Django Is Wonderful.But It Shouldn’t Be Up for Best Picture.


By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for

Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: “Basically, Django Unchained is a B movie. A damn fine B movie, but still a B movie.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: “Basically, Django Unchained is a B movie. A damn fine B movie, but still a B movie.”

Everyone knows the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sometimes gets it wrong. The proof is when they overlooked me for my heart-wrenching role as the troubled navigator with a mysterious past in 1980’s Airplane!. Clearly, too subtle for them. Then again in 1985 when I played Fifth-Floor Guardian in Game of Death. Sure, the Third-Floor Guardian got all the laughs, and the Sixth-Floor Guardian got to cry, and the Men’s Room Guardian got tips, but my role was the thematic core of the film. Plus, I’d like to see Don Cheadle or Samuel L. Jackson take on Bruce Lee. They’d have gotten their asses kicked! Which brings me to Django Unchained. And why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got it wrong.

First, let’s get this straight: I liked Django Unchained and have been recommending it to everyone. It’s gritty and lively and filled with entertaining scenes. It zigs when you think it will zag, and, as with all Quentin Tarantino movies, it has flashes of brilliance. The character of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the malevolent house slave who is the real brains behind the plantation, is an inspired creation. His smug compulsion to destroy the innocence and humanity that he has lost but sees in others echoes the best of villains from Harry Lime in The Third Man to John Claggart in Billy Budd. (And Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen? He’s no Fifth-Floor Guardian, but he deserves an Oscar. As do Jamie Fox, Christoph Waltz, and Kerry Washington.)

But should Django have been nominated by the Academy for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay Oscars? No. Not unless the Academy starts new categories such as Most Entertaining Movie or Best Kick-Ass Movie or Movie I Most Wish I Was In. Until then, the Academy members have a responsibility to promote films that demonstrate the highest quality on both a technical and literary level.

According to AMPAS’s website, their 6,000 members “reward the previous year’s greatest cinema achievements.” But most people see the awards as an effort at blatant self-promotion in order to shake a few more bucks out of the public’s wary pockets (especially since the suspicious 2009 decision to increase from five to ten possible nominations for Best Motion Picture). Nothing wrong with commerce being part of the motive. It just shouldn’t be the main motive.

Movies are probably the most powerful and popular art medium in the world. Yet many people don’t take them seriously as an art form. Not like they do with books and theater. Films are treated as the class clown of the arts. Sure, there are exceptions with individual films (such as Silver Lining Playbook). It’s not that plays or books are fundamentally better. They have their pulp works (Fifty Shades of Grey). But the awards given to those two genres take the works seriously, mostly nominating based on content over popularity. The Pulitzer Prize people take it so seriously that last year they didn’t bestow any award for fiction because they didn’t find one that met their standards. (That was a silly decision, but I dig their philosophy.)

Should the Oscars be any less important than the Pulitzer or the Nobel prizes for the arts? It does a disservice to all movies to nominate films that don’t meet the highest standards of art. Doing so makes films in general less significant and therefore less likely to be treated as art. The Academy should take a tip from the Pulitzer and Nobel people and restrict their nominations to those films that aren’t just technical marvels but also reflect some meaningful insight into the subject matter. Being fun and entertaining and emotionally engaging shouldn’t be enough.

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Basically, Django Unchained is a B movie. A damn fine B movie, but still a B movie. That’s not an insult. I’ve been in B movies, many of my favorite films are B movies, and B movies tend to make a lot more money than A movies.

Despite its slavery setting, Django Unchained isn’t an exploration of the subject. It offers no critical insights into the circumstances, no nuances exploring the political realities (as Lincoln does). In the end, slavery is a prop to excite audience emotion and motivate the action. With the exception of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Stephen, the characters are fairly stereotypical. Pro-slavery characters are grotesque cartoons and those against (mostly the slaves themselves) are admirable and inspiring. And that makes Django melodrama, not literature. It offers no insights, only the most familiar observations.

I have a vast collection of Wild West paraphernalia and have read extensively on the era. My Buffalo Soldiers collection has been on display in museums. I mention this to show that, though I am informed of the history of the time, I’m not a pedantic prig demanding historical accuracy. Otherwise, I’d throw up my hands at the wholly fictitious “Mandingo” fighting that is borrowed from the 1975 blaxploitation film (based on the sex-drenched novel by Kyle Onstott).

