The controversy over Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," in which slavery is the backdrop for a spaghetti Western, ratcheted up a notch over the weekend when freelance entertainment journalist Karu F. Daniels, writing in the Daily Beast, reported that the movie characters — slaves and slavemaster — are being marketed as action figures.
"Little White kids can play Calvin J. Candie and make Django and Stephen 'Mandingo fight' or they act like they're selling Broomhilda or just call them 'nigger' all day long. The possibilities are endless," Columbus, Ohio, blogger Jeff Winbush wrote on Facebook when he heard the news.
On amazon.com Monday, a customer reviewer identified as E. Tucker wrote:
"I have to say, I never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that, unlike myself, my kids would someday have the opportunity to re-enact America's slave trade the way my great-grandfather did! How exciting for them! Never mind those silly dolls showing racial equality and putting "black americans" (hah! is that the word we want to really use here?) in a positive light — no! With this, my kids can experience first-hand what it might have been like to own their very own slave! . . . "
By Monday, Hassan Hartley of Chicago had started a petition on change.org asking Tarantino to "Stop the sale and distribution of 'slave' action figures." And in Los Angeles, "A coalition of civil rights and African-American community leaders," led by Najee Ali of Project Islamic Hope, planned a news conference for Tuesday calling for a national boycott of the action figures, EURWeb.com reported.
As news, the story was a no-brainer, right? Wrong, Daniels told Journal-isms. "This story shouldn't have been ignored — especially by editors at mainstream outlets," he said by email. "i was even shocked. I pitched this two weeks ago to prominent 'news' outlets. so happy the Daily Beast editor (who's British) GOT IT." The British editor was Gabe Doppelt; Daniels wouldn't identify those who turned it down, saying he still does business with them.
Asked for comment, the Daily Beast provided this statement from Allison Samuels, the senior writer who edited the piece:
"An action figure made of a black man, real or fictitious is not something that happens every day so we felt it was well worth discussing. Given the controversy already swirling around 'Django' taking a deeper look at a doll based on a freed slave has certainly been of great interest to our readers on The Daily Beast."
Here's how the story made it online, as Daniels explained it in an email:
"I got a press release about the product line/partnership a few months before the movie came out, but seeing the actual images of them later on took it to another level. I didn't see the movie until after it opened. I'm no Spike Lee, but something about it didn't sit too right with me," Daniels said.
"And I like some of Tarantino's stuff and love the actors' works. But the idea of dolls — which were put on sale a week before — stirred something inside of me. Granted, there's an 'action figure' of the Brad Pitt character from 'Inglourious Basterds.' I saw that was selling for $700. But he wasn't a slave. Certain types of people can try to rationalize it how they want to, but the fact remains: none of those characters in Tarantino's other movies were slaves.
"If you want take [a] light and lively approach to the 'idea of these dolls,' Django could work (he was free, kicking ass and taking names throughout most of the movie. But Stephen and Broomhilda weren't. And that's not funny.)
"The radio silence about the dolls was quite jarring, to say the least. I'm always encouraged to pitch pieces that are 'broad' and 'timely' to editors. And you can't get no more broad and timely than this piece. Hollywood and the entertainment media have had a romantic love affair with this movie. People can form their own opinions why. So it's pretty obvious why some outlets wouldn't touch it. And The Weinstein Company spent a lot of dollars in advertising. But the facts are the facts. The dolls were made and marketed in tandem with a controversial movie about slavery."
In his Daily Beast story, Daniels wrote, ". . . Last fall, the National Entertainment Collectibles Association, Inc. (NECA), in tandem with the Weinstein Company, announced a full line of consumer products based on characters from the movie. . . . After repeated attempts to get someone to go on record about the collection, NECA spokesperson Leonardo Saraceni declined to make anyone available, would not comment and referred all queries to the Weinstein Company. No one at the Weinstein Company was available for comment by deadline and no one responded to questions posed."
