Archive for the 'Colored Commentary' Category


Django Unchained: “Am I wrong ’cause I wanna get it on ’til I die?”

January 13th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

(I’m bad at email. A guy emailed me with a question about Django, so I answered it in my usual format: thirty-thousand words of overkill. Then, after reading a reply from him, I finally read the subject line of the email and I realized he meant to interview me for a quote, rather than being simply curious about stuff. Whoops. But, this is me. And is more:)

django unchained - beer

The Django Unchained and Blazing Saddles comparison is, at best, a really cheap comparison. The two movies are too different to compare directly. It’s sort of the same thing that leads people to compare Amistad and Beloved to Django Unchained. They share a few surface similarities, but as soon as you step into the waters, they’re entirely different animals.

The short version is that Blazing Saddles is a comedy (or satire, or whatever — let’s go with comedy because it’s easier) set in the late 1800s and Django Unchained is a western set in the antebellum south. Django Unchained has funny moments, and a lot of them, but the way it uses humor couldn’t be more different from how Blazing Saddles does.

Saddles wants you to laugh until you cry. Brooks layers in pointed jokes like the black sheriff, goofy stuff like anachronistic gags, and goofy names because he wants to make you laugh until you cry. It has a point that’s worth saying — most good comedy does, I think — but it isn’t controversial in the same way that Django is. It’s tackling sensitive subjects, but not to the extremes that Django is.

The sticking point with Django is that it’s about slavery, something we tend to tiptoe around, and it’s an action movie. More than anything else, Django Unchained is about a dude trying to get his wife back, even if he has to kill people in the process. It’s set in 1858 and 1859, so they couldn’t avoid slavery or excise it from the narrative without being dishonest. So Tarantino made the decision to tackle it head-on, to make slavery and its issues text instead of subtext, and that’s where the sticking point is. Considering how sensitive slavery is, an action movie set in that time period runs the risk of disrespecting, or maybe not paying enough fealty, to the very real misery that slavery caused.

Now, Django Unchained is funny. It’s really funny. But where Brooks was trying to make you laugh until you cried, Tarantino is trying to make you laugh to keep you from crying. He’s dealing with one of the most painful periods in American history, and having to confront the reality of that pain when you’re just trying to have a good time at the movies is tough. If he tilts too far in one direction, he’s disrespecting the subject by not treating it seriously enough. If he tilts it too far in the other, he makes a movie that feels more like a lecture than anything else (most slavery movies are the latter, here).

So he walks down the middle. The violence against the black characters in Django Unchained is realistic, whether that means rooted in history (the chains, the masks, the whips) or treated realistically if they’re fake (the mandingo fights, which are uncomfortably brutal and not like the fistfights we see in flicks usually). The white guys get geysers of blood and exploded and so on. There’s a marked difference there.

But the thing is, realistic depictions of pain suck. It’s a HUGE bummer, to understate things, and you run the risk of losing the audience that came to see dudes get shot and damsels de-distressed. So Tarantino layers in jokes that we can appreciate from our 2013 perch, but also jokes that work just because they’re good jokes. We laugh at the reaction to Django on a horse because, guys, really, people were SO backward. We laugh at the regulators arguing over their masks because it makes what those guys eventually turned into — church-burners, child killers, and terrorists — look like buffoons. It’s an agreeable idea to us, and executed in a way that’s fantastic.

That’s the reason why comparing Django Unchained to Blazing Saddles doesn’t work. Outside of black cowboys, black dudes on horses, and laughter, they don’t share too much at all. Django’s funny because it’s needed to keep you pushing past the pain. Blazing Saddles is funny because it’s a comedy.

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Django Unchained: “Negro from necro, meaning death: I overcame it so they named me after it.”

January 12th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

django unchained - green

A brief burst of things I couldn’t fit into the jillion words I’ve written about Django Unchained since I saw it:

-Part of writing about Django Unchained is reading about Django Unchained. That was interesting, but it also sorta sucks. There’s a lot of pearl clutching over Quentin Tarantino daring to write the word nigger in a movie set during slavery times, whether it’s disrespectful… I thought this piece from io9 was particularly bad, on account of it suggested that Django Unchained was a white man’s fantasy without ever mentioning that basically every black person ever has had that conversation that goes “Boy, if I was around back then, I’da taken that whip from massa and shown him what a slave looks like.” (The point at the end about Django in the blue suit is weirdly infantilizing and emasculating, too.)

I picked up on a few things that most of the essays I hated did. The first is that they expected Django Unchained to have a moral, like it was Roots or something. Another was that they looked at Hildi and thought she was some type of passive damsel in distress, instead of somebody who was continually trying to escape from bondage, no matter the price she paid. That’s passive? Nah, son. She was having adventures elsewhere while Django was coming to get her. (I’d watch that movie.)

The biggest warning sign, and the only one that’s not me being petty and overly concerned with my own rightness, is when people start talking about the n-word. Does Quentin Tarantino use the n-word too much? Is it controversial for Leonardo DiCaprio to say the n-word?

Basically, if you are utterly incapable of saying the word nigger, you shouldn’t be talking about the word nigger. It’s dishonest to have that discussion and not treat the word as a real thing. I get the reasons why — you don’t want to offend people, it’s ugly, and so on — but if you’re having this conversation? You’re going to have to approach it on its own terms. I don’t think I liked a single essay that was n-word this or n-word that.

We’re adults, right? Adults use words, understand the history of those words, and understand that painful words can be used in certain contexts without offense.

So either do it or don’t, but don’t do it halfway. You want to have that conversation? Cool. Put on your adult clothes and have it.

Until you can do that, it’s grown folks talking. Shut your yap.

-I can’t tell you how happy I am that Tarantino got Anthony Hamilton on the soundtrack. The John Legend song is super hard — “Now, I’m not afraid to do the Lord’s work/ You say vengeance is his but I’ma do it first” YO! SON!!!!! — but Hamilton is that dude. He’s like… I keep comparing him to Curtis Mayfield, which is unfair and limiting. But Mayfield is legendary to me. I could listen — more like “have listened,” I’m not even kidding here — to Superfly or Curtis or whatever for weeks at a time. Mayfield poured so much emotion and heart into his music that I just can’t get enough of it, no matter how many times I try to sing along to “Freddie’s Dead” and can’t hit the notes.

Hamilton is that dude to me nowadays. His latest album, Back To Love, is a straight tear jerker, but on that strong black man tip. It’s real soulful, and it’s real on a level that most people just cannot match these days.

When I think of people who should be singing about the black American experience more than any other person who is currently alive, it’s Anthony Hamilton. And Django Unchained needed his voice. The result is “Freedom,” a collab with Elayna Boynton, which you should listen to as you read the rest of this joint:

I know I’m talking a lot about Hamilton and not his duet partner, but trust: Boynton is a powerhouse, too. This is my introduction to her, but come payday, I’m going to find more. Her voice is amazing, that perfect mix of weathered and hopeful. Like Macy Gray + Norah Jones? I don’t know. She’s great. She sells it. She keeps up with my favorite sanger.

-Using anachronistic music was a good choice on Tarantino’s part. Setting aside the indisputable fact that there was no good music before DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper, using modern music further removes Django Unchained from being a boring, depressing, sadface slavery movie. We’re meant to enjoy this film, and the music goes a long way toward opening us up to do just that.

-“I need one hundred black coffins for one hundred bad men…” The needle dropping on that song had me fanning myself in the theater like I was in church.

-I’m incapable of objectively judging that Tupac/James Brown mash-up, mostly because they took one of the hardest JB joints and merged it with a tight Pac verse. What am I supposed to do, not like it?

-I don’t know who Brother Dege is, but “Too Old To Die Young” is great, too.

-Hildi’s last name is von Shaft, or maybe von Schaft. Regardless, Tarantino has suggested that she and Django are John Shaft’s ancestors. I like this a lot, in part because it creates a lineage for Shaft that I want to know more about. I’m used to the idea that I won’t get to know much about my ancestors past I think the mid-1800s, but I can’t tell you how obsessed I am with the idea of knowing everything. Knowing about the men and women whose existence and actions led to me… I don’t expect the Shaft line to be filled with crime fighters and crusaders — I figure Django and Hildi retired after getting out — but I want to know more.

