I’ve been debating seeing the movie Django Unchained. After talking to some fellow female of color academics, I’d decided I would see it because a) someone likened it to a cultural artifact (a la Do the Right Thing), and b) a senior faculty member told me I had a professional obligation to see it. While neither of those reasons was persuasive to me, they had piqued my curiosity. This movie has been nominated for 5 Golden Globes and has received immense criticism from historians and people of color. I am not surprised at the dichotomous response. Movies with cast members of color that garner award nominations often do so at the expense of marginalized populations for the affirmation of the majority’s (White) and/or privileged cultural beliefs (see: Monsters Ball’s depiction of black women—the jezebel—in interracial relationships; see Training Day for its depiction of an angry black man; see The Help for its humorous depiction of the Mammy).
Having not seen the movie, you are probably wondering how I can be enraged. Well my outrage is not because of the movie; it is because of the outcome of the movie. Like this: Slave Action Figures
When you misrepresent historical atrocities, making it comical or romantic, you downgrade, simplify, and devalue the experiences of those involve. As a result, what should be a heart wrenching, guilt provoking exploration of the past becomes an upbeat opportunity to feel that you were correct in thinking that slaves had the opportunity to better themselves but they just didn’t take it (or most black women ARE very sexual and like to do it doggy style; or most black men are angry and deliver their best performances when given a role that suits their natural disposition; or that servants are grateful for their employment opportunities, no matter how little they are paid or respected).
So now you are wondering why I am talking about this on an education blog. It seems irrelevant to what my blog is about, but it’s not. See, as a teacher, I have to deal with students coming into the classroom with values and beliefs derivative of what they’ve seen represented in the media. They believe that black women are the largest population on welfare, when in fact, single white women are the population who most receive government assistance. They believe that poor people are poor because they are lazy and uneducated, when in fact, people living just above the poverty line work more hours a week than do most members of the middle and upper class (the upper middle class containing lawyers, medical doctors, etc work the most hours). They believe that kids don’t do well in school because their parents don’t care enough to send them to good schools, when in fact, my students have no idea what makes a ‘good school’ good or what is indicative of parental ‘care’. In short, they believe their experiences are the ‘right’ experiences and they look for information to verify that. They believe that what they think is ‘right’, and they are angry when I present them with objective data displaying that what they think is wrong.
So movies like Monsters Ball, Training Day, and The Help have effects extending beyond the movie theater. They walk right into my classroom hiding within my ‘well-informed’ students whose good intentions follow the path to hell repaved by the media.
Thanks, Quentin. You’ve done a stellar job romanticizing an era of history whose effects, I will have to explain to my students, still exist.