I don’t care if Tarantino got the historical details perfect because it’s a B film that is plot-driven and blood-fueled. As with Inglorious Basterds, the historical accuracy isn’t the point. Basterds and Django are basically revenge films: The entire plot structure is built to punish someone who does evil at the beginning of the film. Which is also why Zero Dark Thirty, one of the most suspenseful films I’ve seen in a long time and would highly recommend, is also a revenge-themed B movie.

I confess that sometimes I’d rather see movies like Skyfall and Django Unchained again than some of my beloved A movies. Part of the reason is that the A movies are so powerful that they are seared within me, and seeing them can be an intense and draining experience. The B movie is much more enjoyable and less emotionally and intellectually taxing.

Sometimes a film can be disguised as a B film but actually is an A film, such as The Third Man. But that was written by the literary genius Graham Greene and its insights into the self-justification of evil deeds are as relevant today (think Wall Street and the one percent) as it was in 1949.

The arts have been hardest hit by the Internet. Now anyone can post a movie or a novel or a review. The usual rigorous filtering system of agents and editors that keeps out most of the bad stuff has been overwhelmed, and the results have diluted the standards of art. The villain is pandering.

Some reviewers have abdicated their responsibility by chasing celebrity. Obviously, some craft their reviews with bon mots of praise just so they will be quoted in movie ads (“Steven Seagal makes Daniel Day-Lewis look like a street-corner mime!!!”). The more their name appears in ads, the more famous the reviewer becomes, and soon this sad sellout is happily suckling at the fame teat. And some reviewers fear alienating the younger audience who don’t want to hear any geezer crap said about their favorite films (“That’s so negative, dude.”).

We need gatekeepers to filter out the dross and force artists to become better. We need intelligent and articulate people willing to hold to those cultural standards. And the Academy’s nominations for Best Motion Picture should be such a gatekeeper.

When I recently explained to a friend how my review of Girls had been misinterpreted by several prominent sites, she laughed and said, “Welcome to the Internet culture of TL;DR.” To avoid that same result, I’ve provided handy bullet points for those who skimmed.

• Loved Django Unchained. Everyone should see it.

• It deserves many Oscars, just not for Best Motion Picture.

• We need cultural gatekeepers to promote the best art of our culture and articulate why it’s deserving. The gatekeepers don’t need to agree with each other; in fact, it’s better that they don’t. Allows for more cultural diversity.

For me, Django Unchained is like this season’s Lakers: filled with talent and potential, but never coming together in a cohesive manner. You know they could, because you keep seeing moments of brilliance, and because they have in the past (as Tarantino has with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction; the Lakers, well, you know). Yet, even if they don’t win a trophy, they are still more entertaining than almost everyone else.

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This is to help you all to understand my thoughts on being a Muslim in America.

When I look around at the atrocities done in the name of Islam, I surely can understand people’s fear and even hatred of the religion. However, the kind of Islam practiced by radical terrorists who use religion to justify horrific acts or even by governments to enslave their own people is not the same as the kind, compassionate religion practiced by most of its followers. When people follow teachings set down hundreds of years ago, they usually come to the realization that their faith is in the spirit of the teachings rather than the letter of the law. The spirit of the Quran, the Torah, the new Testament, or even the U.S. Constitution has guided Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Americans to allow their teachings to evolve with the times while staying true to the spirit. Though the Torah directed the death penalty for a son who continually disobeys his parents, for contempt of court, for adultery, for not keeping the Sabbath, those are no longer the practices of the Jewish community. Christians are admonished to turn the other cheek when struck and if sued for your shirt, give them your coat as well. Most Christians do not adhere to those teachings but try to find a balance in which they are charitable without risking injury, generous without risking poverty. Originally, the U.S. Constitution allowed for slavery and denied women the right to vote.

Today, an enlightened America realizes that the Founding Fathers provided means to change the Constitution because they accepted that they were people of their times. Muslims are often judged by the actions of a radical few. No group wants that. When a Christian goes into a church and murders black people, we shouldn’t condemn the religion. History is a long, long list of those who exploited religious faith to achieve their own power-hungry ends. When politicians whip up anti-Muslim sentiment, they are no better than the very terrorists they are condemning because they are using religious fervor to their own ends.

For some reason, non-Muslims keep telling me what I and other Muslims believe based on their extensive research on Wikipedia or on anti-Muslim sites. It’s as if they want to believe the worst to justify their anger. Sorry to disappoint, but like most modern Muslims (and Christians and Jews), I strive to love my neighbor, help my community thrive, show compassion for the less fortunate, champion the rights of all marginalized people, and avoid violence.


