In the 1970s, Sanford, Fla., had one movie theater. Everyone called it "the Ritz." It played movies for children on summer mornings, but our babysitter sometimes took my brothers and me to see the "night movies," what are now called blaxploitation films. I remember Shaft and Super Fly, but there were plenty that we missed because my mother did not think they were appropriate for us.
Sanford at that time was mostly a black town, and at 10, 8, and 5 when we saw Super Fly (in 1974), my brothers and I were the lightest-skinned people in the theater, and possibly the youngest. Such were the only grown-up movies I saw at "the Ritz" until I was 16.
So I was among the first in line to see Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. In Williamsburg, Va., with a mostly African-American audience, I watched the story of a slave who becomes a bounty hunter and then takes revenge on a powerful slaveholding family and its seemingly endless supply of shotgun-wielding white overseers. Despite media predictions that African-Americans would boycott the film because of its use of the word "nigger" (and Spike Lee's disapproval), some are flocking to see it. And while a number of scholars have criticized it for not authentically representing the African-American experience of slavery, I beg to differ.
Whether Tarantino recognizes it or not, Django relies on tropes that have long been a part of the working-class African-American memory of slavery and its aftermath.
As other scholars have pointed out, Django borrows from three blaxploitation films of the 1970s, The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972) and its sequels, The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973) and Boss Nigger (1975). Indeed, Tarantino faithfully copies whole scenes, visible on YouTube, from those movies. Boss Nigger has a long scene of two black men riding into a rural Western town as white people look up in silent awe and horror. Django uses an almost identical scene to show us the main character's conversion from slave to bounty hunter. Later in Boss Nigger, two seated black characters demand service at a bar. One pretends to be completely unaware that they are violating the conventions of the antebellum South. Django reproduces the same scene with a white and a black character.
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The origins of the earlier movies are tangled. According to Every Step a Struggle: Interviews With Seven Who Shaped the African-American Image in Movies (New Academia Publishing, 2007), a book by the film-studies scholar Frank Manchel, the black character actor Woody Strode and his wife found and promoted the script about a strong black man seeking revenge in the West; it had been written by their acquaintance James Bellah (son of the Western author James Warner Bellah). The producer Larry Spangler and the director Martin Goldman revised the script in consultation with Strode, though the latter backed out before production. The producer replaced him with a younger actor, a former football star named Fred Williamson. The box-office success of The Legend of Nigger Charley in black theaters inspired the two sequels.
Although many involved in fashioning the blaxploitation script were white, the film's creation took place in the broader cultural context of the emerging black-power movement. Strong black male characters like Black Belt Jones and Super Fly resonated with audiences like those in Sanford, and they drew on a long and deep strain of black folklore, especially the rhymes, chants, and songs about a legendary "Bad Nigger."
Such stories go back to immediately after the Civil War and are partly meditations about slavery and slavery's end. In many of these chants and stories, the bad man was insulted, then cursed at, until he finally shot down white men in saloons and back alleys for failing to treat him with respect. The bad man invariably died at the end of the story.
Stagolee is one such character, a "bad man" who shot a man over, in various versions, a muddy glass of water, tainted meat, or a Stetson hat. Similarly, the character Bad Lazarus broke into a commissary counter and then "He walked away, Lord, Lord, he walked away." In the 1890s, Railroad Bill was a "mighty mean man" who "shot the light out of a poor brakeman's hand," then bought a pistol as long as his arm to "shoot everybody ever done me harm." Like the characters in the blaxploitation films of the 1970s, the bad men in post-Civil War black folklore were ciphers. Never fully described, they wore big hats, rode horses, and spoke with their pistols.
Likewise with Django. Critics of the film have suggested that Jamie Foxx's character is hardly fleshed out, but that is also true of the characters in blaxploitation films—and in the stories of bad men that preceded them. Throughout the film, the audience sees black men and women quietly watch Django, smirking and studying him. Just as in the Legend movies, the modern film suggests that these people will later build up the legend in song and story.
Immediately after the Civil War, African-American men built these powerful, folkloric characters in a world where slavery had ended but attacks against black men and women had intensified. The stories of quiet, unpredictable, and violent men who were fearless and died at the end could be simultaneously cautionary tales about the dangers of challenging white authority and covert stories about the thrill of resistance.
They are fantasies about striking back. Yet they are frank about how dangerous fighting back could be. Bad-man stories passed into rhymed insults called "the dozens," then into blues songs, then into rap, and finally into hip-hop.
They were also emulated and twisted by white interpreters into "coon" songs popular for decades, then by Jim Croce in "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," and finally wended their way into blaxploitation films. Indeed, the stories have been so distorted that it is difficult to learn about the original songs, the parodies having outshone the originals. The legendary African-American bad man became irresistible to white interpreters simultaneously fascinated and repelled by the image of a quiet, violent, fearless black destroyer. The bad-man story that freed people told about slavery and its aftermath was quickly converted into the story of the sullen black stranger, the zoot-suit Negro with a razor in his pocket, the dangerous ghetto demigod.
Is Django historically accurate? Not at all. There was no such thing as the "Mandingo fighting" depicted, in which black men died fighting each other for sport; dynamite wasn't invented until after the Civil War; and saloons with swinging doors were a creation of postwar Western towns, to name just a few howlers. As in most of Tarantino's films, counting the anachronisms on every frame will make your head explode.
But this story of a black bad man is in a certain way, and perhaps inadvertently, truer to the folkloric source material about the end of slavery than the heroic white-man story in Lincoln. Django expresses part of the lore that black men (and perhaps some women) created to turn the last years of slavery, now just 150 years gone, into a usable past. To fight against "the man" was suicide — but it was a beautiful death. Tarantino tweaks the story's ending, but it's worth watching.