-The first time I saw Django Unchained, I was with my cousins, none of which are as into action flicks as I am, so I had no one to debate the possibility that Tarantino beat the climactic gunfight in The Killer during the massacre at Candyland. The second time I saw it, I still didn’t have anyone to debate it with, but I realized it doesn’t need debating at all. He beat it. That shot of Django discarding one gun during the fight is everything I wanted.

django unchained - john whoooo

-I love that Tarantino weaponized Alexandre Dumas. I didn’t know Dumas was black (black-ish — black enough for the Klan to want to lynch him, at any rate) for years, and I love that that fact was used to slam racism and faux-intellectual culture. Calvin Candie doesn’t know anything. He’s a dilettante.

-As a result, the second-best line of the movie was “D’Artagnan, motherfucker!” when Django kicks in the door with his guns blazing. It’s vengeance and guilt, all wrapped up in one. Django was partially responsible for D’Artagnan’s death, he let it happen, so he comes back around to make it right. How does he do it? By striking in his name.

-I’ve seen a lot of people talk about how docile the slaves were in this movie, to the point where I wonder if folks saw the same flick I did. In the mandingo fight that introduces Calvin J Candie, only the whites are watching the battle. The negroes are looking away — Sheba is entirely turned away from it! — and the bartender is focused on something else. Lil Jody, breaker of eggs, watches Django with surprise by way of a hilariously placed mirror while she’s tied to a tree. The servants in Candyland during the dinner keep looking at Django like “Is this nigga for real, why does he think he can get away with this?” At the end, with the dudes in the cage? They don’t fail to leave their cage because they’re cowed and scared. They just saw a black dude murder like 80 white people, talk his way out of bondage, kill two more white dudes, blow up another, hop on a horse, take some dynamite, and ride away. That’s like eighty unthinkable things in a row, so it’s no wonder they stayed in the cage and just watched him. They were shocked. Shoot, I’d sit there, too.

Throughout the movie, the slaves pay a lot of attention to Django. They’re watching. They know how far they can push, but if they see someone else pushing? They’ll push harder.

You know the beginning of the movie, when the slaves kill that last Speck brother? They’re silent and shocked, too. They’re shocked because this ain’t the way of things, but once they’re given an option, what do they do? They choose to punish their tormentor and escape to freedom. It sets the tone for Django and Schultz’s interaction with everyone else in the movie.

Now, what do you think all those suddenly masterless slaves at the Candyland plantation and Big Daddy’s big house are doing now? Picking cotton? Nah, son.

Django Unchained is seriously funny. “That’s not what I meant” got the biggest laughs at my first showing, back home in Georgia. It deserves it.

-Django is forced to choose between himself and his race, and that’s real interesting. His love for Hildi lets/helps him do terrible things to people. That’s a tough row to hoe.

-It’s not a slave revenge movie. It’s a movie where a slave takes revenge, yeah, but it’s not Inglourious Basterds. You can’t kill slavery as easily as killing Hitler. It was an institution that was propped up by the government, the citizens, and the culture. Hitler and his closest goons were figureheads, so you could theoretically force real change by taking them down and then taking advantage of the snake having no head. Who’re you gonna kill in 1858 to kill slavery? Everyone?

django unchained - hildi

-I like that Schultz, our outsider character, loses his patience when he’s finally confronted with the real horrors of slavery. He did something to someone that they definitely deserved, but he did it at an exceedingly poor time. But, because of the bond between him and Django, he knows that if anyone can survive the aftermath of his temper tantrum, it’s Django. “Sorry. I couldn’t resist.”

And Django does. The only thing holding him back? Ammunition.

-I figure that Hamilton song is over now, yeah? Here’s Brother Dege’s “Too Old to Die Young” to wrap things up:

-Walton Goggins is one of my favorite actors, and he’s been entirely typecast as playing racists. To my recollection, the last time I saw him in a role that wasn’t a racist was in The Bourne Identity as a computer analyst, who may well have been a secret racist when not at work. But Miracle at St Anna, The Shield, Justified, Predators… this guy regularly plays one of my least favorite types of people and I love him every single time.

He’s such a good actor that the racism of his characters is beside the point. He brings a real human touch to these people we usually look at as being fairly black & white or cartoonish. And his swagger as Billy Crash — best name in the movie, by the by — is incredible. There’s this shot late in the movie where several shadowed people are walking down a path. You can’t see their faces or any details, but that dude in the middle? You can tell he’s Billy Crash by how he walks.

django unchained - billy crash

Goggins is stunning and a show-stealer, every single time. I’ll follow that guy just about anywhere at this point. I wish there was some link between Cletus van Damme and Billy Crash, but all I have to go on now are my daydreams.

You can’t underrate this dude. He’ll rock any role you give him.

-I liked this movie.

-I should have talked about Hildi more. Sorry.

-Thanks for reading.

django unchained - peace love and nappiness

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Django Unchained: “Jump at de sun.”

January 11th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

django unchained - princess

The story of Icarus is one about obedience and hubris. “Be happy with what you have. Don’t fly too high and too close to the sun,” Daedalus said. Icarus, consumed with glee at being able to fly and escape his fate, ignores his father’s advice and pays the price.

In Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston writes:

Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at de sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.

I had to google around for the exact quote, but I knew it more or less already. “Things can only get better. Jump at the sun.”

Maybe it’s unfair to compare these two, but whatever. I like the contrast. Listen:

It’s hard for me to think of a quote that better defines the experience of being black in America. Growing up, I was taught that I’d have to work twice as hard to be heard, and deal with half the praise. Others would praise me more than my peers, simply because performing on par is exceptional when you start behind the eightball. Either way, I needed, need, to do more than my peers. I need to be better, faster, stronger, smarter, just so that I can be treated as normal instead of a niche.

America is short on black heroes. We don’t get to be the princes on white horses and princesses in high castles. When we are the king and queen, it’s in a creative work that people see as being specifically black, rather than mainstream. That’s “a black movie,” that one’s “a black comic.” It doesn’t get to be normal.

That’s how America works. White is the default. And once you begin changing up the formula — a black hero here, a spanish hero there — you move away from the default and become… niche.

What’s worse? Being invisible or being a curio?

One of my favorite aspects of Django Unchained is that it isn’t that black of a movie at all. It’s not a niche story. It’s a classic, an epic. It’s a story that we all know and love. There is a princess in a castle and there is a hero coming to save her. It’s a little different from damsel in distress tales — Hildi is thrown in the hotbox for trying to escape again, not for just trying to escape; she’s a troublemaker — but at its core? It’s the same. The difference? It stars a black man who loves a black woman, instead of a white man who loves a white woman.

Dr King Schultz tells the story of Siegfried and Brunhild to an attentive and eager Django not because it’s cute, or because Tarantino wanted you to know the end of the movie before it went down. Schultz, and Tarantino, relate that story to show just how universal this movie, a movie that tells the story of a freed slave trying to rescue his wife during one of the most dismal periods in American history, actually is.

django unchained - story

Schultz even tells the story in the oldest possible way. He and Django are outside, sitting by a fire. While they eat, Django sits and listens while Schultz tells a story. Shadows flicker on the rocks behind them while they talk.

It’s the oldest story. It’s a love story. That’s what’s at the heart of it. There are revenge elements, but that isn’t what makes the story go. It’s about a man who will do anything to protect the woman he loves. When he finds out where his wife is and what she’s being forced to do, Django says something along the lines of “Not while I’m alive. Not while I have my gun.” We know that feeling. We know love.

Hildi is Django’s everything. His love for her is the engine that keeps him going, letting him push past the misery and horrors he has to indulge in. There’s no point in getting dirty if you don’t get to wash it off at the end of the day. Hildi is his salvation.

And he’s hers. They ran away together, they paid for it together, and after they were separated, she kept trying to get away. She’s no wilting flower. She’s a soldier. She’s going to run until they finally kill her, because freedom beats death every time. She’s willing to die for him, and he’ll die for her.

You don’t see a lot of these stories between black characters in big budget movies. Just a straight-up, no-nonsense, high profile love story. What was the last one? Independence Day? Men in Black? There’s probably been once since, there has to have been, but the fact that you’re wracking your brain right now says it all, if you think about it. It’s such a little thing, but you can feel that lack if you grow up and nobody like you gets to play in the big leagues.

I felt really, really good when I read this quote from Kerry Washington, from an interview with the LA Times:

“I know it’s not the most feminist idea to be a woman in a tower wanting to be rescued, but for a woman of color in this country, we’ve never been afforded that fairy tale because of how the black family was ripped apart [during slavery],” Washington said. “I really saw the value of having a story that empowers the African American man to do something chivalrous for the African American woman, because that hasn’t been an idea that has held women back in the culture — it’s something we’ve never been allowed to dream about.”