Why I Converted to Islam

Copyright 2015 by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

I used to be Lew Alcindor. Now I’m Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The transition from Lew to Kareem was not merely a change in celebrity brand name—like Sean Combs to Puff Daddy to Diddy to P. Diddy—but a change of heart, mind, and soul. Mine was not just a simple conversion, but also a spiritual transformation. I used to be Lew Alcindor, pale reflection of what white America expected of me. Now I’m Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the manifestation of my African history, culture, and beliefs.

For most people, converting from one religion to another is a private matter requiring intense scrutiny of one’s conscience. But when you’re famous it becomes a public spectacle for one and all to openly debate. And when you convert to an unfamiliar or unpopular religion, it invites intense scrutiny, not of one’s conscience, but of one’s intelligence, patriotism, and sanity. I should know. Even though I became a Muslim more than 40 years ago, I’m still defending that choice.

I was introduced to Islam while I was a freshman at UCLA. Although I had already achieved a certain degree of national fame as a basketball player, in my personal life I tried hard to fly under the radar. Celebrity made me nervous and uncomfortable. I was still young, so I couldn’t really articulate why I felt so shy of the spotlight. Over the next few years, I started to understand it better.
Part of my restraint was the feeling that the person the public was celebrating, wasn’t the real me. Not only did I have the usual teenage angst of becoming a man, I was also playing for one of the best college basketball teams in the country, and trying to maintain my studies. Add to that the weight of being black in America in 1966-67 when James Meredith was ambushed while marching through Mississippi, the Black Panther Party was founded, Thurgood Marshall was appointed as the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, and a race riot in Detroit left 43 dead, 1,189 injured, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.

I came to realize that the Lew Alcindor everyone was cheering wasn’t really the person they wanted me to be. They wanted me to be the clean-cut example of racial equality. The poster boy for how anybody from any background, regardless of race, religion, or economic standing, could become an American Success Story. To them, I was the living proof that racism was a mythological beast like the Minotaur.

I knew better. Being 7’2” and athletic got me there, not a level playing field of equal opportunity. But I was also fighting a strict upbringing of trying to please those in authority. My father was a cop with a set of rules, I attended a Catholic school with priests and nuns with more rules, and I played basketball for coaches who had even louder rules. Rebellion was not an option.

Still, I was discontented. Growing up in the Sixties, I wasn’t exposed to many black role models. I admired Martin Luther King, Jr. for his selfless courage, and I admired Shaft for kicking ass and getting the girl. Otherwise, the white public’s consensus seemed to be that blacks weren’t much good. They were either needy downtrodden folks who required white people’s help to get the rights they were due, or they were radical troublemakers wanting to take away white homes and jobs and daughters. The “good ones” were happy entertainers, either in show business or sports, who should constantly show gratitude for their good fortune. I knew this reality was somehow wrong. That something had to change. I just didn’t know where I fit in.

Much of my early awakening came from reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a freshman. I was riveted by Malcolm’s intimate story of how he came to realize that he’d been the victim of institutional racism that had imprisoned him long before he’d landed in an actual prison resonated with me. That’s how I felt: imprisoned by an image of who I was supposed to be. The first thing he did was push aside the Baptist religion that his parents had brought him up in and study Islam. To him, Christianity was a foundation of the white culture responsible for enslaving blacks and of supporting the racism that permeated society. His family had been attacked by the Christianity-spouting Ku Klux Klan and his home burned by the KKK splinter group, the Black Legion.

Malcolm X’s transformation from petty criminal to political leader inspired me to look more closely at my own upbringing and forced me to think more deeply about my own identity. His explanation of how Islam helped him find his true self and gave him the strength to not only face hostile reactions from both blacks and whites, but to fight for social justice led me to study the Qur’an.

This decision set me on an irrevocable course to spiritual fulfillment. But it definitely wasn’t a smooth course. I made serious mistakes along the way. Then again, maybe the path isn’t supposed to be smooth; maybe it’s supposed to be filled with obstacles and detours and false discoveries in order to challenge and hone one’s belief. As Malcolm X said, admitting he’d made mistakes along the way, “I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost.”
I paid the cost.

