‘Behold the oncoming night, black velvet woven from a thousand shreds of skin pulled by whip, oh! Tore by whip, from the back of our people, when slavery reigned…’
Thus wrote the late Angolan poet MaurÃcio de Almeida Gomes more than 60 years ago. He did so with both clarity and an understanding of how the historical condition of an entire race can be carried through subsequent decades. Despite being a high-achiever in every sense, he understood and experienced this social branding in the flesh, for the blood of slaves almost certainly ran through his veins. MaurÃcio de Almeida Gomes was my grandfather.
I think of him as I watch Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s brutal Western parable set against the backdrop of slavery.
Everything you’ve been told about this film, be it hype or controversy, is set aside once it starts. It’s an artistic interpretation of a specific period of history, and it’s as much infused with Tarantino’s trademark reverence of (and reference to) sub-genres of cinema as it is with his passion for language. In the majority of his films, a foreign language when spoken becomes a subterfuge for hidden motivations and it’s often used to underline the ignorance characters share of each other’s culture. This is more than apparent in Django Unchained. When the subtitles kick in, the plot moves forward quicker than ever.
Yet most of the narrative exposition is economical and purely visual by means of viscerally violent flashbacks that are in contrast with the rest of the film’s stylised gruesomeness. The accuracy of the torture implements used to dominate and humiliate slaves is the flipside of a coin mostly dismissed as historically inaccurate. It also throws my mind back to a more recent past, when only a few weeks ago I was in Angola on one of the most important journeys of my life.
A bright white cube in the distance comes into view, seen from the passenger’s seat of a car in motion. ‘That’s the Museum of Slavery,’ states the driver matter-of-factly. A minimalist construction situated on a bay from which the vast majority of black slaves departed. Countless Angolans were extracted from this land to help ‘make Brazil’, as the same aforementioned poem exposes.
I’m in Luanda, the scarred capital of the country my grandfather loved dearly but was forced out of. I’m in the place where I was born 37 years ago and that only now I return to. A travelogue that will later be incorporated into a film ensues.
14th December 2012.
Going through the Kibala village, down a road that my father’s mother drove often half a century ago. A white woman travels with her two small children, as dwarfed by the majestic landscape of tall rocks and dense green vegetation as we are now, in a Land Rover that so easily conquers the miles ahead.
We’re heading towards Wako Kungo, formerly known as Cela. I think of my grandfather, of how he used to come to this area to work and later describe it with wonder. I welcome the shaking of the Land Rover caused by the beaten track. It conceals my weeping.
15th December 2012.
We drive past a derelict war tank, resting tilted on the side of the road. At Kissanga village, where the colonial architecture has been most ravaged by war, shy faces glance at us. A heavily pregnant woman, selling fruit by the road, leaps from slope to slope like an elegant wild goat to fetch us the bananas of our preference. ‘Only in developed countries is pregnancy considered an illness,’ my father comments. In another market, a friendly young girl tries to hand me a half-naked twoyear- old baby. She smiles, as if able to read my mind. Angolan eyes are always sad, even when smiling. My camera hasn’t rolled yet.
19th December 2012.
En route to Cabo Ledo – another driver, another large vehicle. We cross the Cuanza, the long river that cuts diagonally through Angola, over an old bridge – the only one that was left standing after the war. We return via Miradouro da Lua, where we stop and are forced to put ourselves into perspective. On this crumbling vantage point over vast merciless shores, surrounded by an ancient geological identity of the lunar kind, we’re close to nothing. Transient at best.
2nd January 2013.
Mussulo is a protuberant tongue of sand which turns and looks back at the city of Luanda. Technically a peninsula, but they call it an island. This is where I have spent the last five days.
With the house on the beach and its New Year celebrations behind me, I enter the sea alone. Only a few boats rock gently around me. The warm waters feel the closest I can imagine amniotic fluid to be like. I face the place where I was born and it makes sense. The skyline is that of a city bursting at the seams. Originally built to host a few thousands, but that now contains over five million. It’s a place of extremes, of shocking contrasts. Suddenly, I understand my filmography better. The people over there are like me, with an endless ability to resurrect themselves.
I emerge from the screening into a dark, cold Sheffield. The falling snow catches the light of street lamps and sparkles as it blankets the ground I walk on. It feels as unreal as it gets.
More than a sense of satisfaction with Tarantino’s film, I feel invigorated by Django, the character. Not so unlike him, I have faced in the past that presumption of superiority rooted in prejudice. But my inner fire burns steadily now. And I’m ready to keep my grandfather’s creative flame alive – with my own.