In this powerful and important essay, Laura K. Warrell refuses to bow to Quentin Tarantino as a pop icon and instead calls him out as a puerile manipulator of stereotypes. She puts his brutal and salacious Mandingo fight scene in Django Unchained (winner of the completely undeserved Oscar for Original Screenplay) up against Ralph Ellison’s horrific fight scene in Invisible Man (published separately as a short story called “Battle Royal”) and a recent theatrical production of the novel at the Huntington Theater in Boston. All three portray forced fight scenes between black men as an expression of white racism in the American South; they give Warrell an amazing opportunity to contrast approaches, values, techniques and motives and to deliver a stinging indictment of lingering racism and black stereotyping in Hollywood and PC America. In the end, Ellison is the voice that speaks the black experience with grace, intelligence and dignity.
Perhaps it was a strange twist of literary fate that a dramatic production of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man opened at the Huntington Theater in Boston ten days after Quentin Tarantino’s slave revenge fantasy Django Unchained debuted in cinemas across the nation. Two days after seeing the play, I read Ellison’s short story “Battle Royal,” and the weekend after that I went to see Tarantino’s film. Each work portrays, as a center-piece, a fight scene between black men with white men as an audience; such a convergence was too intriguing not to explore.
Ellison’s Invisible Man, published in 1952, is considered one of the finest novels of American literature and a groundbreaking interpretation of the black American experience. The novel is about a young black man’s struggle to define himself against the backdrop of early twentieth century American racism. The story “Battle Royal,” which Ellison published separately in 1948, is the first chapter of the novel. In the story the young narrator is invited to read a speech he has written on social progress to an audience of white men who force him to participate in a boxing match with his peers before he can deliver his speech. The play, adapted by producer Oren Jacoby and directed by Christopher McElroen, was first staged at the Court Theatre in Chicago in 2012 and ran at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston from January 4 to February 3, 2013.
The first thing I noticed about the staging of the fight in the theater production was how horrifying and heartbreaking it was. The bare-chested black actors seemed incapacitated by fright; their fear made them appear child-like as they swung their arms and stumbled, blindfolded, around the stage. At the time, I found it simply heartbreaking, but in retrospect wondered if it was somewhat manipulative on the part of the director to make these men appear so completely debilitated by their victimization. It reminded me of the way I sometimes feel watching certain movies by Steven Spielberg, as if the director simply wants to tug at our heartstrings without asking us to think much about what is happening. Any integrity, grit or sophistication these men might have had before entering the boxing ring seemed to have been wiped out in in order to present them as defenseless and scared. It seems insulting and just plain inaccurate to suggest that grown men are not still grown men even when they are scared senseless. Additionally, to infantilize them in a sense robs them of the same dignity the play’s white characters take from them. However, these personality traits – utter purity and childlike innocence – are personality traits “good” black characters commonly possess in popular culture. It is as if in America, we can only handle discussions about oppression and violence when the victims are angels and the aggressors are complete assholes. Consider how some people’s sympathies change when a rape victim turns out to have a sordid sexual past or how the Trayvon Martin case “took a turn,” at least in public perception, when the boy’s alleged Facebook page was discovered showing him wearing sagging pants and flipping off the camera.
In Ellison’s story, a white woman is brought out before the fight to dance provocatively for the enjoyment of the white male spectators. In the stage play, this woman’s sole emotion seemed to be fear as well. The actress playing her danced around pitifully, looking as if she were about to start weeping. All the while, the white characters, played by two white actors and a handful of black cast members wearing emotionless, quite frightening white masks, acted like our worst nightmares of what sexist racists can be. So maybe this was the problem with the stage version of the battle royal; the actors were asked to play one note.
Admittedly, I did not come to this conclusion until I returned to Ellison’s text days after the performance (before then, I pitied the black men and white woman, and was disgusted by the white men, as, without doubt, was the entire audience). But in Ellison’s text so much more is happening. For one, the author injected a significant amount of sexual tension into the scene. One of the other black fighters even has an erection. Ellison also showed us the range of reactions the main character experiences internally; even while he gets pummeled he is thinking about his speech and his dignity, telling us how he feels about the other men, plotting ways to achieve his ultimate goal and negotiating with the other fighters. Most importantly, his future self is interpreting events. Then there is the tangle of responses the main character has to the white woman’s dancing – desire, revulsion, empathy. He wants to protect her, to kill her and have sex with her.