She said it better than I ever could. It feels good to finally get to be the prince, and I figure it feels good to finally get to be the princess, too. Damsel in distress stories might be passé to some people, but I bet those people never grew up wishing for fundamentally different skin or hair so that they could indulge in these fantasies.

django unchained - prince

I love that Django Unchained exists. I hate that it took this long for Hollywood to sit up, pay attention, and hook up a well-done picture that’s treated on par with any other big movie, despite the presence of a willing and clearly underserved black audience. Tyler Perry is a punchline, a cheap joke for internet types, instead of a model. “Nobody’s making movies for black grandmas? Well shoot son, I got these scripts right here…” We — everyone — should be part of the spectrum, part of “normal,” rather than an exception.

Until then, it’s twice as hard. Half the credit.

So why wouldn’t you jump at the sun?

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Django Unchained: “…if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.”

January 10th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

Django Unchained is controversial in part due to the fact that a slave revenge story utilizes one of the most painful periods in American history for action movie thrills. The extreme Fox News types want to know why Quentin Tarantino is producing a hate tract, Spike Lee and them want to know who Tarantino thinks he is to tell this story, and it seems like everybody else is trying to figure out if Tarantino is racist and how racist he is (this one’s pretty dumb). Django Unchained is, to a certain extent and on a few different levels, something we aren’t used to seeing. It’s getting a lot of attention accordingly.

But what’s easy to miss in all the hullaballoo is the fact that Django Unchained isn’t that foreign of an object at all. In fact, Django himself is a quintessentially American hero, a type of character we already know and love. Well, to a point.

I like this bit from Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, delivered by Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan:

My friend, Thomas Jefferson is an American saint because he wrote the words ‘All men are created equal,’ words he clearly didn’t believe since he allowed his own children to live in slavery. He’s a rich white snob who’s sick of paying taxes to the Brits. So, yeah, he writes some lovely words and aroused the rabble and they went and died for those words while he sat back and drank his wine and fucked his slave girl. This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business.

django unchained - hey pistolero

America isn’t baseball, bald eagles, apple pie, and pretty blonde cheerleaders dating sturdy quarterbacks. America is John Wayne. America loves John Wayne. I could be mean and point out how Wayne’s racism and white supremacist views are as American as apple pie, if not more so, but really, it’s his persona we love. The reputation of the dude he played in the movies. It’s the idea that one man can stride into town with not much more than a gun, a grimace, and strong sense of right and wrong, and make a difference.

We love lone gunmen out here. Men of action, not like our wishy-washy politicians or corrupt constables. Men who know how to get things done. Mavericks. We like John McClane more than just about anything. Films noir are littered with these guys. It’s one man against the world, and we love it so much because the man can win.

The lone gunmen gives us an icon to look up to, a hero to aspire to. You can see it in the rhetoric that comes after shootings. “If only one man was there with a gun to do the hard thing…” It’s stupid if you think about it for more than half a second, but it’s undeniably sexy. We don’t have a lot of control over our lives, so the idea that one man can take control, and that in the right situation, that man would be us, is wildly seductive.

Django Unchained is an incredibly American movie, isn’t it? Django’s up against blatant evil, an evil that has been propped up by a corrupt government and culture, and that frees him to do the hard thing without being a bad man. Generally, killing someone is something to be frowned upon, but when Django does it? It’s righteous. He’s giving them what they deserve and we cheer him because he is right. Never mind the murder, or the laws, or any of that. What matters is that someone has done wrong, and they need to pay for that.

Seeing this kind of story in action, the ultra-capable lone man hero, makes us feel good inside. It suggests that there is order in the world, and that our problems can be solved in spectacular fashion. It fills a need that is hard to express in polite society. It isn’t fair or kind, but some people deserve to die. They’ve reached that point that we, as individual people or a society, say “Build his gallows high.”

We want to see Django kill those folks because they deserved to die for their crimes. Tarantino mined the history of slavery, and simply seeing it in action let us mentally justify the massacres at the end. Django is our lone man, our instrument of vengeance. We have seen evil, and we want it gone.

The lone man is a stupid and evil idea, too, of course. I assume you know that already. The idea of a lone gunman sucks for everyone who doesn’t want to play lone gunman. It’s the pretty face of imperialism and terrible, murderous aggression. Django’s just the inverse of the oppressor, a cruel answer to a cruel wound. And even then… he has to willingly take part in the exploitation of his own people. He has to stand by and let two men be murdered, just so that he can get his wife back.

It can be nice to visit, to indulge our desire to be the big man on campus, but you can’t let it stick around in the back of your head. You can’t take it to heart. A lone man is no way to be a part of a family or a community. Lone men just hold everyone back in the long run. America can be Martin Luther King Jr as well as John Wayne.

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Django Unchained: “I can’t pay no doctor bills (but Whitey’s on the moon).”

January 9th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

django unchained - pow

I gave up on black misery a while back. You know what I’m talking about. Movies or books or whatever about how sad it is to be black, how hard black people got it, and how messed up life is for black people. Whether it’s Precious, The Blind Side, Roots, whatever whatever — I’m through. I’m tired of being reminded of the black condition all the time. I get enough of that in real life, whether through black faces falling victim to the war on drugs or white faces going out of their way to quote whatever cool movie said “nigger” at me at parties. You know BET marathons Roots come Christmastime? I watched Monty Python & The Holy Grail with the fam instead.

It ain’t the sadness or the misery that did me in. I’m fine with either of those, really. But it’s the weight of dozens of movies and history books and conversations that did me in. The highlight reel for blacks in America goes like this: stolen from Africa, fed to sharks, sold at auction, whipped to death and back, freed from bondage and forced into even more bondage, died fighting some machine made of hammers, invented the peanut and stop light, wrote a bunch of poems, decided the front of the bus was the cool spot, got the right to vote, turned into drug dealers and thugs, decided the back of the bus was the cool spot, crackheads&fiends&geeks&junkies, Obama.

It sucks.

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is what Tarantino calls a “southern,” meaning a western set in the south. It’s the antebellum south, too, and depicts the version of life in the south at that time that you’d expect to see. People say nigger fifty-eleven times, slaves get torn apart by dogs and whipped, and there’s a big fat cotton field.

It’s also the most feel-good movie I’ve seen all year.

The American slave trade was an atrocity. It was government-sponsored genocide. It is a cultural wound, a scar that has never been atoned for and one that we’re still feeling the effects from today.

There are other scars, obviously. But we’ve avenged Pearl Harbor and World War II hundreds of times over the course of an interminable number of video games and movies. We’ve won the west even more often than we’ve won World War II… but we’ve never won slavery.

Just the opposite, in fact. Between moronic Lost Causers and well-meaning creative types, we’ve elevated the Confederate soldier — a man who fought for the right to hold another person as property, regardless of his personal politics — to a frontier hero, a symbol of American exceptionalism. We made scumbags into underdogs.

Django Unchained is a corrective. It’s not the first of its type, but it is by far the highest profile. Instead of wallowing in misery, Tarantino gives us — me — the story we’ve been waiting for: a violent, bloody revenge tale set in a time period that we have been continually dishonest about.

Why’d it take so long? I figure it’s because you can otherize the perpetrators of those other wounds. Nazis are German, the west was won over the bodies of Mexicans and natives… you can point at them and say “That’s them, not us.” You can’t do that with slavery. I mean, you can — you should — but what you’re really doing is “That’s Jody’s great-grandfather. That’s Ella Mae’s great great grandma. Nathan still spends summers between school in that house.”

It’s too close. You have to accept the fact that the people whose lives led directly to your life profited off misery. It takes the fun out of the revenge, when you realize that you’ve benefitted from the actions of the people doing the oppressing. (We all have, though. This ain’t a black or white thing.) It’s easy to feel distance and enjoy that righteous anger when our lone hero is shooting up the bad guys when they’re from some country you can’t even spell or have never visited. When it’s your people, though…

I loved it, though. I’ve been waiting for this movie for years. We treat slavery and the Holocaust and 9/11 with kid gloves a lot of the time. We act like the only proper response to misery is more po-faced misery. That’s no way to get past something, though. That’s no way to grieve. We need to be able to laugh and cheer and appreciate the fact that, despite the horror, we were here. We lived our lives, we did the best we could, and sometimes, we did something extraordinary.

