PSU Discusses Art as Social Commentary

Django Unchained, a Western-style revenge film about a freed slave named Django, has received much critical acclaim, winning an Academy Award, Golden Globe, and BAFTA Award for Best Original Screenplay. Yet despite general approval, controversy about the film’s portrayal of the charged topic of slavery has shadowed this film, epitomized by filmmaker Spike Lee’s refusal to see it because of its disrespect to his ancestors.

The conversation around this controversy continued to unfold at “Art, Audience, and Accountability,” a panel put on by the Pomona College Student Union last Monday. Two speakers were selected to address the question of responsibility in art that intersects socially and politically charged narratives. Chad Coleman, a TV, film, and theater actor popularly known for his role as Cutty on the HBO drama The Wire, and Lee Breuer, a MacArthur Genius Grant-winning, avant-garde theater director and playwright, served as the panel speakers. Both of these artists are known for the social and political commentary within their own work, which gave them a particularly experienced eye to turn toward Django’s use of slavery as subject matter.

“In some ways he’s playing too much of a game,” Breuer said about Quentin Tarantino, the director of Django, who has received most of the backlash against the film and its depiction of slavery.

As moderator Katherine Snell PO ’15 mentioned, the question of whether or not a white man like Tarantino should be speaking for the experience of slavery has been hotly debated. However, neither Breuer nor Coleman found fault in Tarantino’s choice of subject but rather in his execution of the story.

“He has every right to take on this subject matter, but the way that he did it was problematic for me because it was way too simplified,” Coleman said. 

Coleman continued by saying that a problematic execution of a subject that carries significant social weight must be taken seriously because of the social effects it could easily have.

“It doesn’t happen in a bubble,” Coleman said.

As the story of Django spread beyond the bubble of the screen, Coleman questioned what the film’s depiction of eye-for-an-eye violence would suggest to young African-Americans living in the ghetto.

“From a social standpoint I was thinking of those kids … what are we perpetuating?” he said.

Breuer agreed there was a “social danger” in Django and affirmed that, in the end, an artist does have responsibility for their presentation of a particular subject.

“If people insult gender, if they insult race, if they propose a concept they are not qualified to propose, then you are on very touchy ground, and you have to take the consequences,” Breuer said.

In contrast to the problematic social commentary the two speakers saw in Django, Coleman spoke of the ability he saw in his show The Wire to “hand something back to the community.” 

“I don’t want to overplay the hand of art. The real worker bees are in the community, trying to effect the change that is necessary. But, if I can have a small hand in that, by honestly portraying what that life is like, yeah, that meant a lot to me,” Coleman said.

For Coleman, the key to responsibly presenting a subject matter in art is the honesty of the portrayal: presenting the truth.

“Authenticity mattered. To whatever degree you felt like you were experiencing something unique and honest and sincere and not manipulated and not Hollywood-ized,” Coleman said.

This kind of sincerity was certainly not seen by Breuer in Django, as he said that the film played on “a metaphor for African-American culture that is a complete myth.”

However, Breuer also pointed out a crucial complication in using the level of truth as a benchmark of responsible storytelling.

“These truths are subjective,” Breuer said. “Even documentaries–how many different ways can you document something so it means something different? I mean, really. This is art, and you are being manipulated.”

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