Daniels continued for Journal-isms, "In a sense, I understand why publicists from the movie studio and toy company wouldn't speak, but getting some of our folks to talk was another ball of wax. I reached out to many talking heads, pundits and self-styled image experts, who I thought would've been perfect for the piece. All silent.
"At first I thought it was the holiday weekend. But it's 2013. People are more accessible than ever before. How do you think I corralled an Academy Award winner (Louis Gossett, Jr.) and a real, legendary image activist (Bethann Hardison). I was told by a black film expert that they couldn't talk to me for the piece because they didn't want to infuriate Harvey Weinstein.
"Another told me, 'oh, it's just a movie. It's just toys.' Contrast always makes a great story and I was really hoping for more of a reaction from some but it's like what Nick Charles (a former boss) used to say to me, 'everyone is always waiting for the shoe to drop.' And once the story finally went live on Sunday, the social networks were ablaze."
Among journalists, the most common reaction to the news of the "Django Unchained" action figures was a version of "oh, no, they didn't!"
Journal-isms asked some who had written or otherwise opined about director Quentin Tarantino's so-called "revenge fantasy" whether the existence of the action figures should change one's opinion about the movie and/or the phenomenon. They replied by email:
News of the "Django Unchained" 'action figures' creates a bad taste, doesn't it? Even if it is the case that the studio marketing division cooked up this 'tie in,' it still ultimately circles back to the creative team behind the film itself, in particular Tarantino. At the very least, it is in poor taste, considering the fact that the bondage of blacks is the main theme of the story. It does make you wonder who officially 'green-lit' such a dubious and insulting marketing strategy. And correctly or not, it feeds the escalating criticism of Tarantino as an out of control hipster who thinks he gets 'the Black Thing' but doesn't really.
Amy Alexander website: Three Ways of Considering Tarantino's "Django Unchained"
Jelani Cobb, associate professor of history and director of the Institute of African American Studies, University of Connecticut
It doesn't change my opinion of the movie since I thought the film was exploitative of slavery in the first place. I do think this adds a new level of distaste. It should be fairly obvious that making slave action figures is problematic. That the studio didn't recognize this supports my belief that this director lacked the sensitivity to handle a project like this.
Jelani Cobb, the New Yorker: Tarantino Unchained (Jan. 2)
In his book "Why Black People Tend to Shout," Ralph Wiley talks about taking a field trip from school — I think it was to the circus — and being sold a Confederate battle flag that he proudly waved all the way back home. When he walked into the house, his mother took a match and incinerated it.
I wish I had a story as dramatic, but I don't. I seem to recall a Hot Wheels car in my house — OK, in my room — that had the Confederate flag logo on it. It was the General Lee of "Dukes of Hazard" fame. I bring that up to say that I guess there's a history of regrettable images fashioned into toys.
I'm going to link to this email a column I wrote a while back not about toys but about play, and how even that can be fraught for black children.
I wouldn't necessarily mind the figure of Django being sold as an action figure, but if you sell Django, it would seem to me, you'd have to sell his nemeses. And in that, you're going to run into problems. Who's going to buy the white action figures? White children? And do we really want them to play the role of little budding slave owners? And if black children buy the white slave owner figures, then we got a whole 'nother problem on our hands.
I don't know that this information changes my mind about the movie itself. There's enough reason already to raise eyebrows at Tarantino. But it does make me shake my head and wish somebody had — to borrow a line from Blazing Saddles — cut this off at the pass.
Jarvis DeBerry, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune: 'Django' expresses an anger not every filmmaker can show (Dec. 31)
I think I dislike the film even more, now . . . LOL! Action figures? Really? A Stephen doll? I know there's an unseemly nostalgia in some quarters for Jim Crow and slavery-related collectibles, but this is ridiculous. This is either a very elaborate joke or a sign that we're on the verge of losing our collective minds. This is what happens when we go out of our way not to talk about race. The conversation we should be having gets sublimated into soul sucking nonsense like this. Who will buy this? Irony-drenched white hipsters? Blacks with non-existent self-esteem? Clueless movie nerds? If nothing else avails itself, I'll write a parody column for Friday. Tomorrow's column is already written.
