationship, hence why D’artagnan’s attempted escape was such an insult. So imagine how pissed he was when Django did the same damn thing? When he realizes he’s been portrayed, he retrieves the skull of a loyal slave of his, a morbid yet oddly heartwarming gesture. Of course, he immediately subverts this by sawing open the poor guy’s skull just to explain that the bumps inside his skull signifies the negro’s inability to create. While this sounds ludicrous, what Candie is talking about is based on something once thought of as an actual science: Phrenology.

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Yes, believe it or not,some people really thought that if you measure the head, you can determine how a person thinks. Now while this did inspire lots of modern neuroscience, it was originally used to “scientifically” justify the superiority of the white race. One literary example is the “head-measurer” in Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness (1899) who measures the protagonist’s head in order to determine if interacting with the residents of the Congo could affect a white man’s skull. History has always been fraught with examples of pseudoscience such as this which attempt to make personal desires a reality (alchemy, demonology, etc). Yet, such idiotic concepts are necessary to support an institution as tenuous as slavery; even Candie himself points out that slaves have the sheer numbers to overthrow their masters. A clueless such as Candie has to believe in such fanciful ideas; if he’s wrong about a negro’s place in the world, he can’t enjoy his mandingo fights, his Uncle Tom sidekick, or his Django man-crush. Candie is defined by his indulgences, (his sister, his francophilia) so not only will he support them with bullshit science, he’ll underwrite said science with violence. If Django and Schultz are unable to concede to his head theories, he’ll crack open Brunhilde’s head to show how wrong they are.

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There’s a beautiful seamlessness to this threat: Candie’s cracking-open of a negro’s head is scientific research; a necessary way to show that he is the superior. Just as the parent sometimes needs to beat a child or the master needs to hit a dog in order to “teach”. While Candie does legitimately believe he is merely acting out a sociological imperative, he has the necessary defense mechanisms to support such an idea. In this case, the mechanism is “might makes right”.

In closing, while some (i.e. Spike Lee) may think that Django Unchained diminishes the horrors or slavery, i believe that he’s only partly right (and still for the wrong reasons). Rather than making a flatly evil antagonist, Dicaprio and Tarantino, create a beautifully pathetic person, a man who’s only goal is to live a life of intellectual hedonism. And by doing so, he becomes a commentary on an often over-simplified period in history.The institution of slavery had more nuance that many would be willing to admit, and the ideologies that supported it continue to be common today.

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For more posts on Afro Americans in media:

Slave Ownership As Seen Through Roots

Black Masculinity In Media Part 1: Cornball Brothers

Black Masculinity In Media Part 2: Black Supermen

Black Masculinity In Media Part 3: Noble Savages

Recommended Reading

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrenology

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (For reflections on the master/slave relationship)

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Roots by Alex Haley (For a great look at how slave owners and overseers viewed the institution of slavery)

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Heart of Darkness (Which is a commentary on [perceived] white superiority)

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