l learned, recently, that Alexandre Dumas was a black man writing white stories in the nineteenth century. Cornerstones in American literature – The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers – were written back-to-back in 1844 and 1845 in a post-revolutionary but pre-abolition world. The era is specifically important and places this work into a context not unlike the films we watch today, of yore: representative and reflective. Depending on the reader’s station, she will read Dumas’ work with a particular bent and her life will be further honed because of it. A wealthy white woman in 1855 might understand, through no fault of her own (though, it is very much her fault) The Count of Monte Cristo as a personal attack on the long-aft bourgeoisie, dismantling the wealthy for the betterment of the working and underrepresented classes. A modern black man might read it as a triumph of the wrongly imprisoned over corruption and the consolidation of white power. The very real differences in how people read art makes literature entirely subjective and wholly personal. The same holds true for film.
I learned that Alexandre Dumas was a black man from watching Django Unchained.
That this is true is a testament to how young people are learned and I must read him differently now that I know I know his race, regardless of how I read him before. Does it matter, at all, that I learned this fact from a film? Here are the arguments for both.
No: How a person learns something is irrelevant and that he knows it now is the whole point of education. When building a person, his combination of experiences, truism, faults and values make him who he is and the purpose of education is to ensure that he has access to as much information as possible. Combined with critical thought these ideas become ritualistic: he will draw upon them to make decisions day-to-day, whether by choice or by subchoice. I happened to choose to watch Django Unchained and by way of this choice I learned a fact about a historically significant figure. I can now make more refined choices about how I think about him, his historical context, his offshoots and literary descendants, and modern application of the Higher point, should I choose to attribute one. For this I thank writer and director (and actor) Quentin Tarantino.
Yes: The question here is why this wasn’t taught to me while in an institute of lower learning. Why were my English teachers, or professors, apt to teach race as contextual clues to enhance the richness of the text. It is not rare that a person’s demography has a circular relationship to his work; in fact by presenting the work of literature as a standalone object, we are doing every aspect involved a disservice. The teacher is teaching nothing; the students are learning next to nothing. Beyond basic reading comprehension, which is necessary and overrated, knowing who Edmond Dantès is and what is struggle is is unimportant. Why did I learn this fact from a movie, in passing?
The writing is oblique: probably most important is why Dr. King Schultz, played by a typically ebullient Christoph Waltz, is written to say this toward the bitter end of this life, as if to ensure the reader that he, in fact, fought for Django Freeman (an equally brilliant Jamie Foxx) through racial motivation. It would have had a more explicit effect if written earlier on, say, in the first third of the story. Because people aren’t exposition devices, a truth that Tarantino has always understood, and information is not sacred, but how it is used is.
The throwaway fact acts as a capstone to this sneakily dynamic character. Waltz’s Schultz is ultimately exactly the same throughout Django Unchained and dies an eternal death, because he stood for a strong truth, which, like a great object, only imbibes what makes it stronger. We are not at all surprised that Schultz knows facts about a black, Haitian author in the 1850s, and that he chooses his deathbed to mention them in passing, as if to impress the maniacal, belligerent Calvin Candie with his precision.
This small fact irons out the edge of Schultz’s personality and helps to – wait for the stretch here – define what it means to be a race-conscious person in 2018 America. Perspective, context, and exposure to different (not other) is a key. Knowing facts makes a champion worthwhile only if they add to the simplicity of a person’s conviction. How old David Duke is matters only because his organization predates him (white supremacy, even then, was not new), he embodies a gross understanding of humanity, and that much younger people still think the way he does. It continues to be hard to say why. I wonder if David Duke and his ilk know that Dumas was black.