Tony Norman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: 'Django' tells tale missing real slave history (Dec. 25)
It's like a virtual slave auction and shows that Weinstein and Co. will go to any length to make money from this vile film, which, like "Amistad," "Lincoln" and "Django Unchained" has blacks as onlookers, while whites debate their fate, when, without black direct action, there would have been no Emancipation. My idea for an action figure would be one showing [Jamie] Foxx carrying [Leonardo] Di Caprio and [Christoph] Waltz on his back, because they're getting all of the nominations, while, so far, Foxx and Kerry Washington are receiving none. This latest racist travesty is not unique in Hollywood, which makes you wonder why there has been no outcry about segregated Hollywood's receiving over $400 million in tax write-offs, while the latest figures show $10 billion in earnings.
Finally, the spin from Weinstein Co. is that this movie is similar to Tarantino's other mess, "Inglorious Basterds." Not so. In "Django Unchained," the leader of the state, "Hitler," is murdered. Foxx does not get to murder the prospective confederate president Jefferson Davis. That would have turned off southern audiences, who have had a veto over Hollywood content for decades. [W.E.B.] Du Bois, [Marcus] Garvey and Walter White would turn over in their graves to see this thing nominated for awards by the NAACP.
Ishmael Reed, Wall Street Journal: Black Audiences, White Stars and 'Django Unchained' (Dec. 28)
I will never understand how Django action figures are somehow over the line for some people.
Touré, blog: Django Unchained is a heroic love story (Dec. 24)
Touré, "The Cycle," MSNBC: America is ready for 'Django Unchained' (video)
I broke down, woke up Saturday morning, grabbed my son and went off to catch a screening of Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's mash-up of spaghetti westerns, blaxploitation films and revenge fantasies. I came out two hours and 45 minutes later feeling it wasn't Tarantino's best and it wasn't his worst. It was okay. Nothing more. It certainly never rose above pure escapist fare. I have no problem with junk food movies, but let's not pretend like Tarantino has anything new, fresh or original to say about race or slavery. He just knows how to kill the maximum number of cartoon bigots in the most graphic way possible.
However, the Django action figures go far beyond bad taste. It's not kitsch. It's not memorabilia. It's not a gag. It's making a buck off the backs of Black people and it's insensitive as hell at best and borderline racist at worst.
Tarantino's status as a White Hipster who is down with the brothers and sisters has been reaffirmed by the enthusiastic support of African-American audiences for Django Unchained. Goody-goody gumdrops for him. But he has no ghetto pass to profiteer from America's original Holocaust and even if it means I won't be considered one of the cool kids, I refuse to join the stampede to anoint Tarantino as some great thinker on the Original Sin.
He's not. He's just another race hustler.
Jeff Winbush blog: "Django" Is Solid Entertainment, But Lousy History (Jan. 6)
Jeff Winbush blog: Quentin Tarantino: Slave Profiteer (Jan. 7)
Charles M. Blow, New York Times: Escaping Slavery
Rembert Browne, Grantland: Django, the N-Word, and How We Talk About Race in 2013
Kenya N. Byrd, BlackAmericaWeb.com: Django: More Than Just Another Slavery Movie
Rebecca Carroll, Good: 'Django Unchained': Quentin Tarantino's Misappropriation of the N-Word (Dec. 18)
Courtney Garcia, the Grio: Hollywood Unchained: Will the success of 'Django' spawn more slave epics?
Sherry Howard blog: The error of asking "Django" to save black people
Eugene Kane, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Slavery as fantasy in 'Django'
Daniella Gibbs Léger, Essence: 'Django': What If a Black Director Had Pitched It?
Rashod Ollison, Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.: All the n-word outrage over 'Django' misses the point (Jan. 8)
Allison Samuels, Daily Beast: Spike Lee's Dissing of 'Django Unchained' Earns Both Ire and Indifference
Adam Serwer, Mother Jones: In Defense of Django
The commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation got underway around the nation on Jan. 1, but the humanitarian crisis created when the slaves were liberated escaped most accounts.
