Race and Class in Django Unchained

Django Unchained is a love-it-or-hate-it movie-going experience. Tarantino’s decision to make a spaghetti western/slave revenge fantasy seemed like a cynical move to generate controversy from the get-go.  Now it’s in theaters everyone has an opinion, especially when it comes to the provocative depictions of race.  There are those who celebrate the bold representation of Django, the freed slave who fights back against a particularly sadistic slaveowner, claiming what is rightfully his (Hildy, his wife), burning the pristine white columns of the mansion to the ground in the process, and riding off into the middle distance. There are others, notably Spike Lee, who have questioned the oversimplification of these images and the apparent trivialization of genocide.

The movie has also been criticized for its objectification of women, the cartoonish (and anachronistic) representation of the Ku Klux Klan as buffoons suffering a wardrobe malfunction, and Tarantino’s Australian accent.  Some critics couldn’t stomach the blood spatter of the gunfights.  Others thought Tarantino’s trademark violence, once so exciting, has become so normalized it seems tired. It’s a problematic film on many levels. However, Tarantino has to be commended for opening up discourse — and, potentially, opportunities for other filmmakers — about the slave era, two hundred years of history that American mainstream pop culture likes to pretend never happened.  Other than grisly blaxploitation like Mandingo, or historical lamentation like Roots, slavery has been off-limits as context for a period drama. Until now.

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The Blame Game #londonriots

Double Decker Bus Aflame #LondonRiots on TwitpicAs London battens down the hatches for another night of lawlessness, the media bristles with pointed fingers. Who is to blame?!? The liberal bleating of the broadsheets (police brutality! cutbacks!) is counterbalanced by the fizzing outrage of the Daily Mail, which, in a single news event, has all its scapegoats (kids, chavs, immigrants, hoodies, poor people, benefit cheats etc) in a row. It’s the same old same old, the class war dialectic rehashed from the 1980s.

However, this is 2011, the era of citizen journalism. In addition to the shock and scaremongering gushing from the mouths of traditional media outlets, individuals get to say their pieces too. Those caught in the thick of it are blogging, tweeting, posting images, videos, getting their personal view of events out there. The unifying characteristic of these unmediated posts is anger. Lots of it, directed against many different targets. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ explanation for the violence. We’ll never get one. What is emerging is a picture of a country in crisis, with deep gulfs scored between the haves and have-nots, the empowered and the disenfranchised, those inside the gates, and those waving flaming torches outside the walls.

Much has been made of the apolitical, seemingly purposeless background to these riots: the crowd weren’t demanding access to food, shelter, medication, clean water, a vote in an upcoming election. The rioters were those who had the first three levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs nailed (Food, Shelter, Family), unlike many of their counterparts across the globe. So why were they rioting?

The top two levels of Maslow’s triangle are self-esteem, and self-actualisation, qualities in short supply in many of the UK’s inner city communities. Unfortunately, when the usual routes to self-respect (education, job, community service) are blocked or devalued, the easiest way to get to the top of the triangle is to smash and grab. Low self-esteem? Join your rampaging mates and prove you can loot and burn with the best of them – infamy leads to glory. Unable to realise your potential through lack of opportunity? Simply steal the consumer goods you would have bought with your wages.

This much is clear: frustrated citizens of a First World country have taken to the streets, bypassing the democratic process, eschewing law and order, and ignoring the social codes that usually prevent neighbour from turning on neighbour in the pursuit of individual wants.

So, whose fault is it?

Every individual who made the decision to join a mob, throw a brick, light a match, break a window or steal a trophy is culpable and criminal. These are bad decisions. The people making them are thinking only in terms of short term gratification and emotional release and not about the consequences of their actions on the community in which they live. This Hackney grandmother sums it up:

Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail expresses the same disgust. Could he be going soft in his old age?

This wasn’t a spontaneous uprising of dissent from the downtrodden masses, it was shopping with violence…This wasn’t a political protest, or a demonstration against oppression, it was a grotesque manifestation of our shallow, instant gratification, I-want-it-and-I-want-it-now consumerist society, coupled with an extreme explosion of the kind of casual violence which scars our town and city centres across Britain every weekend.

Despite Littlejohn’s anti-consumerist sentiments, the online editors of the Mail apparently have no sense of irony. As usual, their sidebar is filled with images of bikini babes, tittle tattle about Kate Middleton and J.Lo, and glorification of reality TV stars. The Daily Mail is all about celebrating consumerism and celebrity culture, propagating images of impossible body shapes and lifestyles, devaluing ordinary achievement and encouraging constant, unhealthy, upward comparison. No wonder frustrated DM readers seized their only opportunity to “get some London”.

Littlejohn gets back on track later in his article. He blames those he designates as ‘youths’, with the implication that most of them are black. When in doubt, turn to the usual easy stereotypes:

There’s resentment among the ‘youths’ against those who are perceived to have got on in life. Look no further than the Tweet from one of the looters which read: ‘F*** the electronics, them Turkish jewellers needed to get robbed.’

Unemployment is a problem, largely because so many of the poor, misunderstood ‘youths’ prefer to live on benefits and the proceeds of gang crime rather than seek gainful employment.