As I said earlier, I was brought up to respect rules—and especially those who enforced the rules, like teachers, preachers, and coaches. I’d always been an exceptional student, so when I wanted to know more about Islam, I found a teacher in Hamas Abdul-Khaalis. During my years playing with the Milkwaukee Bucks, Hamas taught me his version of Islam and it was a joyous revelation. Then in 1971, when I was 24, I converted to Islam and became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (“the noble one, servant of the Almighty”).

The question that I’m often asked is why I had to pick a religion so foreign to American culture and a name that was hard for people to pronounce. Some fans took it very personally, as if I’d firebombed their church while tearing up an American flag. Actually, I was rejecting the religion that was foreign to my black African culture and embracing one that was part of my racial heritage (20-30 percent of slaves brought from Africa were Muslims). Fans also thought I had joined the Nation of Islam, an American Islamic movement founded in Detroit in 1930. Although I had been greatly influenced by Nation of Islam member Malcolm X, I chose not to join because I wanted to focus more on the spiritual rather than political aspects. Eventually, Malcolm rejected the group right before three of its members assassinated him.

My parents were not pleased by my conversion. Though they weren’t strict Catholics, they had raised me to believe in Christianity as the gospel. But the more I studied history, especially of the Church, the more disillusioned I became with the role of Christianity in subjugating my people. I knew of course, that the Second Vatican Council in 1965 declared slavery to be an “infamy” that dishonored God and was a poison to society. But for me, it was too little, too late. The failure of the Church to use its might and influence to stop slavery and instead to justify it as somehow connected to original sin, made me angry. Papal bulls (e.g., Dum Diversas, Romanus Pontifex) condoned enslavement of natives and the stealing of their lands. And, while I realize that many Christians risked their lives and families to fight against slavery, and that it would not have been ended without them, I found it hard to align myself with the cultural institutions that had turned a blind eye to such outrageous behavior in direct violation of their most sacred beliefs.

The adoption of a new name was an extension of my rejection of all things in my life that related to the enslavement of my family and people. Alcindor was a French planter in Trinidad who owned my ancestors. My ancestors were Yoruba people, from present day Nigeria. Keeping the name of my family’s slave master seemed somehow to dishonor them. His name felt like a branded scar of shame.

My devotion to Islam was absolute. I even agreed to marry a woman that Hamas had suggested for me, despite my strong feelings for another woman. Ever the team player, I did as “Coach” Hamas recommended. I also followed his advice to not invite my parents to the wedding, a mistake that took me more than a decade to rectify. Although I had my doubts about some of Hamas’s instruction, I rationalized them away because of the great spiritual fulfillment I was experiencing.

But my independent spirit finally emerged. Not content to receive all my religious knowledge from one man, I pursued my own studies. I soon found that I disagreed with some of Hamas’s teachings about the Qur’an and we parted. In 1973, I travelled to Libya and Saudi Arabia to learn enough Arabic to study the Qur’an on my own. I emerged from this pilgrimage with my beliefs clarified and my faith renewed.

From that year to this, I have never wavered or regretted my decision to convert to Islam. When I look back now, I wish I could have done it in a more private way, without all the publicity and fuss that followed. But at the time I was adding my voice to the Civil Rights Movement by denouncing the legacy of slavery and the religious institutions that had supported it. That made it more political than I had intended and distracted from what was, for me, a much more personal journey.

Many people are born into their religion. For them it is mostly a matter of legacy and convenience. Their belief is based on faith, not just in the teachings of the religion, but in the acceptance of that religion from their family and culture. For the person who converts, it is a matter of fierce conviction and defiance. Our belief is based on a combination of faith and logic because we need a powerful reason to abandon the faith of our families and community to embrace the beliefs foreign to both. Conversion is a risky business because it can result in losing family, friends, and community support.

Some fans still call me Lew, then seem annoyed when I ignore them. They don’t understand that their lack of respect for my spiritual choice is insulting. It’s as if they want me to exist only as an idea of who they want me to be to decorate their world, rather than as an individual. Like a toy action figure.

Kermit the Frog famously complained that “It’s not easy being green.” Try being Muslim in America. According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. public has the least regard for Muslims, slightly less than they have for atheists, even though it is the third-largest faith in America. The acts of aggression, terrorism, and inhumanity committed by those claiming to be Muslims have made the rest of the world afraid of us. Without really knowing the peaceful practices of most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, they see only the worst examples. Part of my conversion to Islam is accepting the responsibility to teach others about Islam. Not to convert them, but to co-exist with them through mutual respect and support. One World does not have to mean One Religion, just one belief in living in peace.
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