I recently had a chance to see The Man with the Iron Fists, a gritty Kung-Fu-Spaghetti-Western-70s-Exploitation mash-up film presented (of course) by Quentin Tarantino. I say presented by Tarantino; the creation of the film itself is owed largely to The RZA of the former (and still awesome) Wu-Tang Clan. In addition to co-writing and directing the film, the RZA stars in the epic slug-fest itself, serving as the narrator and titular character.
Now I went into this film simply suspending my disbelief. I assumed all the nonsensical elements in the film would simply be loving jabs at the old-school kung-fu and action movies that Tarantino and Roth grew up on. That’s why Russel Crowe’s character has a gun-scissor-knife weapon, or why (and here’s the big thing) the blacksmith in this fictional Chinese village is black. Much to my surprise however, the movie began offering explanations (though not to the gun-scissor-knife). The blacksmith is, in a flashback, shown having grown up on a plantation and receiving his freedom from his dying master. Despite having papers declaring him a free man, he is continually treated as a slave- in one scene he is told by a couple of dandies that there’s no way he can read, and therefore understand what’s written on his documents. The two men crumple up his paper and proceed to slur and shove him until he fights back, inadvertently killing one of them. He flees west, and after his ship is wrecked, finds himself in China.
Now obviously that whole last bit about him running so far he winds up in the far east is obviously just the movie shifting back into fantasy, but what really got me was the depiction of slavery. Not prejudice, not segregation- slavery. When’s the last time you can actually say you saw a film deal with that? Glory in 1989? Some Little House on the Prairie episode sometime in the 70s? It simply isn’t done (and that one episode of The Boondocks doesn’t count).
And that’s what I want to talk about. Our depiction, or lack of depiction, of slavery. For all our grand talk of freedom, liberty, and American “exceptionalism,” we do tend to gloss over the uglier elements of our history, such as Manzanar, Wounded Knee, and perhaps most notably, slavery. It brings up all sorts of uncomfortable, and frankly unresolved conflicts. It throws a dark shadow over all of our self-reported greatness. Nevertheless, we really can’t shove it under the carpet, and it looks like, at long last, it’s starting to all come out.
AMC’s Hell on Wheels takes place during the years following the close of the Civil War, and like The Man with the Iron Fists is one of the few depictions of slavery I’ve ever seen on film or TV. In addition to its frank depiction of slavery, I want to take a moment to give the show some applause for the historical accuracy it had in general, depicting Northern racism towards the ex-slaves, as well as the racism inflicted to (and by) the Irish immigrants- another nasty little thread in American heritage you won’t find in most history books.
Of course, beyond that, there’s the highly anticipated Tarantino film Django Unchained, which we’re all expecting to be jaw-dropping in how good or bad it turns out to be. Unlike the previous two examples, which depicted slavery only briefly, this is a movie set completely in the antebellum South. That’s another hefty jump, though again, how well this is going to be executed is still very much up in air.
Now I’ve been struggling all night to come up with a conclusion for all of this, but I’m really not sure what to say. I can’t say why we’re suddenly interested in a subject we’ve been ignoring for the past century and a half. I can’t quite figure out if this is some little trend or the awakening of some part of our culture that’s been dormant so long we’ve forgotten it. I can’t pinpoint what’s causing this. I can’t tell you where it’s all going. I can tell you, however, where I hope it goes.
I hope this is the beginning of something that might pass for maturity in our culture or our generation. I hope that movies depicting the reality of slavery become a thing. I hope that they open up the doors for the rest of our small-pox-infected, witch-burning, Japanese-interning, waterboarding history. I hope we can actually learn something from all of this once it’s out there, and hey, maybe we can actually get some racial diversity in our movies for a change.
P.S. I haven’t seen Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter or Lincoln yet, so I can’t say how they deal with it in there.