"As former slaves left their places of servitude behind, they entered a world of freedom, but also a war zone devastated by disease, poverty and death," Jim Downs, an associate professor of history at Connecticut College, wrote Sunday in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times.
"More soldiers, as Ric Burns’s recent documentary, 'Death and the Civil War,' reveals, died of disease than from battle. Slaves became exposed to the same outbreaks of dysentery, smallpox and fever that decimated Union and Confederate ranks, and they died by the thousands: an estimated 60,000 former slaves died from a smallpox epidemic from 1863 to 1865.
"There were no protections, no refugee programs or public health services, in place to help freed slaves ward off the disease that plagued the Confederate South. As one 19th-century reformer observed, 'You may see a child well and hearty this morning, and in the evening you will hear of its death.' . . . "
Downs is author of "Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction."
Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Atlantic blog: The Myth of Harriet Tubman
Tony Norman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Slavery is key part of riveting U.S. history
Darryl E. Owens, Orlando Sentinel: 150 years after emancipation, blacks are bound by their own chains
The Radio Television Digital News Foundation plans to honor the online micro-blogging service Twitter with its First Amendment Award at the 23rd Annual First Amendment Awards Dinner on March 14 in Washington, the foundation announced on Monday.
"The award honors an individual or organization that has played a significant role in dissemination of news and information. Notable examples of Twitter's growing role include natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, tragedies like the Connecticut and Colorado mass killings, as well as coverage of major world events like the Arab Spring revolts. Social media has added a new and important dimension to information dissemination and Twitter has been in the forefront of those efforts," the announcement said.
Mike Cavender, RTDNF executive director, said in the announcement, "It's difficult to quantify the impact that Twitter has on news dissemination not only here, but all around the world. Millions of people turn to Twitter as an instant source of information, especially in times of crisis. We're proud to honor this organization for its support and defense of our First Amendment freedoms.”
Twitter has a special appeal to African Americans. The Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project reported last year, "More than one quarter of online African-Americans (28%) use Twitter, with 13% doing so on a typical day."
However, a survey released Monday by Technorati Media found that only 15 percent of the consumers it polled ranked Twitter among its "most trusted information sources."
The rankings were:
Online news sites (New York Times, CNN), 51%
Retail sites (Amazon, Walmart), 31%
Online magazines (People, Motor Trend), 22%
Brand websites (Honda, Nike), 21%
"Fox Nation and Fox News Latino are once again selling different versions of the same story to pander to conservative audiences while simultaneously attempting to court Latino readers," Hilary Tone reported Thursday for Media Matters for America.
"As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the Obama administration announced Wednesday that it would create an easier process for undocumented immigrants who are relatives of American citizens to apply for permanent residency in the United States. . . ."
Fox News Latino: Obama Plans to Push Immigration Reform By End of January
Ruben Navarrette Jr., Washington Post News Media Services: Scholarships for illegal immigrants (Dec. 30)
Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN.com: If I offended demanding DREAMers, I'm not sorry (Dec. 28)
Within a few days of becoming Jerusalem bureau chief of the New York Times, Jodi Rudoren ". . . sent some Twitter messages that brought criticism, and had people evaluating her politics before she had dug into the reporting work before her," Margaret Sullivan, New York Times public editor, wrote on Nov. 28.
"Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in The Atlantic, summarized them: 'She shmoozed-up Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian activist who argues for Israel's destruction; she also praised Peter Beinart's upcoming book ('The Crisis of Zionism') as, 'terrific: provocative, readable, full of reporting and reflection.' She also linked without comment to an article in a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper." The headline on Mr. Goldberg's article was, 'Twitterverse to New NYT Jerusalem Bureau Chief: Stop Tweeting!' "
". . . Now The Times is taking steps to make sure that Ms. Rudoren's further social media efforts go more smoothly. The foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, is assigning an editor on the foreign desk in New York to work closely with Ms. Rudoren on her social media posts."