I’ll probably never get my Nat Turner action movie, but Django Unchained is a nice stopgap. I needed this. A lot of things that fall under the umbrella of “the black condition” make me mad, and there’s nothing I can do it about it. I’m one dude up against the weight of centuries of oppression and billion dollar industries. I type on the internet and donate out of my meager paycheck when I can.

So yeah, I’m going to sit in a theater in smalltown Georgia, late at night with a theater full of black people and watch this movie. And we’re going to cheer and hoop and holler and revel in the fact that it’s 2012 in the United States of America and we’ve finally got the ultimate black fantasy on the silver screen, with a fat budget, great direction, and an amazing cast. And all it took was a white dude who’s really into black culture to write and direct it, which I feel like makes it the most American story of all.

John Wayne has a lot to answer for, but you can’t deny how powerful and invigorating a lone man righting wrongs can feel sometimes.

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Django Unchained: “If they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world.”

January 7th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

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Partway through Django Unchained, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin J Candie, ruler of the Candyland, talks about exceptional niggers. His idea is that one in every ten thousand negroes is exceptional, a near-equal to the white man. The other nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine are unexceptional, but possessed of an enormous capability for loyalty and servitude. Thus, it follows that the natural state of the black race is beneath the white man’s boot, as the white man is possessed of mental capabilities that the black man simply cannot possess… but everyone one in ten thousand niggers is good enough to go toe-to-toe.

My first thought while Candie was explaining his theory was of WEB Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth.” The talented tenth would come into existence for the purpose of “developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.” I’m of two minds about it. I like Du Bois’s emphasis on education, but I’m wary of anything that sets up one class as being meant to guide another class. I’d vastly prefer something egalitarian and logistically difficult, like making sure that everyone stands on equal ground.

Candie and Du Bois both accept that the black man is not on par with the white man. In Du Bois’s case, it was because the black American had been consistently terrorized and held back from being treated as equal. Du Bois wanted the best of us to help out the rest of us. In Candie’s case, it was because the black man was, by default, inferior, and any exceptional nigger was just that: an exception. The rest of ’em weren’t worth much of nothing, past what you paid for ’em.

I’m fascinated by how the oppressed interacts with the oppressor. Appeasement and collaboration, right? Why would you side with someone who hates you? Why would you adopt their mannerisms and culture? Usually, the answer to that question is “to stay alive by blending in.” Sometimes, though, you can adopt their methods in order to fight back against them. For example, Malcolm X found wisdom while in prison. Huey Newton learned how to read after escaping high school. Even your boy Tupac Shakur was well-read, and that allowed him to be politically active. Knowledge is power, baby.

Here’s Talib Kweli, off David Banner’s “Ridin”:

When they call you nigger,
They scared of you, they fearin’ you
So, actually, if crackers gon’ be fearing niggers
Then that’s what the fuck I have to be

Kweli’s idea here is to weaponize the idea of a nigger. They’re already afraid of you, so why not take that next step and demand your respect? Buy into their nonsense and use it against them.

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Stephen, played by an engaged and lively Samuel L Jackson, weaponized it in the other direction. Rather than using their prejudices to fight back against them, Stephen uses those prejudices to make a power grab of his own. He’s the prototypical house nigger, the type of guy Malcolm warned you about. He’s conniving and scummy, and his position as the head nigger in charge means that he gets to boss around everyone else. When it comes to dealing with whites, he’ll shuck, jive, step, fetch, and yes massa no massa of course massa his way into being a valued member of the family. But not a real member, of course — just a fixture, someone reliable. He’s still property, but he just gets to live a little nicer than everybody else.

Stephen gets a lot of leeway thanks to his sellout status. He gets to smart off to his master — up to a point, at least, don’t forget “Keep it funny, Stephen” — and he gets to tell other slaves what to do. He plays up his shuckin and jiving when in polite company to show just how fantastic his master is, but when they’re alone, Candie gives Stephen even more leeway. Candie understands that having an inside man, a different thinker, on his side is much more valuable than ruling by fear alone. Stephen is happy to be who he is, because being the other thing is out of the question.

I like Django’s route a lot better. When the time comes for people to die in Django Unchained, they die bloody. Jamie Foxx’s Django explicitly takes on the role of that exceptional nigger. At one point, Candie wonders why blacks don’t just rise up and take over. Django is the answer to his sarcastic and absurd question. Django uses Candie’s philosophy against him. He puts an end to their reign. It’s one plantation in one territory, not a revolution… but he gives them what they deserve and sends them on their way.

M. Calvin J Candie seems himself as a homemade intellectual, a deep-thinking type of guy with a firm grasp on the future. He’s a liar. He’s a lie, like the south is a lie, and like America is a lie.

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Django Unchained: “Coded language, man-made laws.”

January 6th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

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Here’s something to keep in mind while watching Django Unchained. An apocryphal origin for the word “motherfucker” is that it referred to slaves or slave-owners that did you know what with you know who. It was a term of extreme derision, the story goes, aimed at shaming slaves or expressing hatred for the overseer. Knowing Tarantino and his sometimes staggering grasp of communication, he’s more than aware of the history of “motherfucker.” That definition stuck in my head while watching Django Unchained the second time, and made me pay closer attention to what Tarantino was doing with language in his script.

People say “nigger” about fifty-eleven times in Django Unchained. It’s set in 1858 stretching into 1859, so you kinda have to expect it. What I like about the movie is how Tarantino doesn’t just stop there. He plays with language, with slurs, in a way that isn’t just a surface level treatment.

I don’t know how I missed it, but the usage of “Jimmy” in Django Unchained made something super obvious click for me. Crow as a slur for blacks, “Jimmy Crack Corn,” and those crows in Dumbo — they all come from the same place. Racial slurs go way deeper than nigger and darkie. Sometimes they take subtler forms, but when they click, things you’ve heard in the past tend to snap into alignment, and you see how this language has infested our culture.

Jimmy’s just one of the slurs in Django Unchained. Crow, black, nigger, pony, and so on… it’s fascinating. It’s easy to forget that racism isn’t as simple as somebody hating someone else over the color of their skin. It’s bigger than that. It’s a system. Language is just the first line of attack.

You can see the system at work in every single frame of Django Unchained that features a black person and a white person. Django, and the other slaves, are completely subordinate to the white people. Schultz and Django’s relationship is not just an aberration, but illegal. Django, while playacting a freed black slaver, is technically of higher social status than Walton Goggins’s Billy Crash, a simple redneck enforcer. That means he gets to smart off at Crash, to treat him like trash. But Billy Crash’s leer says everything you need to know about their power dynamic. Django can use all the words he wants, but free or not, he’s still just a nigger. If Billy Crash really wanted him, he could have him, and it’d only take a modicum of smoothing over.

The way the noose is casually hanging in Daughtrey, Texas when Django rides into town, everyone’s astonishment at seeing a black man on a horse, and the way people don’t talk to Django so much as around him all speak this truth. Django is barely out of slavery, technically freed, but he’s only one mistake away from being thrown back in chains. He isn’t a person yet, not by any white man’s measure.

Two exceptions: Sheriff Gus up in the cold snowy-snow of the north, and Dr King Schultz. Sheriff Gus has a bit part, maybe a minute of screen time, but he speaks to Django as if he were simply a man who was good at his job. He treats Django with a familiarity that no other character matches. They’re friends, or maybe something between friends and acquaintances. Sheriff Gus offers Django a slice of his own birthday cake. No leftovers, no gruel, nothing stale or spoiled. Fresh cake, meant to celebrate Gus’s birth, given as a gift to a black man. There’s a level of friendliness there that stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the film.

Dr King Schultz and Django have a relationship that’s more mentor and student than slave and owner, though Django is undeniably Schultz’s slave. Schultz is exceedingly European in demeanor and doesn’t like the idea of slavery, so he makes it a point to treat Django as, if not a peer, at least an apprentice.

Early on, Schultz refers to Django as “my boy.” It comes shortly after an innkeeper looks at Django in surprise and says something to the effect of “What do you think you’re doing, boy?” The difference between the two, though thin on paper, is interesting. “Boy,” as a term applied to negroes, was used to emphasize their less-than-human status. They couldn’t be men, because if they were men, they might be seen as being on par with white men. So they were treated as children in conversation.

Schultz’s “my boy” is different. It’s paternal, but not quite paternalistic. Schultz isn’t taking anything from Django with “my boy,” though it is explicitly more possessive than “boy.” It’s less of a slur because Schultz is using “my boy” to refer to Django as a junior partner, rather than property. It’s something a teacher would do, or a grandfather.