In fact, even the white woman seemed more complex in Ellison’s text than she did on stage. At first, I sensed apathy in her as I read the story, as if she were mechanically going through the motions of seduction. It was only after the white men started aggressing her that I sensed her fear. And what about the other black man in the fight the narrator tries to negotiate with – suggesting they fake a knockout to end the spectacle – but who will not take the deal? His presence in the story added a whole other layer to events, which his absence on stage negated.
So what was missing on stage, for this scene at least, was the nuance and complexity the short story gives us through narration. The same nuance and complexity that is required of any in depth, smart examination of race and culture, and which is often lacking even in the most elite intellectual circles. Sure, we could say, ‘well, this was a stage production, there’s no way to convey the same depth.’ However, most of the play was presented with extensive monologues and asides; the lead actor would take center stage and explain his character’s thoughts and reactions to the events of the play by reciting lengthy passages from the novel verbatim (which Ellison’s estate apparently required of the playwright when asked to turn the book into a play). So, in some ways, the fight scene was one of the only scenes where there was really no narration. What was happening internally for the character was never presented to the audience; we simply witnessed the fight scene, and thus, only understood one dimension of its significance.
The notion that oppressed characters are sometimes turned into flawless, defenseless figures to gain empathy, is related to the fear many Americans experience of being labeled culturally insensitive, politically incorrect, or worse, racist. It is easier to depict an oppressive incident and its perpetrators as thoroughly bad and awful, and shave off any edges and contradictions in the victims’ characters, so as not to leave any room to interpret events otherwise. But it is this flatness, the inability to hold two or more potentially contradictory ideas in our minds at the same time, the notion that things are either categorically good or bad, that is what I find frustrating in many conversations about race, culture and gender in American society.
Does such a controlled rendition of the fight scene in the play protect both the play’s producers and its audience from being un-PC? Would showing any of the narrator’s unattractive traits or impulses confuse our allegiances? Do such controlled interpretations also protect us from having to look too deeply at the very things we fear most, for instance, that black men might desire white women (a fact that has a tendency to set off explosions in both communities)? Then there are other realities we do not really want to face, like that decent, upstanding citizens might also be racist, that violence might sometimes be arousing, that even victims of oppression can have unappealing compulsions. When we fail to embrace the complexity of these issues, we risk not coming to a true or lingering understanding of them.
In staging the fight this way, the director also contributes to, rather than underscores, the dehumanization and objectification of the black male and white female characters by turning them into mere symbols of oppression instead of full-fledged human beings with complex identities living in a complex world. Even worse, such flatness goes against Ellison’s original intentions for the piece. He included the narration in “Battle Royal” and all of Invisible Man for a reason. Consider the following, which is from Ellison’s introduction to the novel. As Ellison was putting the work together, he wondered, “why most protagonists of Afro-American fiction (not to mention the black characters in fiction written by whites) were without intellectual depth. Too often they were figures caught up in the most intense forms of social struggle, subject to the most extreme forms of the human predicament but yet seldom able to articulate the issues which tortured them.” Even if these kinds of characters did not exist, Ellison felt it was “necessary, both in the interest of fictional expressiveness and as examples of human possibility, to invent them.” His goal, in part, was to “create a narrator who could think as well as act” and to “reveal the human complexity which stereotypes are intended to conceal.” It is the characters’ intelligence, depth and complexity, as well as the complexity of the fight itself, which are revealed in the narration. By eliminating this part of the narration, the stage production reduces the characters to empty, even stereotyped figures used to demonstrate a social struggle. The characters in the onstage battle royal were presented as subjects of history rather than real people able to contemplate their individual fates.
Let us turn to Django Unchained and the so-called Mandingo fight scene, in which a slave owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio lustfully watches two black slaves beat each other. It should be noted that after the film was released, a legion of historians came forward to prove that many of the films most horrific scenes would never have occurred historically, including these fights. Still, the point, if there was one, of staging such a scene must have been to show how shitty slave owners were, stripping black men of their dignity by turning them into beasts fighting for their own perverse pleasure.
