I swore to myself I wouldn’t do the popular Black blogger thing and opine here about Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, until I’d actually seen it. I wasn’t going to pull a Spike Lee and embarrass myself by making bold statements about a movie that I’d only read plot summaries of and strongly-worded critiques of on other blogs and IMDB. So I went to see it last night, surprisingly accompanied by my mother, one of the most modest and squeamish people I know (I’ve never even heard her curse before), in hopes that I could become an informed member of the debate. I’m a huge Tarantino fan myself, and I’ve always been an advocate of using humor to diffuse and navigate some very tough racial quandaries, so I knew my thoughts on it would be far from unbiased or neutral, but I had to give it a shot.
A word on the actual experience of watching the film, I saw it in a small theater in NC full of Black folks, and I don’t think I’ve ever been in a movie showing that had as much electric energy from the crowd. Usually, Black folks talking to the screen can ruin any movie-going experience, but I felt that the crowd gasping, cringing, cheering, laughing and generally rising and falling with Django made for a new dimension of the experience that I really enjoyed. Far from the “angry Black rioters” spewing forth from the movie that right-wingers feared, I feel like the attitude of the crowd after the movie was one of pride and reflection. In the midst of what was essentially a classic racial comeuppance story via Blaxploitation, we had found a truly sympathetic Black superhero in Django’s character. My mama was ecstatic, even after closing her eyes during every EXTREMELY GORY gunfight.
On to the film, my first thoughts on leaving were “what was all the fuss about?” It was a fine Tarantino film, one of his standouts, and as a fan of both Westerns and Blaxploitation films, I felt Tarantino probably did his best job blending his standard alchemical preparation of the two. We had a likable but deeply flawed hero with a time-tested romantic rescue story (meta-referenced in the film as an homage to Wagner’s Ring Cycle hero, Siegfried), a kindhearted mentor who serves as Django’s emotional foil, an evil villain representing a much eviler system, and a “man behind the man” in the form of Samuel Jackson’s character, the head house slave who arguably serves as the true primary antagonist. We had the aforementioned rescue story intertwined with a revenge story and a morally-grey bounty hunter story, a trifecta that added a whole lot of weight along with quite a bit of bloat and impossibly-untied ends to the experience. The dialog was theatrical and poetic and witty, the humor was effective, and the action was brutally violent and as gory as it has ever been in film. Classic elements of the genre. On those elements alone, I’d say Django was damn good, with flaws. But I don’t think those elements are really why anyone will read my particular take on the film.
Frankly, I’m having trouble finding where all of the racially-motivated resentment and bad reviews of Django are coming from. I fail to see a moment where the movie marginalized the struggle of Black slaves or over-dramatized violence against them, or where the n-word was utilized any more gratuitously than the famous “Dead nigger in the trunk” Tarantino scene. It seems to me that a lot of our opposition to it comes from the same type of knee-jerk sensitivity we get when a white kid says “Nigger Jim” with a bit too much gusto when reading Huck Finn. In fact, it’s my sneaking suspicion that had the same exact film been made BY Spike Lee, we’d be going out of our way to say how visionary and ground-breaking it is. Hell, look at what we did with that clusterfuck Red Tails.
Let’s be clear, the actual violence that happened to slaves was so graphic that even Tarantino probably wouldn’t be able to properly put it all in a film. Part of the opposition to the “over-dramatization” comes from our own sanitized and romanticized views of slavery, perpetuated by the limited media we do have on the subject. Slavery in the American South between the two wars wasn’t just unpaid labor with no shoes; it was a systematic brutalization of an entire race more similar to ethnic cleansing or genocide than slavery as the world knew it until then. All of the film’s brutality against slaves happened daily in the Slave South; whippings, beatings, amputations, castrations, draggings, and forced marches were just par the course for a big slaver. In fact, the true psychological impacts of the biggest crimes of slavery, gladiator-style fighting and rampant sexual assault and abuse, were reference mostly tangentially in the film. I’d say the director was actually pretty accurate in this regard, and actually shied away from some of the more honest portrayals. And part of the importance of using “nigger” so much in Django was that it desensitizes the viewer to it, similarly to the way I suppose it would have desensitized outside viewers in the Slave South, where basic titles afforded to humans were simply not used often in regards to slaves. Complaining about White characters in 1858 Mississippi saying “nigger” too much seems backwards. And Foxx’s Django brilliantly uses the word in a subversive and humorous manner that I really think sharply captured the ridiculousness of the whole convention.
That’s another issue I think most Black folks had with Django. It was irreverent. It was intentionally funny. And when it wasn’t, the goings on were presented with a Tarantino-esque matter-of-factness and very little grand sentimentality. There was no real overarching moral lesson. We’re sensitive about that. Whenever slavery is discussed by White folks without the “very special episode” serious documentary music and gravitas, we feel like they’re either poking fun of it or not taking it seriously. Thus, if this film weren’t Schindler’s List in how it presented the material, we would have been angry. The sensitivity is warranted, because there are quite a few out there who think about slavery as a joke or don’t fully appreciate what it did to us or our ancestors (I’d say most of us fall in this category too). But this film isn’t that. It’s funny, but I think most of the humor is either in the vein of Dave Chappelle’s take on the same subject, driven by anachronisms and comparisons to modern subjects, or is making fun of the White characters (see the Don Johnson as Colonel Sanders routine or the KKK hoods scene). Django doesn’t take slavery lightly, it just doesn’t overdo it on grand moral statements or melodrama. It would be disingenuous to do so. This was at its heart a cold, amoral story about revenge, not a chronicle on the hardships of slavery. If you’re looking for that, I’d suggest you support brilliant director Steve McQueen’s “Twelve Years a Slave,” coming out next fall.
In closing, Django may be a difficult film, and Tarantino certainly can be callous or downright irresponsible when it comes to the discussions his work will inspire. In the context of the current racial situation here, there are problems. But the racial criticisms levied against the content of the film by many in Black circles don’t fly. It may not be a heavy-hearted reverential take on the subject, but it’s certainly not “disrespectful” or over-sensationalized at the expense of our ancestors either. Stripped of those concerns, it’s entertainment, and as entertainment it largely hits the mark, in my opinion.