It’s a sign of Schultz’s faith in Django, if anything, and that trust is best shown toward the middle of the movie, when Schultz does a reckless thing, looks at Django, and says, “Sorry. I couldn’t resist.” That Schultz was willing to do something like that and throw his life away, leaving Django alone and in danger, is amazing. It’s the ultimate show of trust, in a certain way of thinking.

Language is complicated. You have to take into account who you’re talking to, what they expect, what you expect, and then construct your idea in a way that is clear in its intent and purpose. Django talking to Billy Crash is different from Django talking to a slave, which is different from Schultz talking to a slave, which is different from Schultz talking to Calvin Candie.

Language is just part of the equation, though. It’s easily the most outward-facing component of oppression, and much more obvious than the laws, lies, distorted religion, and fake science that people used to justify treating other people like property. But it’s not everything.

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Me and My People Got History: Why & How I Write About Race

November 27th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I’ve been wanting to write about Marvel’s ’70s comics for a while, especially the ones featuring Luke Cage and the Black Panther. I do it here and there, but never in depth, because I haven’t found a subject that I really want to put my foot in yet. Just a nebulous “Oh I should do this sometimes.”

I started work on a piece springboarding off an excerpt from Grant Morrison’s Supergods that was a good example of what I don’t like to read when people are talking about ’70s comics. Part of chapter 11 is dedicated to what Morrison terms “the relevance bandwagon,” the stream of socially aware or conscious comic books that began coming out in the early ’70s that included books like Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Jungle Action. It’s also the only part of the book where Morrison spends any amount of time discussing black comics characters in detail.

Morrison got it wrong when it came to why those books were relevant and good comics, basically, in a couple of different ways (factually, thematically). He got it wrong in the same way that people keep getting it wrong when they talk about this stuff. He spends more time on that stupid Lois Lane comic where she turns black for a day than John Stewart and Luke Cage combined, right? Which makes the entire affair feel condescending bordering on dumb insulting, especially when he says that Luke Cage “soon outgrew his origins to develop as a rich and enduring character, still central to the ongoing Marvel story decades past Shaft and Jim Kelly.”

Yeah nigga naw, Luke Cage has been rich and enduring ever since page one, panel one. The redemption story sucks because it erases the history of the character and the people who created him. I’m really fond of the Kurt Busiek and Jo Duffy eras, less so the Steve Englehart-scripted issues, but there’s a ton of things in there to enjoy. Not to mention the art teams, you know?


Hiding that history behind the idea that Cage needed rehabilitation hurts comics history. You don’t get Milestone Media without black artists finally getting a chance at the big leagues in the ’70s. Denys Cowan studied at the feet of Arvell Jones and Ron Wilson, among others like Rich Buckler and Neal Adams. Years later, Cowan bugged his friends with the idea that they needed to set out on their own and take full control of their careers. Then: Milestone, a company that focused on representing the world at large, across a wide variety of cultures and orientations and philosophies.

As halting and awkward as Luke Cage occasionally was, it’s not worth losing that history to point out how far we’ve come. I guess it’s a big deal to me because we’ve already come pretty far, and it was ten years before the theoretical redemption of Luke Cage. The redemption story furthers the idea that the mainstream comics industry was adrift when it comes to this stuff until NuMarvel, and that’s just silly. We’ve been better, and then we lost it, and now we’re trying to get back.

But I can’t make this post of mine click like I want to, no matter how clear I am about the component parts of it. I want the Supergods excerpt to be a springboard, not the focus of the piece. “This book doesn’t have it right, and here’s a corrective that can stand on its own.” vs “This guy is a big dumb face who didn’t pay enough attention to this thing I like in his big ol’ dumb face book.” I do care that Morrison got it wrong — it definitely put me off the book, even after a friend was kind enough to get me a signed copy from the UK because I am the BEST FRIEND — but I’m not interested in debating how or why he got it wrong.

That kind of point-by-point rebuttal isn’t where I’m at; it isn’t what I like to do. It makes my text too dependent on his, rather than something that can stand on its own two. I just want to talk about how these colored folks from times past laid the foundation for Milestone or how Luke Cage goes way deeper than “where’s my money, honey?” pretty much from the start of his series. I want to talk about how it wasn’t the social relevance that made these comics so enjoyable and important. The social aspect was important, sure, but that doesn’t mean anything if the books aren’t good. No, when I look at those books, I see a sudden burst of inclusion, not just comics writers exploring politics. Those books gave normal people who were underrepresented in these wonderful universes sudden representation, and it oftentimes turned out pretty well. Marvel especially managed to capture a specifically black aspect of the zeitgeist very well, and married it to their continuity in a way that worked really well. When that got stale, they hitched kung fu to Luke Cage’s truck and pow, they were right back in the thick of it.


So my springboard ended up being a stumbling block. There is no post that’s pure enough, not yet. But I’m used to this. I can’t fold, so I re-up and reload. I’m okay with having ideas that don’t make it from conception to birth. Ideas are cheap. There’s a kernel in my scrapped draft (technically 1.5 scrapped drafts) that I’ll be able to plant elsewhere and let it grow to fruition at some point. Plus, it’s nice to have crystallized those ideas over the course of writing the failed post, but that post ain’t what I need it to be. It’s not what I want, no matter how many words or secret rap lyrics I add to it. One day I’m going to find that trigger and squeeze it and blow someone’s mind, but today wasn’t the day. If you read my tumblr, you’ve probably seen a lot of ideas that didn’t quite go anywhere until months later. Build and destroy, right?

Writing about race is so weird. I often feel like I’m walking on eggshells or tip-toeing across broken glass sometimes, despite how often I’ve done it and how comfortable I feel with doing it. Like, as soon as you acknowledge that race exists and affects things in a positive or negative or in-between manner, armies of dudes strap on their fedoras and get to typing about how it’s not that serious, you’re reading too deep, why you gotta play the race card, chill out, bud, can I call you bud, my black friend lets me call him bud when we hang out, I’m down, brother. Or whatever. This paragraph got weird.

I wrote a thing about Robert E Howard’s racism a few days ago and didn’t say anything about the subtext beyond what like a moderately culturally-aware teenaged black kid would notice, like how power is clearly distributed across skin color lines or how the sexual aspects of a certain story break down and relate to its racial aspects. I talked about things that have been around and part of American culture for centuries, even if they’ve only relatively recently been named and shamed. Basic racial awareness stuff, right, like avoiding “niggardly” because it’s awkward and you’re probably a jerk if you’re intentionally using it around black people or not touching or asking to touch black people’s hair.

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Darryl Ayo said “I love when David Brothers explains very carefully and in detail about racist undertones in a work and some commenter is “uh uh, no!!”” on Twitter and I was like pshaw, I got this son, watch me do the knowledge and stunt on these bros… and then some dude told me to keep my emotions and politics out of things I read even if they are by an actual racist because I didn’t do the research and it doesn’t mean anything if he didn’t mean it and I had to slam the comments shut before I lost my doggone mind.

I think that’s part of why I try to keep the tone light when talking about race and comics, because it’s clear to me that it makes a whole lot of people (some people can’t separate what they like from who they are) uncomfortable, even if it’s something innocuous as “this racist guy wrote some racist stuff by accident.” I even brought a couple of gifs out of retirement, even though I don’t really get down like that any more. Keeping the tone light is a defense mechanism, I think, because it lays a foundation for me to laugh it off when things get stupid, as they do 99% of the time. If I poured my heart into something and kept it clean and then some schmuck came along talking about bootstraps, I’d feel much, much worse than when someone takes a lazy jab at a post with a funny gif of Method Man and Redman in it.

But I don’t think trying to lighten the tone actually works like I think it does? It makes me feel like I’m tip-toeing around what I want to say. Which, in turn, makes me think that maybe I should just go in and make things even more plain, because if people are going to flip regardless, why should I stress over how something is going to be taken? I could talk about things like how unbelievably off-putting it is that Brian Bendis and Sara Pichelli’s otherwise divine Ultimate Spider-Man features a black dude named Jefferson Davis, especially considering that the book was sold on the back of its lead being black and latino.

How do you talk about that bout of tone deafness — which should probably be explored at least a little bit within the greater context of well-intentioned tone deafness in the comics community, which I would argue is probably the biggest race-related problem in mainstream comics — without being an unfair dick to Bendis, who apparently named the character after a friend and not the dude who was a scumbag traitor to the Union who took up arms for his right to be a racist and own other people, like that’s a cool thing for people to do? (I went to a school named after Jefferson Davis for a while and basically wanted to die.)