As opposed to the stage production of Invisible Man, where we have the context of the rest of the play to attach some sense of humanity and personhood to the boxing men, the fighters in Django have no personhood at all. They are simply growling, bloody animals. Tarantino seems to have a fascination with white men sexually violating black men, considering the anal rape of Marsellus Wallace by a white man in Pulp Fiction, the homoerotic master-and-slave relationship between the DiCaprio and Samuel Jackson characters in Django, not to mention the marble statue of two naked wrestlers entwined that stood prominently behind the DiCaprio character’s seat during dinner. Perhaps such references are just Tarantino’s way of attacking men he finds loathsome by calling them gay, which would not be too far-fetched considering how juvenile he can be.
It is worth considering where Tarantino “places” his audience as compared to the two other productions. In the stage production, the audience is sitting in a theater so does not have a camera directing them to watch one thing or another. They are more like spectators of the fight itself. Still, they are clearly watching the events of the play, and the fight, through the eyes of the main character who has been their guide since the play’s beginning. Ellison’s story is told in a close, first person narrative so, as in the play, the audience sees the fight through the narrator’s eyes. But in Django, the audience sees the black fighters mostly through the white slave owner’s point-of-view, thus, they watch the fight through his objectifying gaze.
Through this gaze, Tarantino turned the two fighting men into sex objects; the violence, as in much of his work, adding to what seems to be his own sense of eroticism as these half-naked men slithered all over each other on the floor, covered in blood instead of sweat. We hear bones cracking, skin splitting and blood splattering, along with some agonized screams. But these men say and think nothing and no one says or thinks anything about them, except for DiCaprio’s horny moaning and encouragement to keep fighting. Of course, we also get to see the Django character and his white friend seethe every so often as they watch the fight as if to remind us that this is in fact terrible. But by not allowing these men to have voices, let alone identities, Tarantino has done to them what he apparently loathes the slave owners for doing; turning them into objects for an audience’s enjoyment, the audience being those of us sitting in the theater. In some ways it feels we as audience members are complicit in Tarantino’s efforts to dehumanize these men, inadvertent as these efforts might be.
In the movie, I would wager to guess that these men were portrayed as over-sexualized, disempowered victims devoid of complexity or humanity not because of any desire to provoke sympathy or be politically correct, but because they were created and directed by Quentin Tarantino, who, for all his talents, seems to have lost the intellectual ability to see nuance and complexity at all, let alone the nuances and complexities of race in America. Pulp Fiction and some of his earlier films handled such material better. No doubt, part of the movie’s appeal, like so much in the culture, is its ability to arouse our basest, most animalistic instincts; the erotic charge American audiences seem to get from naked (literally) aggression, blood and violence.
While the play takes an intellectually remote stance to its fight, Tarantino’s movie takes an emotionally and intellectually desensitized stance, which fits our tragically desensitized culture. Both offer simplistic representations of the racial struggles their fights present, though I would never place the play, which in other ways was revelatory, in the same category as Tarantino’s movie. Only the fight in Ellison’s story is complex and layered, which is fascinating, considering how long ago, and at what point in the nation’s history, it was published. This must speak either to the gradual decline of both high and low culture in this country, especially when it comes to conversations about thorny issues, or the innate structure of fiction which allows for greater nuance. Of course, it could also be both.
The artistic consequences of such simplistic portrayals are as important as the cultural consequences. Without the nuance, audiences do not get to enjoy the layers, complexities and surprises multi-dimensional characters and fictional situations offer. Such portrayals stifle fruitful discussion and progress. They also make for intellectually offensive, half-assed or just plain boring entertainment.
—Laura K. Warrell
Django Unchained. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz. The Weinstein Company, 2012. Film.
Invisible Man. By Ralph Ellison. Dir. Christopher McElroen. The Huntington Theatre Company, Boston. 2 February 2013. Performance.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. 15-33. Print.
Laura K. Warrell lives in Boston where she works as a writing teacher and tutor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Northeastern University.