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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Cultural Crime

Incriminating Evidence and Interpretation

Negative and positive responses to “Django Unchained” and other commodities illuminate the complexity of popular disagreement in the United States.  The film is so multi-faceted, so open to an enormous range of readings and interpretations, that we must focus on small portions of Tarantino’s collage.  Representation of the institution of slavery, and the anger-making options of enslavement, serves as a distracting background for looking at the cultural triplets named Injustice, Violence, and Justice.  The family portrait of the triplets is more a painting than a photograph in the context of the film.  No amount of trompe-l’oeil succeeds in hiding how complicit the triplets are with bounty hunting, the primal center of “Django Unchained and other films that invite us to be spectators of law and disorder.  Common sense informs us that we are looking at incriminating evidence that pertains to the perverse, historical criminality of the American criminal justice system.  The visual and literary surface of the film is dense with familiar and obscure allusions.  What is fully available for popular discussion is a sop, a cheap sop.  It retards access to and robust public discussion of the dynamics of law and bounty hunting that so strongly impact the quality of our everyday lives.  As acts of interpretation, our responses shade off into hunting for violated boundaries or into quests to identify how the film insults our sensing of history.  Our interpretive responses wrestle less than they should with the ideology and economy of bounty hunting.  That fact, to borrow language from Tony Bolden, is “one of the signatures of our time.”

Rebecca B. Fisher’s “The History of American Bounty Hunting as a Study in Stunted Legal Growth” (N.Y.U. Review of Law and Social Change 33.199: 199-233) helps us to narrow and sharpen our interpretations.  Without drowning us in eight centuries of discussion about bounty hunting, Fisher directs attention to the American core: The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which reinforced Article IV, Section 2 of the United States Constitution regarding the return of runaway slaves, and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, an item of great importance in studies of slave narratives and abolitionist literature and those narratives that function in our nation under the color of history.  Fisher’s conclusion is sobering and troubling, for she convincingly asserts that

The history of American bounty hunting, a profession virtually unregulated for hundreds of years, is certainly relevant to understand how increased privatization in the criminal justice system will impact the least empowered in our society (233).

Fisher’s critique of how any of us might become targets of mistaken identity for bounty hunters is frightening enough, but what she exposes about the legal system’s violation of its own ethics is frankly chilling! Keepers of power do not encourage us to connect acts of literary and cultural interpretation with that kind of ice. Wake up. Our Constitution entitles us to hunt down those who wish to neuter us with law and entertainment.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            February 4, 2013

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