Blog post

Adolph Reed Goes to the Movies

Natasha Lewis26 February 2013

In a sharp and thought-provoking essay for Nonsite, Adolph Reed rails against a host of critically acclaimed films including Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild and Django Unchained, which won the prize for Best Original Screenplay on Sunday.

Reed compares Django to The Help: both films ignore the capitalist underpinnings of racial injustice and, in doing so, trivialize it. In The Help, Jim Crow is reduced to “small-minded bigotry and lack of sensitivity;” in Django, the injustice of slavery is characterized as sadistic brutality, while its basis as a labor relation is all but ignored:

Apart from serving a formal dinner in a plantation house ...Tarantino’s slaves do no actual work at all; they’re present only to be brutalized. In fact, the cavalier sadism with which owners and traders treat them belies the fact that slaves were, first and foremost, capital investments.

The two films received very different critical receptions: liberals lamented the subservience in The Help but admired the revenge fantasy narrative of Django. Reed argues this celebration stems from a baggy politics of recognition: the recurrence of the word “inspiration” in positive reviews that focused on the film’s black heroism narrative is based on a belief that justice is an individual's to seize. Django Unchained's plot is simply neoliberalism's ideals, dramatized:

Particularly as those messages strive for “universality” as well as inspiration, their least common denominator tends toward the generic story of individual triumph over adversity. But the imagery of the individual overcoming odds to achieve fame, success, or recognition also maps onto the fantasy of limitless upward mobility for enterprising and persistent individuals who persevere and remain true to their dreams. As such, it is neoliberalism’s version of an ideal of social justice, legitimizing both success and failure as products of individual character. When combined with a multiculturalist rhetoric of “difference” that reifies as autonomous cultures—in effect racializes—what are actually contingent modes of life reproduced by structural inequalities, this fantasy crowds inequality as a metric of injustice out of the picture entirely. This accounts for the popularity of reactionary dreck like Beasts of the Southern Wild among people who should know better. The denizens of the Bathtub actively, even militantly, choose their poverty and cherish it and should be respected and appreciated for doing so. But no one ever supposed that Leni Riefenstahl was on the left.

Reed laments the state of film critcism as symptomatic of a wider problem:

Being a progressive is now more a matter of how one thinks about oneself than what one stands for or does in the world. The best that can be said for that perspective is that it registers acquiescence in defeat. It amounts to an effort to salvage an idea of a left by reformulating it as a sensibility within neoliberalism rather than a challenge to it.

If politics is how one thinks of oneself, then it is logical that individual acts of defiance will trump real politics. When critics find more to love in Django’s murder of a few whites than the political abolition of slavery (as is the case with some reviewers who compared Django Unchained with Lincoln), Reed argues, they “reproduce the elevation of private, voluntarist action as a politics—somehow more truly true or authentic, or at least more appealing emotionally—over the machinations of government and institutional actors.”

For Reed, the representation of black heroism in cinema no longer needs to be a priority. An insightful personal anecdote illuminates how race in film has changed over the last two decades:

When we watched the 1982 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, my then twelve year-old son remarked that he’d want to leave the theater if the black starship captain (played by Paul Winfield) killed himself to save Captain Kirk, which of course happened moments later. (As Minister Livingston continued, “Heck, I liked the Black guy even living to see the end of a movie.”) But, understandable as that impulse is, it is problematic as a basis for making claims about films’ social significance at this point in American history.  Black characters or characters played by black actors now routinely survive to the end of films in which most characters die, and black actors commonly enough play leading roles.

In the final half of the essay, Reed warns against the problematic instinct to draw comparisons between the past and the present:

Persistence of familiar narratives of hierarchy can evoke the earlier associations, but that evocation can be misleading and counterproductive for making sense of social relations in both past and present. In particular the “just like slavery” or “just like Jim Crow” proclamations that are intended as powerful criticism of current injustices are more likely to undermine understanding of injustice in the past as well as the present than to enable new insight. 

Paying too much attention to the past can obscure the specificity of contemporary social relations. Reed cites Barbara and Karen Fields’ book, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life and argues, as the Fields sisters do, that today’s struggles for social justice must transcend the limits of race.