I don’t make a conscious try at it, but I feel like I’m real layman friendly. I don’t talk about privilege or whatever other big words people are using to talk about race and culture. Not because I don’t like them or don’t understand them, but because that’s just not how I think about race. I didn’t go to college for this stuff. I’m either speaking from my own life experiences or those of people I’ve read, known, or respected. Some of it’s book-learning and some of it’s personal trauma, but you know what I’ve found is the most true and most effective when talking about race? Common sense. Racism, as a philosophy and practice, does not make common sense. It makes economic and nationalist sense, but not common sense. So, I’m just trying to say what I have to say in a way that everyone who pays attention can overstand it. It’s complicated, but it’s not complicated. You don’t have to talk about it like it’s astrophysics or microbiology or uh… precalculus. It’s best understood and discussed in basic terms. It’s thorny, I think is the word I’m trying to pull off the tip of my tongue, and complex, but not incomprehensible. “Food for thought, you do the dishes,” like an aight man once said.

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I have a voice and a platform that a lot of other writers who care about black issues in comics don’t. I don’t have the responsibility to write about that stuff, because I firmly believe in doing what I want, when I want, and how I want to do it, but I do have the inclination to do so. I enjoy it, at least at first. It’s like therapy on a budget, and a few people have written in to say I helped them figure things out in their own life, which is awesome/terrifying/awesome.

I really, really care about this stuff. I care about others getting it right and I definitely care about getting it right myself. Otherwise, you get “LOL Luke Cage” instead of treating the guy like his history is as rich as it actually is. Which I think is why I’m so careful and pointed about what I don’t. I’m playing with the cultural equivalent of a loaded gun here and throwing in a bunch of rap lyrics and jokes. But I don’t want people to misconstrue what I’m saying or get it twisted, so I pick my words very carefully. Deliberately. Some people are still going to get hot under the collar, but “fuck boys do fuck shit,” right? I just have to do what I do and keep focusing on getting better at it instead of the dudes who are mad that their favorite comic is pretty crappy when viewed through a certain light.

I think about this stuff a lot. I mean, the REH post I wrote on a Saturday morning because I was bored and felt like it, but the ideas in there definitely percolated for months before I put them to paper. At the very least since I read the first issue of the Conan relaunch. There were six or seven issues out when I wrote a post that mentioned REH’s racism in passing, so let’s call it six months. I notice something, I talk with friends about it, and then I push it to the back of my mind, where the real work gets done, until I have something to say.

Even when I’m shooting from the hip — usually on Twitter, rarely on 4l! — it’s never just to talk or something I’ve only half-examined. I think about the intersection of race and comics so much because I feel like it’s something that is incredibly important that is vastly underserved, or outright mocked, on a mainstream level.

Like, here’s a real life example: I mentioned the gross aspects of interracial (again, genre, not description) porn in that REH post, and the way it plays upon the fear of a white woman being tainted by the black penis. Some of it focuses on the shame of a white guy that a white woman would sink so low, which is the really, really gross stuff, but most of it’s about debasement. “She said her price’ll go down if she ever fucks a black guy, or do anal, or a gangbang; it’s kinda crazy it’s all considered the same thing.” if you need a topical reference and/or a reminder that Kanye’s “Hell of a Life” is a shockingly good song.

Luke Cage and Jessica Jones’s relationship began with rough sex in Alias #1, a Bendis/Gaydos joint. (I swear I’m not trying to pick on Bendis here, I’m just going with whatever examples come to mind and I’ve read a lot of Bendis comics. Probably more comics by him than any other singular author outside of Garth Ennis or Grant Morrison, honestly.) It was intended to show her at her lowest, how actively self-destructive she was being at that time in her life, back before she got married and had a kid with Cage. How do the fans refer to their hookup in that first issue?

“Interracial anal.”

Alias is a good comic. I went from Daredevil directly to Alias and had a grand old time. But how am I supposed to feel about that aspect of the series? It’s 2012, the issue came out in 2001 or whatever, so these jokes aren’t new. And that’s the go-to joke? That’s how people describe that scene? If I tell somebody to read that comic, five’ll get you ten that some schmuck is going to pop up with a dirty joke about it if that person decides to talk about it online. And that’s pathetic.

There’s already something uncomfortable about the debaser being black and the debased being white, regardless of Bendis’s motivations when writing. Bendis stuck the landing on that front in the text, but outside of it? He’s enabled his fans to run with this, make cute image macros out of it, and I’m like 90% sure he’s brought that phrase up in the Powers letter columns himself, though in a self-deprecating way.

I’m not with that. Not at all. I said a while back that one of the biggest parts of being black in America is being constantly reminded that you are black. That’s a clear example. Black is different, black is weird, black must be pointed out when you see it, especially when it contrasts with normal. I mean, white. It makes you feel like you don’t belong every minute of every day, like you’re an intruder in the only home you’ve ever known.

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And I’m not even talking about this like I think Bendis and his fans deserved to be nailed to the wall for whatever. That’s not where I’m at, and it’s not how I work. But I do think that not talking about it, not having that conversation, knowing how crappy it makes me and people I know feel, is a mistake. Having that conversation is at least as important as talking about when somebody gets something so right that you’re left amazed. Talking about race can’t be limited to just dudes in white robes burning crosses or racial profiling. We have to talk about the little things and the everyday things, too. “Don’t go to jail unless you want to be Antwan’s wife!” things, or “That’s so ghetto” things. “Storm and Panther only got married because they’re black!” things.

Race is bigger than racism. Racism, as far as I’m concerned, is a small and probably the least interesting part of talking about race.

Why do I write about race? Partly because other people are so terrible or inept at recognizing the impact of race on their life, let alone actually talking about it. When I first started, it was a lark. Then I thought I could convince Marvel and DC to do something other than pander to their audience. Then I realized that was stupid, and I’d be better off just talking about this stuff. I’ll spit hollowpoints at them them when they miss, praise them when they hit, and hopefully someone who reads me will look and go, “Oh, this makes sense” and tomorrow will be a little better.

It took me forever to come to that point, though. I figure it’s obvious if you read my posts from that first Black History salvo on through today. Maybe not. Maybe I’m the only one that pays that much attention to what I do. But I have changed and grown as a result of talking about race and comics.

I can’t really speak authoritatively on the Big Two’s racial issues any more, outside of when they step into a realm where I don’t need deep knowledge of their books, and I’ve more than dipped my toe into spotlighting black creators of all stripes. I just need to figure out where my lane is now, where I best fit in, and how I can continue the conversation.

I want to continue the conversation because it’s too important to leave alone, no matter how much I get down on it sometimes. It’s too important to me to leave alone. I had to piecemeal together black heroes and history as a kid. If I can save someone the trouble, so much the better. I want to continue the conversation because if I won’t, that cuts the number of vocal black people willing to get their hands dirty about race & comics and have a platform like I do by half. It’s me and Hannibal Tabu out here, unless someone’s slipped my mind. (There are no black women at the big sites, which sucks. But I know of one site that’s actively working on it.)

I feel like I needed to say this here so that I don’t need to say it any more. I’m working this out in public. Thanks for following along.

(Luke Cage, forever thugging. The images in this post are two of my most favorite Cage comics. The old, dirty scans are from Essential Power Man and Iron Fist, Vol. 1 (Marvel Essentials), with words by Mary Jo Duffy and pictures by Kerry Gammill and Ricardo Villamonte. The newer scans are from New Avengers: Civil War, with words by Brian Michael Bendis and art by Leinil Yu. I love that Cage, as a character, is strong enough to support stories of both types, and can be funny without being a buffoon. Luke Cage was created by John Romita, Sr and Archie Goodwin. Thank you.)

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Tumblr Mailbag: James Ellroy vs Robert E Howard in The Racism Race

November 24th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I get tumblr questions sometimes, a lot of which have to do with race or racism or people being racist to me because I talk about race sometimes. Here’s anudda entry in the ASK DR RACISM, OB/GYN saga, word to your mudda:

I remember reading something of yours where you mention the racisim inherrent in the work of Robert E. Howard. While I certainly don’t disagree with you, I would counter that the racisim in James Ellroy’s work is much more profound and, in many cases, explicit. Am I wrong, and, if not, how is one case more palatable for you than the other? I’m not trying to call you out or imply some hypocracy on your part, I’m simply interested to read what you have to say about this, if anything.

