Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” has been hailed by many as a powerful and important movie, but has been criticized for its message. “Django Unchained” depicts an African American hero played by Jamie Foxx who tries to save his estranged wife from the clutches of slavery. The movie uses Foxx’s character as a vehicle to tell the broader story of slavery and the path to freedom. It is a strong narrative about the impact of one man, and raises many important and relevant details, but it also ignores the complexity of how larger institutional structures give rise to and support the success of individuals.
Last year, The Boston Globe ran an historic and exhaustive feature on the community that we call home. The piece, presented over five days, delved deeply into the lives of Dorchester’s Bowdoin Geneva neighborhood, and was epic in scope. Produced over a year of embedded journalism, the print story was augmented by a collection of statistics, videos, and commentary in the partner online piece.
Like “Django Unchained,” The Globe’s 68 Blocks received both high praise and some criticism. Through the individual perspectives of Father Conway, Jhana, Susan, and others it brought light to a world many don’t know, but not the story beneath.
In a neighborhood like Bowdoin Geneva, that The Globe noted is rich in diversity, the context matters. Early on in the story, the writers asked, “Why is Bowdoin Geneva still troubled with violence” and the answer is long and complex. The power and struggle of the neighborhood has to do with myriad opportunities and challenges which together weave the tapestry that is Bowdoin Geneva.
Much of the criticism of Tarrantino’s film is its glorification of Foxx’s character, Django, in lieu of the larger forces that eventually ended our “peculiar institution.” There was an institutional framework that created the means by which slaves were freed. So too is there an institutional context in Bowdoin Geneva.
The fabric of Bowdoin Geneva is full of civic groups, merchants, institutions, and all of us in the Bowdoin Geneva Alliance that together invest in making our community thrive. While it is true that there are many heroes here, most of what happens and most of how change occurs is through a more complex and deep-rooted series of efforts that over time influence the struggle. No doubt everyone would like a Django to ride in and present us with freedom, but our landscape changes because of organizing and small victories.
The other issue with holding up an individual to represent a story is that it can diminish the size and scope of the challenge If you believe that Django succeeds through his strength of conviction and fast draw, you lose sight of the vast resources expended to create a more perfect union. Though smaller in scope, the steady strengthening of Bowdoin Geneva in these last 20 years has taken much time and resources. Local groups, the steadfast commitment of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, millions of grant dollars, hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours, and much more has built a stronger, safer community.
The 12 institutions that make up the Bowdoin Geneva Alliance came together more than two years ago in recognition of all that goes into making a Bowdoin Geneva strong. We have a long way to go, but the work being done here has gained traction. It is the continued investment and commitment of resources that will ultimately lead to the day when the challenges of our community recede and we can claim total victory.
In the penultimate scene of “Django Unchained,” Jamie Foxx says that he is “1 in 10,000” and implies this is what makes his quest a success. The truth is that there are thousands of people and millions of resources that made his success a possibility; so too here in Bowdoin Geneva. While noting the amazing individuals who change history, it is critical to remember and support the institutional resources that move us forward together.
Mark Culliton and Paulo De Barros are co-chairs of The Bowdoin Geneva Alliance.