Sam Cooke was famously upset that it was Bob Dylan and not some Black musician who wrote and recorded the song “Blowin in the Wind“, and despite not being a filmmaker, I feel similarly about the fact that it was Quentin Tarantino and not some Black director that gave us the character “Jules Winnfield”.
Understand, I feel that we Negroes are the equals or superiors to whites in all avenues except two: NFL quarterbacking and film-making.
Who knows why that in the 51 years since there’s been a Super Bowl, we’ve only had two Black winning starters at quarterback; Doug Williams and Russell Wilson.
But as far as why we suck at film making, I can only imagine that it has something to do with the fact that movies, more than any other of the established arts, deal with imagery.
And nothing has been more fretted about, debated over and fiercely guarded than the Black image.
This, I’m thinking, has had a way of handcuffing many talented Black directors into only rendering stock heroes and villains.
The movies themselves follow the traditional three-act narrative, but with the exception of Barry Jenkins’ exceptional (in a lotta ways) Moonlight, the characters themselves rarely evolve or even act out of, well, character.
This said, there are many things about Tarantino’s “Jules Winnfield” from 1994’s Pulp Fiction that, for a Black character, are rare to the point of being revolutionary.
First of all, he’s the only character to escape the movie totally unscathed, having neither been beaten, raped, nor killed.
He’s been given the credit of not only an epiphany, but a spiritual awakening.
Second, he has a mantra, of sorts.
Even though if you’ve Googled it (like just about everybody did) and you know by now that the real Ezekiel 25:17 is pretty fucking far from the extended version we got in the flick, a Black character with a mantra is a considerable stretch from the catchphrases and bullshit we’re usually encouraged to believe are the limits to a Black character’s imagination.
Third, he loses and argument and accepts it.
This is perhaps the most shocking aspect of the character and an aspect that many Black people – and not jokingly either – considered to be the most unrealistic.
We’ve all been so bashed in the head by Black movie characters that plod straight ahead into whatever direction they’re going that any contradictory ideologies are either plowed over or ignored, so to see a Black character in a movie accept the possibility that a theoretical position he held may have in fact been misguided is unfathomable.
That Sam Jackson lost the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor that year to Martin Landau who won it for Ed Wood is one of the great slights in Oscar history.
And make no mistake, as far as iconography, Tarantino’s “Jules Winnfiled” is such a ripoff of Gordon Parks’ “John Shaft”, that Tarantino should have to pay for sampling.
Tarantino is an absolute Shaft Stan, going as far as to suggest that Parks misused the Oscar-winning title song by simply showing his title character walking around.
Yet, even though Tarantino’s Django Unchained remains my film of the decade (so far), Quentin’s still never made a movie as good as the original Shaft, considering not just Shaft’s importance in ushering in the blaxploitation era, but it’s value in upping the importance of soundtracks, it’s importance as a New York time capsule, and it’s value as a film overall.
But as far as the characters themselves are concerned, Jules Winnfield has it all over John Shaft.