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'Django Unchained': Do we need to have a conversation?

Andrew Cooper

Let’s start by saying that of course,  Django Unchained is not meant for children. As its R rating and even a modicum of common sense dictate, plenty of thought should be given as to whether anyone under 17 should  bear witness to the cruelty and violence in Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti Western/slave revenge fantasy.  Most children will not see it. But a lot of teenagers will. Because it’s got a great trailer and Jamie Foxx looks like a badass in it. Because Tarantino has a string of popular movies behind him. Because it feels just a bit naughty yet righteous. Pick your reason.

But in our “post-racial” world, where the Civil Rights movement feels like ancient history for our children (though it was only about 60 years ago) and slavery is at best something barely covered in history classes, with about the same resonance as the lesson on George Washington crossing the Delaware, does the very existence of a stylized slavery tale require us to try for some sort of balance of the conversation? Or even acknowledgement that it’s a conversation that still needs to be had? Do we need to make sure, risking heavyhandedness, that the basic facts of the matter are known and can temper the entertainment prism, either by having actual verbal conversations with kids or by providing them alternative viewing?

Before I saw the movie, I had a conversation with a friend who echoed Spike Lee’s weekend tweet “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.” My friend’s fear was that we have a generation of kids who will have no true understanding of  slavery, but who will flock to a glamorized (if cruel) depiction, assimilating the vernacular into pop culture, horrifying their elders and thumbing their noses at a past they don’t feel connected to. That last bit’s a rite of passage, right?

I realized that I’d subconsciously had a similar concern before I went to see the movie, which, for the record, I found almost equally entertaining and disturbing, what with the unflinching brutality. But even though I had no intention of my teen son seeing it, I also know that he may at some point without my permission and even if he doesn’t, he’ll hear about it from friends or just some other teen and probably in less than mom-friendly terms. So when I stumbled across an airing of Roots on Monday while we were both in the living room I took it as a chance to talk about its significance in pop culture and its depiction of slavery. His ears perked up and he mentioned that he’s pretty sure he’d heard about it in school or something. We talked about the brutality of it all and the economic system that it was in addition to the social ill. Then his eyes glazed over and he clearly wanted to get back to whatever was going on in his phone.

As adults, we can parse the many things the filmmaker and actors are infusing the film with — the adult sensibilities that informed the whole thing. The understanding of the difference between what actually happened during slavery and the entertainment that appears on the big screen. But that’s not necessarily the case for teens. They don’t always get the big difference between fiction and nonfiction. They suspect that all historical movies are about as accurate as a documentary. They are far from stupid and are often more pop-culture savvy than their parents. But they are also impressionable and still soaking up information that will shape their lives.  So for every film that muddles an important issue (and here I’m focusing on slavery but it can apply to a number of other topics), are we obliged to make sure our kids have a pop-culture counterpoint? Do we need to make sure we get in a Lincoln for every Django? For every Inglorious Basterds do we make sure there’s a Schindler’s List viewing?

Or am I overthinking it?

Follow Abby on Twitter @EWAbbyWest

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