Monthly Archives: July 2014

It’s Up to You (Part 1 of Two)

The world’s dominant climate pattern is called “the seasonal lag.” As that expression implies, the outgoing season lingers until it is overwhelmed by the incoming season. I see a parallel to that phenomenon in the global parade of civilizations. As with the gradual procession of seasons, civilizations rarely experience sudden death. Instead, their imprint lingers through their treasures made of words, stone, music, paint, and other significant artifacts. However, like the procession of seasons, the ideological remnants—or rather, residues—of past cultures also linger, often with appalling consequences for the living.

Like Greece centuries before it, America was and still is defined by freedom. But, also like Greece, inventor of the ‘fatal flaw’, America countenanced slavery. The Declaration of Independence itself states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. The words, “…all men are created equal” and “Liberty” are unequivocal. Yet, it took almost a century before slavery was abolished during America’s Civil War. There were reasons for that time lag despite the Declaration’s elegant words. For example, the exigencies of the American Revolution postponed freedom for African Americans while the Declaration’s ink was still wet.

It took yet another century after the Civil War before the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties legally assured African Americans their “certain unalienable rights.” But having myself lived for almost a century, I’ve observed firsthand that prejudice continues at all levels of society. Syndicated columnists, TV commentators, Hollywood stars and government officials either play the race card or (hopefully not) actually believe that President Obama’s political difficulties are racially motivated. The same is true of our Attorney General who actually makes that claim about himself. Mindsets remain implacable even in the most educated and sophisticated communities.

The residues of political ideologies also linger for centuries. When I attended college (NYU) in the late forties, I was shocked to find that the political mindset of academia was still stuck in the early twentieth century: ‘American imperialism’ and ‘robber barons’ were still buzz words!

The sixties were highlighted by a rebellion against the establishment. It was a bloodless rebellion led by young men and women under thirty years of age. It couldn’t go anywhere because the kids believed there is no life after thirty, so their politics had no impact on society. They questioned and resisted every aspect of American life but their mindset for structureless, communal life was untenable in the real world. Ironically, had they attempted their lifestyle in a communist country, they would have been literally destroyed. The overwhelming majority of them were good kids who were understandably traumatized by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War. Sadly, they were young at a time when the world was in a downward spiral that continues to this day. Incidentally, my friends tell me that because I remember the sixties I wasn’t there. That’s partially true because I favored opera over the Beatles, because I am not interested in rebels without a cause, and because the only drug I do is opera. I mention this because toward the end of that decade I saw the musical Hair. As is often the case, art best describes the essence of a concept. Whatever its faults, Hair was very exciting and made significant points about the times. I saw it twice. In that same decade I saw a breathtaking performance of Electra at the Metropolitan Opera House sung by Birgit Nilsson. I saw that five times. The sixties were something like the opening of Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities.

To be continued in It’s Up to You (Part 2 of Two)

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D’Jango

D’Jango is basically a morality film. Intrinsic to its plot, ‘Mandingo Fighting’ is portrayed as an historical fact, complete with buyers and sellers of slaves forced to fight to the death for the entertainment and betting ‘sport’ of white folk, i.e., a human version of cockfighting. To that end, D’Jango’s writer/director (Quentin Tarantino) invites us to watch a fight scene that has us cringe even though we know it is staged.

Critics of the film elaborately focus their attention on whether or not Mandingo fighting actually existed as a sport. Not mentioned in their reviews but of greater interest to me is the way the Mandingo fighting scene is choreographed. Two men, purporting to be in the market for a Mandingo fighting slave, deal with a slave owner while a fight to the death is in progress. Their demeanor is similar to that of businessmen at a restaurant discussing a deal while a piano is played in the background. The scene is craftily played as though goods were being traded, not human beings.

Of course routine slave trafficking is amply documented, but the alleged practice of Mandingo fighting is a fiction despite Tarantino’s claim to the contrary. Countering his baseless claim, critics point out that slave owners obviously would not waste their best and strongest slaves on fights to the death because that would be bad economics. Others avidly search for any scrap of evidence that might prove the practice existed, as though slavery requires one more example of its profound evil. But there are no records to support the claim that Mandingo fighting ever existed. Unfortunately, that does not mean that there is a lack of documentation for the inhumanity of slavery that is equal to or far surpasses alleged Mandingo fighting.

Yet, even though we are not shocked by dozens of gladiatorial scenes that we know took place in ancient Rome, the D’Jango (Unchained) Mandingo fighting scene does shock us beyond the element of violence. That is partly because of a societal phenomenon. After many years of painful contemplation and film images of slavery in America, the real and well-documented specifics of slavery have faded into an almost abstract realm of “social consciousness.” D’Jango needed a fresh atrocity to rekindle our visceral loathing of slavery. What better than forced mortal combat in nineteenth-century America? Of course! But the tactic is a lie.

Had Tarantino designed the plot for D’Jango¬†so that the forced Mandingo fight was presented as only one individual’s sadistic fetish-a concept totally consistent with the arch villain’s character-he would have achieved his overall goals for the narrative without meddling with historic truth.

I firmly believe that writers have a responsibility to present truth as they know it when they choose to write morality films whatever the style of the piece may be. Deception is not an ethical option. Being both the writer and director of D’Jango, Tarantino was in an ideal position to design the plot of D’Jango so that there would be no question about Mandingo fighting.

He dodged his responsibility.

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