I sorta disagree with the thrust of your question. Writing racist characters (or “writing racist characters well” to be specific) isn’t the same as actually being a racist who wrote racist stories. Not even close. But, I’ll give this a try, because it’ll let me talk about a few things I’ve been meaning to talk about.

The main difference between the two is the way racism is expressed in their works.

My first thought when trying to come up with an explanation was that James Ellroy is a racism fetishist, but that isn’t quite right. It’s more that he’s into the taboo aspect of racist (and homophobic, and…) language, but also the musicality and rhythms of it. The repetition, the hard consonants, the way the words bend under the weight of someone’s accent. The pleasant menace of a kool, kalm, and kollected phrasing of a bit of bitter baggage on behalf of kharacter konstruction and… uh… another k word.

Ellroy isn’t doing it just because he hates blacks and gays and mexicans and wants a platform to call them whatever old timey words for them he dug or made up. He knows that taboo things tend to be super sexy in the right hands, and he’s aiming to drench you in them and pull you onto his side. There’s something attractive and alluring about his prose, and part of it is due to the nonstop obscenities. You don’t want to be these guys, but you do want to hear their thoughts for a while. Ellroy’s doing magic tricks.

It’s also worth noting — and fiction is the only time this excuse is worth anything, it won’t ever be viable in real life — that the language was a product of the times in addition to Ellroy’s own interest in the language. It’s meant to be racist. Ellroy, at least the Ellroy I’ve read, is writing stories set in our near-past during a point in time in which most people in the USA were either racist or perfectly aight with benefitting from institutionlized racism. If that wasn’t in his work, the books would ring half as real as they do. Granted, there are other ways to go about it beyond Ellroy’s “tossing you in the deep end with your clothes on” approach, but I never got the feeling that he was a racist himself. Great with the language, sure. But he’s writing characters who were racist, instead of espousing racist beliefs himself. There’s even a wide variety of racism in his works, while an actual racist usually just sticks to one school of thought. It would be kinda like a religious fundamentalist writing a novel where she espouses Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto, Wiccan, Sikh, Zoroastrianist, and Hari Krishna fundamentalism simultaneously, you know?

Robert E Howard, though, was an actual racist, him and his boy HP Lovecraft both. Though I guess HPL was so cartoonishly racist that REH just looks sorta like a regular dude standing next to him, maybe. But regardless, he was the type of racist who didn’t understand why a Mexican life was worth just as much as a white life, talked about burning lower races alive as a punishment for crimes, and who treated (or maybe just referred to, he probably didn’t have many black friends and the one he had went blind as a result of rolling his eye so much) people of other races as less than human. So: racist. Wikipedia says “he would be considered racist by modern standards” but that was clearly written by an insecure REH fan. He was definitely, undeniably racist by any measure, and especially the measure that says “being a racist means being a dick to other races.”

So REH’s racism has to be read differently from Ellroy’s racism-fetish (for lack of a better). One is an art thing, an affectation. The other is a straight up and down personal philosophy. What you believe affects what you create. Like for me, personally, my interest in crime, crime fiction, black history, girls with guns, girls wearing hoodies, smoking as one of the coolest acts in the world (thanks, robert mitchum), and so on affect what I put down on the page. if you look at my fiction (the tiny bit I’ve put online), you can connect the dots and begin to go “Oh wow, this guy’s really into weed smoke retracing skylines.” Ellroy’s interest in language and taboos manifests itself with his klear and komfortable facility with klanguage. REH’s racism manifests itself in the themes and specifics of his story.

The launch story for the new Conan comic was “Queen of the Black Coast.” I dug it and wrote about it. BUT when you know that REH is a racist, the story goes from a cool pirate tale to something else, which isn’t actually helped by the art or writing. REH’s racism means that his stories are going to have subtext that you have to explore and consider.

Bêlit is a pirate queen and commands a ship of hardened men who answer to her every word and desire. Pretty awesome idea, very girl power, and super thugged out. It’s the Warrior Queen, right? Red Sonja on a boat, Athena in a jaunty hat and pirate boots. Patty Hearst with the machine gun and beret, only on a boat instead of in a bank.

But the specifics: Bêlit has perfectly milky-white skin, something that was (honestly still is, but let’s not go there) considered the height of beauty. Her crew? A bunch of ultra-black brawny dudes. They’re her opposite, essentially. She is high and they are low, she commands and they obey, she is a steaming pot of sex and they are not. (Wait for that one.)

In and of itself, that isn’t bad. If it showed up in a modern DC Comic, like Africa being ruled by apes or that one stretch where they killed or benched a gang of fan-favorite non-white characters in favor of the army of Stepford Supergirls they got over there, you would just be like “Aw, man, c’mon dudes, you’re better than this.” You could probably roll with it. But if you knew that the author believed white women were greater creatures than black men, it wouldn’t sit so well.

Bêlit is sexy. Her and Conan don’t fall into puppy love so much as tiger love. Their union means terror for everyone else and extreme pleasure for them. BUT Bêlit’s the sole woman in command of a dark crew, which brings to mind one of my least favorite sexual fantasies, that of the black male tainting the white woman with his penis. 99% of interracial (as a genre, not a description) porn plays on this and is pretty gross about it.

The new comic adaptation (and maybe REH’s original tale, but I dunno there) avoids this, though the subtext is definitely there. Instead, I got the feeling that Bêlit withheld herself from her crew, or whatever nice way to say “she isn’t doing it with any of them, to my knowledge” you prefer. Which is interesting, because her crew are portrayed as being totally subservient, which lends me right to another of my least favorite tropes: the neutered black male.

Black masculinity (and femininity, obviously) has been an object of scorn, and occasional desire, to white culture for centuries. Consider your average prison rape joke (strike one), where the rapist is almost always black (strike two) with a big dick (strike three) and the raped is a skinny white man (somebody get this guy outta here). Pull that apart and you get the fear of the black man’s dick.

“Oh, but it’s positive!” you might be thinking. “Having a big dick is awesome!” Sure, okay. But the idea black men have big dicks didn’t come about because white people were like “Whoa! Look at Johnson’s johnson! That’s pretty impressive.” It’s because having a big dick meant you were… let’s call it “closer to nature.” A better phrase would be “more of a savage, closer to an animal than human.” (You can find the focus on black women’s bodies in a similar aisle in your local racist grocery store.)

Taking away the black man’s dick is another way to denigrate black men. (Sidebar: I just had to google the etymology of the word “denigrate” because I kinda laughed at the idea of it meaning what it looks like it means, and one of the synonyms is blacken. Yesssss, I love you, real life. Nothing’s as funny.) Reduce them to jokes or force them into certain roles and you take away their masculinity, which was and is basically synonymous with power.

So: a bunch of figuratively neutered black dudes being lorded over by the whitest of white ladies. Um. Can I get a ruling from our impartial judges?

Thanks, fellas.

And when Conan — REH’s stand-in for what Real Masculinity was all about — steps in, he becomes not just de facto leader of the boat, but Bêlit’s lover, as well. Like, instantly. Right after Conan murders a bunch of her dudes in a fight. They become obsessed with each other, go at it like rabbits, and everyone on the boat is cool with that, somehow. “Oh cool, Mister Charlie, go ‘head Miss Ann. Y’all just have fun copulating while we row to the next city. Rowing so hard our backs ache. But we won’t call OSHA. Sure. Y’all have fun. That sounds great.” Conan sidesteps the subservient gig and goes right to constant sex and planning violent raids. Conan was working there for fifteen seconds before he got promoted to king, and Bêlit actually places him over herself, in terms of authority.

All these little puzzle pieces aren’t too bad on their own, for the most part. But it’s when you put them together that you realize REH is saying something beyond “this is a story all about how Conan’s life got flipped, turned upside-down.” If you look at the hierarchy of the book, you have the unexperienced white man at the top, the experienced white woman under him (literally and figuratively in this case), and the black men coming in a distant third, below sexual notice and entirely without power except in the service of their queen and king’s wishes. Black women don’t exist here, which mirrors an absolutely amazing amount of fiction out there, especially of the fantasy or science fiction variety.

Kinda ugly, ain’t it? And I didn’t exaggerate anything or pull anything out of my butt when doing that summary. The specific stuff is in the comic (I’m assuming Brian Wood altered how the story plays out to make it fit a comic book format but stuck with REH’s basic framework and structure here.) and the themes aren’t stretches at all, so much as “Oh, weird, this story REH wrote lines up pretty directly with several racist ideas???” Hang on, I’ve got some input from our foreign expert coming in…

“Oooh, that’s a bingo! Is that the way you say it? ‘That’s a bingo?'”