While they are posing for ‘gangsta’ photos on Facebook, most of the low-paid, but essential, jobs are filled by hard-working recent arrivals.

Daily Mail

Littlejohn doesn’t seem to take into account that, with jobs scarce or non-existent, and the £30/week Education Maintenance Allowance scrapped from September, inner-city teens are all out of ‘gainful employment’ options. Still, at least he’s started referring to immigrants as “hard-working recent arrivals”(!!!).

It’s left to a 24 year old blogger to provide the most honest and clear-sighted assessment of the situation, describing it as “viral civil unrest”. I encourage you to read Laurie’s post in its entirety:

Panic On The Streets of London – Penny Red

Many commentators, especially those who experience inner city blight on a daily basis, have noted that these riots were horrifying, but not shocking. West Indian writer and Croydon resident Darcus Howe was interviewed by the BBC, and asked for his thoughts on the inevitability of events. It’s unlikely, as the poster says, that the BBC will re-broadcast the clip, as the 68 year old broadcaster and columnist had to take the presenter to task on the racist assumptions behind her questions.

The riots, and their representation, expose a near pre-Revolutionary gap between the Establishment and the masses. While ordinary people suffer from the effects of cutbacks in everything from policing to health services, the Prime Minister holidays in Tuscany. As the price of higher education spirals more and more out of the reach of ordinary families, Russell Group universities cherry-pick the best students from private schools, and those without GCSEs or training are condemned to the proverbial scrapheap – and castigated for fighting back. Individuals are jailed for drug addiction, while multinational corporations and banks flaunt regulations for decades and escape with a slap on the wrist (and a hefty bailout).

Those who’ve gained a modicum of self-esteem by carrying home a stolen trophy TV this weekend may find the laugh’s on them. They’ll be stuck watching repeats of Made In Chelsea, The Only Way Is Essex, Geordie Shore and Keeping Up With The Kardashians, a series of constant reminders that hard work doesn’t pay, the only way up is celebrity (not education), and that happiness resides in having the right handbag. No matter how much you try, you can’t loot an entire lifestyle.

If all that upward comparison does your head in, there’s always Jeremy Kyle, reinforcing a stream of negative stereotypes about ‘the underclass’ (or Littlejohn’s ‘youths’). The media is a mirror, and these riots have proved what an ugly, funhouse image it projects. Broken Britain: business as usual.

“Marvels & Monsters”: NY exhibition on Asian stereotypes in comicbooks

Yellow Claw comicbook coverA fascinating new exhibition at NYU explores how representations of Asians in comicbooks from 1942-1986 can be grouped into eight archetypes: the Alien, the Brute, the Lotus Blossom, the Guru, the Brain, the Kamikaze, the Temptress and the Manipulator.

Cultural studies scholar and author, William F. Wu, offered his personal comic collection as the basis for the exhibition, which purports to show “how images that began as racist and xenophobic propaganda during times of war and nativist unrest have coalesced into archetypes that in many ways still define America’s perception of Asians today” (Exhibition Guide). Asians working within the comicbook industry have been invited to comment on how the images and narratives affected them, growing up, and their general perceptions of Asian identity.

The co-curator, Jeff Yang, describes the exhibition as

“more than just a comics collection; it’s a historical document and one that covers a period of history that in some respects can be considered to be during the specific period in which the Asian-American identity was forged.

“All of the key elements and factors that shaped who we are as a people occurred during this time – Pearl Harbor, internment, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the rise of immigration, the building of ethnic enclaves, the beginning of the Asian-American rights movement, the rise of Japan and later China. What (Wu) did was collect images shaped by political forces, and to tell this story is to tell a narrative of how America has viewed Asians.”

America has long had a collective anxiety about Asians as ‘the Other’, from the Chinese immigrants forced into hard labor and ghettos in the 19th century to the current political drumbeats about the ‘menace’ of China’s economic rise. These comic book archetypes have both shaped and been influenced by that anxiety. This kind of stilted, repetitive representation does all kinds of damage, especially as comics are read predominantly by children. Non-Asian readers, usually without much or any exposure to actual Asian Americans, conclude that this is what all Asians are like. Asian readers absorb the images, which are usually negative, as part of their identity.

Greg Pak, a writer for Marvel Comics, says this in his exhibition sidebar:

“I just want (Asian-American characters) to be human. Because humans are flawed and crazy and capable of amazing acts of heroism and terrible acts of villainy I wouldn’t get hung up about seeing Asian tyrants or gangsters or femme fatales or martial artists if they were all different and individual and human. What I get angry about is that there are a million ways to write an Asian martial artist, so why is it that we keep on seeing the same darned one?”

Daniel Kim, co-curator, says

“As I was working on this exhibition, I came to the fascinating and horrifying realization that I had read a lot of these comics as a kid, and had either not noticed or minimized the way in which Asian characters were portrayed… That’s how pop culture works. You’re caught up in the entertainment and the pleasure of it. When I think back to my 8-year-old self, I retroactively worry for him. I wonder what this will do to him, what role it will play in developing my self-identity and the identity of all Asian boys who grew up reading comic books in America.”

Asia In American Eyes – China Daily
MARVELS AND MONSTERS: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986 – NYU Fales Library, until August 19