Tarantino has given us a hero slave and in doing so put rebellion top of the agenda. With Django Unchained he’s found his ultimate muse and the largest and most epic arena for his movie-spanning revenge themes.
The scenes of slaves being flayed and branded reminds us how barbaric and awful this recent historical episode was. Have we dealt with it properly? Not only have we not dealt with it properly – the vestiges still shape society.
The USA has by far the world’s biggest prison population at 3 million and over 75% of that population is non-white. The slaves may have been granted their “freedom” but many of their grandkids still rot in jail.
If you are poor and lack opportunity you are more likely to commit crimes to survive. This is not due to a moral defect, it is a fact of life.
As the TV show The Wire so dramatically explored the black market in drugs is about the only viable means for poor communities in the USA to make some money. Ensuring it remains black market enables an army of police to herd the non-white entrepreneurs into penitentiaries.
The War on Drugs is revealed to be simply the most effective tool of racist oppression for today’s legal framework.
Tarantino isn’t known for his social commentary and his main concern remains great characters who whip, beat, blast and bomb the shit out their enemies. He does this better then ever. In doing so he also subverts the whole meta-narrative of hollywood. Not only is the hero a smart, sexy, empowered black man, most of the baddies are white.
Despite the fact that in many parts of the world non-whites are still oppressed it is hard to be struck by the fact that a lot has changed since the brazen, public brutality of institutionalised slavery. It is not just the violent overseers who sicken in the film but the prim white girls standing by in their finery like the grotesque wife of Assad.
Tarantino satisfactorily administers payback but the fact remains – in recent history widespread barbarity was everywhere. Not so long before that in medieval Europe citizens could be publicly “broken on the wheel” and a campaign was waged for hundreds of years against smart, empowered women who used indigenous knowledge – they were tortured to death as witches.
By looking back with fresh eyes at the rampant violence and misery that has shaped human history we are reminded that progress should surely be measured in the reduction of suffering, the improvement of well being and the sharing of these benefits and that morality ratchets up on the back of hard-one progress fought out by the brave.
The civil rights movement drove rapid change in a short period of time. One year you could beat your slave because you “owned” them and the next year you couldn’t. Today the concept of having a slave is anathema.
Progress requires that the rights of the oppressed always be defended against dark forces of conservatism that seek to maintain high concentrations of wealth and power within their historically (and violently) established clique.
For our generation, the major threat to human well being is one unimaginable at the time of the film (1858). Back then the human population was approximately 1.2 billion and humans had released almost no carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Most natural systems remained pristine and abundant.
Today the human population has grown exponentially, every natural system is in decline and thousands of linked climate labs spanning the world predict global temperature changes of 4 degrees. The bitterest irony, of course, is that whilst this is bad for all of us, it will hardest hit less developed countries near the equator.
The aggressive, male, rich white overlords who own the fossil fuel companies and the media companies and the mining companies and the armies tell us that climate change is either not real or unavoidable. More generally, they perpetuate the myth that we need their brand of endless economic growths to generate well being. But they would say that wouldn’t they.
Civil rights, equal opportunities and the gay rights movement stand out in recent human history as our greatest achievements. But this wheel of progress doesn’t roll inevitably. It is driven by the courage of people who can see beyond the confines of their own time’s limited moral context and strive for higher ground.
Today, the greatest injustice is the economic war on nature.
Not only does this war harm us all, it decimates the opportunities of the unborn humans we hope will inherit the great wheel and roll it to unimaginable new frontiers.
What to do?
We can all be inspired by Django’s grit and bravery in the face of the oppressor and get active ourselves.
The forests are being plundered, the fisheries are disappearing and the black rhino is about to go extinct. The rich white man tells us the only solution is more economic growth and maybe a war or two to get his economic machine chewing up the world some more.
Like Django, we say “D’Artagnan, motherfuckers!” drag him from his horse and set the beast free. The next big ratchet of progress is giving rights to the natural world that sustains us.
The forest is fighting back. It is time for a Climate Revolution.