Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained

Zero Dark Thirty really works as an action adventure film.  I hope that Kathryn Bigelow gets her due as a master of the genre.  In many ways, this film sums up her work as a director of stylish, commercial ventures like Point Break, Strange Days, and Blue Steel.  As a director, I’m always glad to see women working in non-traditional genres.

I’m not troubled by critiques that Zero isn’t completely accurate. I don’t know the history well enough to weigh in, but it sounds about par for the course. Narrative films always bend characters and events it some degree. It is necessary to meet the demands of the form. And I don’t quite understand what seems like faux-outrage that Bigelow is defending the facts. I’m sure that she believes that. I’m sure that she’s partially wrong. So what? United 93 was a terrific film. It helped me to understand what it was like to be inside that experience, but it was in many respects fundamentally  and necessarily speculative. Ditto ZeroIf we are arguing about the degree to which it alters facts, I’m interested in hearing that debate.

My real issue with the film is a moral one.  My sentiments echo those of Jane Mayer’s in the New Yorker:

Kathryn Bigelow, milks the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked. In her hands, the hunt for bin Laden is essentially a police procedural, devoid of moral context. If she were making a film about slavery in antebellum America, it seems, the story would focus on whether the cotton crops were successful.

Read more:

This in outgrowth of a more significant move in American movies where refusing to take a moral position is equated with not blaming or judging. Blame or judgment are not cardinal sins. I hate hypocrisy and superciliousness as much as the next person, but they are not absolute values. Sometimes refusing to take a position is, itself, a deeply corrupt act. It ignores the connection between just doing my job, following orders, going along and the consequences that must and always ensue. In film and writing programs, it’s common to herald freedom of speech. I celebrate that. That freedom needs to be coupled with conversations about how images and words can distort or harm.

And Mayer nails it when she argues that, Yet what is so unsettling about “Zero Dark Thirty” is not that it tells this difficult history but, rather, that it distorts it. Too often when you really examine these point of view-less narratives, there are profound errors and missteps. More facts, more analysis, less b.s.

I respect Jamie Foxx and Quentin Tarantino fans. But I won’t be going to see Django Unchained.  Slavery is a sensitive subject for me. To see it through the prism of pulp with its hypersexuality and violence, doesn’t appeal. Tarantino’s prickly response to critiques bugged me. Am I supposed to be so grateful that beloved and talented black actors are working that he is beyond question?

But what bothered me more was the fetishistic way he  has treated black characters over time.  There’s something very unsavory about this skinny film nerd’s embrace of the black buck  and highly sexualized black woman stereotype. Especially when his narratives make it clear that in the end everyone is saved by the trusted white man (Bruce Willis, Robert Forrester, et al.)

And  the cheap thrill of watching revenge fantasies in an armchair activist world where the contemptuous treatment of President Obama including record number of death threats doesn’t work. I’m all for it as a fun safety valve as long as it doesn’t substitute for putting in real social justice thinking and work.

Zero and Dark are what happens when we pretend work exists outside of any recognizable context or moral claim.  Junk food for the mind. Fun while they’re going down but of no lasting value or nutrition.



About liftingasweclimb

Mildred Lewis writes and directs for theater, television, film and the web. She's also a full time professor, Christian, activist and troublemaker with a passion to save as much of the world as she can.
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