Twitter has been abuzz of late with one of America’s best film directors dissing another: Spike Lee taking on Quentin Tarantino and his slavery-revenge fantasy Django Unchained, which nabbed five Oscar nominations on Thursday.
Lee has stated he won’t see the film, because it’s “disrespectful to my ancestors.” He’s mentioned the film’s triple-digit use of the “n” word. And he has taken a misguided bit of Django merchandising — action figures, good grief — and used that to illustrate his point that this is all a bad idea.
It’s not the first time they’ve clashed. Lee was upset about the use of the “n” word in Tarantino’s 1997 film Jackie Brown as well. Tarantino used the word himself onscreen in 1994’s Pulp Fiction. He has dismissed Lee’s latest criticism as “ridiculous.”
For a movie fan, this is like mom and dad fighting. Lee has helmed some of my all-time favorites, including the masterful Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Inside Man and the criminally underrated 25th Hour (seriously, go rent that right now if you’ve missed out).
Tarantino? Same thing, with classics Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds.
Hard to believe the two teamed up for Lee’s Girl 6 in 1996, about a struggling actress (Theresa Randle) who spirals down the world of phone sex. Tarantino cameoed as a blustery director who demanded that Randle remove her blouse during an audition.
Both directors share a long history with Samuel L. Jackson. Before he was corralling Avengers or complaining about snake-infested planes, he wowed audiences with an Oscar-worthy performance as crackhead Gator in Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever. And he was nominated (and snubbed) for an Oscar for his memorable role in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
Jackson’s role in Django as Stephen, the dutiful house slave to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, is a polarizing one. It’s hard to fathom such loyalty, but then it’s impossible to fathom the horrors of slavery at all. Jackson flashes menacing glares and blurts witty retorts with equal passion.
Though there are many uncomfortable scenes — as the topic requires — and flaws galore, I thoroughly enjoyed Django. Tarantino has mashed up spaghetti Westerns and blaxploitation flicks as only he can, and turned them into an urgent, can’t-look-away film. His dialogue, as always, is priceless. And his music choices are inspired, if sometimes baffling (Jim Croce, meet Rick Ross).
It’s way too long, and the cartoonish violence is overwhelming. But Tarantino’s techniques make it worth seeing.
Having said all that, I can’t find fault with Lee being upset about Django. It’s not my place — or anyone else’s — to tell him how to feel about the brutal history of slavery and how it’s depicted in film.
Lee knows a lot more about filmmaking than I ever will. That was obvious when he presented Malcolm X on the Texas A&M campus back in 1993.
I do know that I often think of another of Lee’s works when it comes to racial matters, and it’s not even a fictional scene. It’s at the end of his 2000 film Bamboozled, in which a wayward TV producer (Damon Wayans) revives the racist minstrel show format, and to everyone’s surprise, it becomes an enormous pop-culture hit. It’s not Lee’s best movie, but it provides some biting satire.
The ending is poetic and painful — a montage of old TV and film clips of actors in blackface, along with demeaning portrayals of black characters — even in cartoons. As the credits roll, Lee shows a series of stereotypical black toys and trinkets of the past.
It’s a heartbreaking sequence, backed beautifully by a jazz instrumental and Bruce Hornsby’s mournful Shadowlands. There’s emotion there that Tarantino has never come close to achieving on film.
These are two incredibly talented filmmakers. An open debate between them would be fascinating, but won’t happen. Perhaps Lee can step away from Twitter and put his frustrations on film to allow his perspective to shine through.
That, along with Django, would make one hell of a double feature.