The issue of how neutral to appear is one that has long separated the black and alternative presses, which stress advocacy journalism, from the mainstream media. But it is an issue for the mainstream media as well, and Sullivan returned to the subject in her Sunday column.
"Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor, believes that traditional notions about impartial reporting are fundamentally flawed," Sullivan wrote. "For starters, he thinks journalists should just come out and tell readers more about their beliefs.
" 'The grounds for trust are slowly shifting,' he told me recently. 'The View from Nowhere is slowly getting harder to trust, and "Here's where I'm coming from" is more likely to be trusted.'
"Pushing back are editors like Philip B. Corbett, The Times's associate managing editor for standards. 'I flatly reject the notion that there is no such thing as impartial, objective journalism — that it's some kind of pretense or charade, and we should just give it up, come clean and lay out our biases,' he said. 'We expect professionals in all sorts of fields to put their personal opinions aside, or keep them to themselves, when they do their work — judges, police officers, scientists, teachers. Why would we expect less of journalists?'
"Neither of these thoughtful journalists, though, is black-and-white on the subject. . . . "
"The Sports Journalism Institute is set to welcome its 20th anniversary class this summer in Columbia, Mo.," the institute annnounced on Monday. "A group of six men and six women (four African-Americans, four Latinos, three white females and one Asian-American) make up the Class of 2013, which will be in residence at the University of Missouri School of Journalism from May 31-June 8, after which students will move on to internships around the country. . . . "
Hundreds of people gathered outside the headquarters of a newspaper company in southern China on Monday, intensifying a battle over media censorship that poses a test of the willingness of China's new leadership to tolerate calls for change," Edward Wong reported for the New York Times. "The demonstration was an outpouring of support for journalists at the relatively liberal Southern Weekend newspaper, who erupted in fury late last week over what they called overbearing interference by local propaganda officials."
"A paparazzo who took photographs of the daughters of President Barack Obama walking along a Hawaiian beach last week made a big mistake — at least, in the eyes of the Oval Office," Celebuzz reported on Monday. "Because as soon as the images of Sasha and Malia were sent out to news outlets around the world, the photographer received an official letter from the White House telling him to immediately stop their release, Celebuzz has exclusively learned."
As Inauguration Day approaches, the editors of Essence magazine have produced a commemorative book, "A Salute to Michelle Obama" (Time Home Entertainment, Inc.), the magazine announced on Monday. The soft-cover version is on newsstands; the hardcover is to be available Tuesday. The book, edited by Patrik Henry Bass, editorial projects director, features an introduction by Editor-in-Chief Constance C.R. White and tributes from author Dr. Maya Angelou, life coach Iyanla Vanzant and "First Grandmother" Marian Robinson.
"The Pittsburgh Police Department on Sunday put out a press release that included two Post-Gazette reporters' email to the department with several questions for a story they were working on," Jim Romenesko reported Monday on his media blog. "Diane Richard, the department's public information officer, tipped other news organizations off to the P-G's investigation when she sent the release to about 200 journalists."
Robin Givhan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion writer who learned last month she was being laid off from Newsweek and the Daily Beast, has the lead piece in the Washington Post Style section on Tuesday, a lengthy one on inaugural gowns. While the online version does not identify Givhan as a freelancer, the print-edition version says "special to the Washington Post,' Post spokeswoman Kris Koratti told Betsy Rothstein of FishbowlDC. [Added Jan. 8]
". . . Word on the Street is believed to be Baltimore's first street newspaper," Yvonne Wenger reported Sunday in the Baltimore Sun. "Attempts have been made in the past to circulate news about homelessness and poverty, but the previous efforts came in the form of newsletters in the 1980s."