Ellroy’s writing about how things were and amping up the racist language for the sake of being edgy and lyrical. He’s making up racist characters and writing about them, rather than espousing a racist viewpoint of his own. I can’t see your average racist rolling as lyrical as Ellroy’s racists, you know? What Ellroy does is not unobscene, depending, but it isn’t as much of a sin as writing a story about a fake place set in the fake past that lines up with your racist ideas and fears. That goes for stories set in a fake future where black people are Coals and whites are Pearls, too.

I, personally, don’t get down with REH’s prose. I dig Conan comics, especially the Kurt Busiek/Cary Nord joints, but his racist undertones combined with his so-so writing means I can keep my distance. Lovecraft is the same, only even more terrible at putting words in order. But the only time Elder Gods have really worked for me is Hellboy so that was an easy decision to make, like giving up brussel sprouts or any exercises that make my abs hurt.

Racism is a taint. It’s a lot of things, but in REH’s case, it’s a taint. It’s a mud puddle that you stomped in right before going into your friend’s house, and you keep leaving behind little bits of proof that you were the one that made a dumb decision. You’re mucking things up for yourself and making it hard for people to like you. I don’t know if this metaphor works but it was real important to me that I make it at 0800 on a Saturday morning.

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Tumblr Mailbag: On Faith and Writing

October 18th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I’ve been doing questions on Tumblr here and there. I had it turned off for a while, after it turned from “here and there” to “more often than I blogged music videos and pictures of Anna Karina and girls in hoodies.” But it’s back on now and at a much more reasonable pace. I’ve answered a few that I think are relevant here, too, so I’m going to ~crosspost~ a bit. Maybe it’ll spark some convo or something? No sé qué, but I’m doing it anyway. Original post. I don’t think I edited this one much at all, though. Fixed a typo here and there, tightened up a sentence or two, cut the weird bit about the comic-con sex parties…

When questions are turned on, you can ask me things here.

David, I’ve been following you ever since Spurgeon or MacDonald linked to your piece about Frank Miller’s ability to render acrobatics. I’ve noticed you’ve got a pattern of writing with conviction. I’m even noticing as I type this– your tumblr theme is “brutal simplicity.” I’m personally real interested in how faith systems affect folks’ art– do you have some sort of faith background that informs your writing and worldview?


I’ve been thinking about this question since you sent it in, mulling it over and feeling out the edges of it. I think the answer is yes, I do. I’m Christian, and protestant is as close as I’ll get to claiming a denomination beyond “Christian.” I went to a baptist church growing up, and a mission off and on, but I don’t know that I’m particularly baptist. I don’t go to church much at all any more, but I still believe, pray, give thanks, etc, and I figure I could go bar for bar with anyone in a casual religion conversation. I used to know the Bible really well, but it’s probably down to mildly well at this point.

Anyway, yeah, the things I prize most come from or are a reaction to my background in the church. Let me run down a couple:

Clarity: say what you have to say as clearly as possible, but don’t be afraid to throw some swing off in there to keep people paying attention. I hate it when preachers vamp, because I feel like that’s performance getting in the way of teaching, but when you find a speaker who’s charismatic and interesting, there’s a 90% chance that speaker isn’t just some schmuck who read a book. There’ll be some type of swing, a joke, a smile, a way of speaking that keeps you in.

Directness of speech: the church, the black church at least, can be pretty passive-aggressive and guarded. “Situation” was the one word I always picked up on. “I’m going through a situation, I’ve got a situation,” everybody’s got a situation. Nobody ever says that they’re so depressed that getting out of bed takes twenty minutes every day. Nobody ever says that they’re feeling the weight of the entire world on their shoulders and needs somebody to talk to. It goes in the other direction, too. If somebody thinks you got something going on, “I’ll pray for you.” And naw, I hate that. I understand not letting people know your business — I’m including myself in this for sure, I hate asking for help — but be specific! We can help each other if we know the deal. That thing you’re having trouble with, someone else has had that same problem and might be able to talk you through it. Be direct and be clear.

Well-reasoned arguments: A side effect of knowing the Bible reasonably well is wanting to fight people who know the Bible less well than you but still manage to talk louder. Last time I was back home, this guy was preaching from the Old Testament. I don’t remember the exact verse, maybe 1 Chronicles 12:8 but possibly not. (It probably was.) It was about how certain soldiers were like lions, at any rate. And when this false prophet was like, “Yes, back in the day, there were lion-men and–” I got up and walked out.

I dunno if dude wrote his lecture the night before or what, but how do you get to be like 45 years old and not understand how metaphors work? Or do any type of research? Why would a shepherd lie to his flock out of ignorance and arrogance? because the verse was CLEARLY referring to strength and fearsomeness, not dudes with lion heads tromping around. That’s moronic. But it’s a sermon, and you don’t interrupt those. (My favorite church format is essentially a college class, with back & forth and all. Sunday School > 11 o’clock sermons.)

But I could’ve eaten that guy alive any day of the week because he didn’t think his thing through. So one thing I try and make sure to do is to work the angles on whatever I end up writing about. I think about this stuff a lot more than you might expect, and even dumb posts like the thing about Miller drawing acrobatic moves was the result of like three weeks of thought and jokes/threats to friends about doing that exact post. And it’s such a nothing post, “Frank Miller draws jumps good,” but I still researched, read a lot of books… I knew most of it already, but I wanted to confirm that what I knew/believed was accurate/true. “I work the angles, sharp and precise.”

(I think this is also why I hate seeing underinformed people open their mouth about race & comics or creators’ rights & comics. They have the opportunity to do so much damage due to their own ignorance, and that’s not what people in a position to exert influence others should be doing.)

Honesty is another big one, and it ties into directness. I’ve amped up an opinion for dramatic effect (“The Winter Men is better than Watchmen”), but I’ve never expressed an opinion I didn’t hold for hits or whatever. I don’t argue things I don’t believe, and I only argue things I really believe in. I try to make sure that the person I am online is an accurate picture of who I am in real life. The only real difference is that I’m way smarter online (everyone sounds smarter in text) but way funnier in person (glib tumblr answers aren’t just a gimmick, they’re a lifestyle). I curse more offline, too, and generally don’t online.

But like, past that? I think if you meet me in real life, I would be the exact person you expect if you were familiar with my work. I’ve got a black power tattoo on my arm, I’ve done a pretty detailed job of documenting why I like certain types of music, and I’ve even written about fashion. That stuff derives from my life and feeds back into my life. Writing about black history & comics is like pulling teeth, but it enhances my knowledge of black history and myself, which in turn alters (altered, at this point, I think I’m done with BHM) the approach I take next year.

I try to be honest with my readers and with myself. What you see is what you get, you know? If I’m being a turbodick for no reason, I’ll apologize. I’ve written a few awkward apology emails in my time, and I’ve definitely apologized on the site. I never like when people demand an apology because screw you, I’ll apologize when I actually feel sorry. It’s worth more if you mean it, and I try to make sure that I mean it if I have to apologize. If I don’t mean it… ah well, them’s the breaks. Which sounds like something a turbodick would say, but as a dude who has given and received insincere apologies… I’d rather you hate me for me than fake like I like you. That’s just another type of lie.

That’s also why my name is on everything I do, too. I shed pseudonyms entirely a few years back (I think Twitter’s the last holdout, but my name’s on that, too) because I think it’s important that I be held accountable for what I do and do not do. I’ve never said anything online I wouldn’t say in real life if you gave me half a chance, and I feel good about that. I might say it better or more eloquently online — it’s sorta hard to get obscure rap quotes right when dissing someone on the fly I guess — but I keep it as real as I possibly can.

(Eloquence = rap quotes??? what is wrong with me)

There are a few other things, too. At its best, Christianity isn’t so much a religion as a blueprint for self-improvement. Constant self-interrogation, carving out the parts of you that aren’t Christ-like, pushing for a better you by any means necessary. I apply that to my writing, looking for new ways to do old tricks, better ways to deliver points, and just getting better. I attack my work to find out what doesn’t work and turf whatever doesn’t fit.

So yeah, I hadn’t realized it until recently, but faith, and the structures we’ve built up around faith, have definitely affected how I work. I think I chalk a lot of this stuff up to a Malcolm X influence, especially the directness and swagger, but I guess I’ve got a lot of fathers.

Really good question.

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