"Comcast executive VP David Cohen will receive the Champion of Digital Equality award at the upcoming Minority Media and Telecommunications Council Broadband and Social Justice Summit on Jan. 16 in Washington," John Eggerton reported for Broadcasting & Cable. "Cohen, who heads up policy for Comcast, is being cited for 'visionary leadership in promoting minority entrepreneurship; universal broadband access, adoption and informed use; diversity; and success in America's most influential and important industries.' . . . "
Marianna Kay Siblani, executive editor of the Arab American News for the last 28 years, died on New Year's Day after a long struggle with breast cancer, Oralandar Brand-Williams reported from Dearborn, Mich., for the Detroit News. "During her time at The Arab American News, she was a powerful voice and an advocate for Arab and Muslim Americans on local and national issues," the Arab American News added.
" '2013 starting off with a bang! Newsweek printed its last issue and with that came layoffs and buyouts. I took a buyout, What's next? Who knows. But it's exciting,' wrote María Elena Fernández on her Facebook page," Veronica Villafañe reported Monday in her Media Moves column. "Her departure from The Daily Beast comes less than 2 years since she was hired as senior entertainment reporter. Prior to joining the now struggling publication, María Elena spent 12 years as an entertainment reporter at the L.A. Times."
In Miami, "WPLG reporter Johanna Gomez has switched broadcast mediums," South Florida TV News reported on Monday. "As of today she's part of the DJ Laz Morning Show on 106.7FM, which is also heard [throughout] the country. You'll be able to hear her weekdays from 6am to 10am. In a Facebook and Twitter post late last night Gomez announced her move . . . "
"The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on authorities in India to refrain from pressing charges against a media group that televised an interview with the companion of the Delhi rape victim who died last week," the committee said Friday. "The December 16 case has garnered global attention. . . . New Delhi police said they would charge the broadcaster under section 228(A) of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with the disclosure of identity of victims of certain crimes, including rape, according to The New York Times. . . ."
". . . Mexico is one of the most dangerous places to commit journalism, due to the impunity of drug syndicates," Judith Matloff reported for Columbia Journalism Review. "More than 80 journalists have been killed and 16 kidnapped over the past dozen years, because they wrote about the activities of warring gangs. Many reporters have gone into hiding, and still more have been silenced by fear. Desperate for help, a loose network called Journalists On Foot (PDP) began to reach out to Colombia colleagues for tips, and over the past couple of years, seasoned experts . . . have flown over to meet with reporters across Mexico. . . ."
"Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly has drawn the ire of at least one member of Hawaii’s congressional delegation," the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Friday. "U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa says the conservative talk show host owes Hawaii and all Asian-Americans an apology for his characterization of the isles' population. . . . 'You know what’s shocking?' O'Reilly said. 'Thirty-five percent of the Hawaiian population is Asian, and Asian people are not liberal by nature, they’re usually more industrious and hard-working.' "
"South Sudan has arrested two state broadcast journalists for failing to ensure coverage of a crucial speech by President Salva Kiir, a government official said on Sunday, prompting an outcry from an international media watchdog," Reuters reported.
"Every year, the American Dialect Society nominates and then votes on a word of the year, and for 2012 it's 'hashtag,' " Dieter Bohn reported Saturday for theverge.com. "It beat out other nominated words like 'YOLO,' 'Fiscal cliff,' and 'Gangnam style.' The ADS' chair of the New Words Committee, Ben Zimmer, said that the word was a 'ubiquitous phenomenon in online talk' in 2012. . . ."
Gene Demby, a black journalist who has just joined NPR as a reporter covering ethnicity and race, made his first on-air appearance last week in a "Morning Edition" segment last week on the decline of Kwanzaa. "I think you're supposed to say the name of the principle of the last day of Kwanzaa," Demby told host David Greene. "I'm not sure what that Kwanzaa principle is. But I think Happy Kwanzaa is a sufficient response for a salutation." NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos wrote Monday, "There is nothing wrong with a journalist not knowing something. But in a two-way with a reporter, that unknown is usually about a fact that is not public or is unconfirmed. In this case, however, Demby was presented not just as a reporter, but also as an expert and — crucially here — a personal example." The lack of knowledge offended some listeners.
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Journal-isms is published on the site of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (www.mije.org). Reprinted on The Root by permission.