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Angela Rye Headshot

The Zero Sum Game of Django: Unchained or More of the Same?

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During the Transatlantic slave trade, over 12.5 million Africans were transported and enslaved. There are estimates that state nearly 2 million of my African ancestors died in the Middle Passage before they even suffered the abuse and death resulting from the harsh racist realities of the institution of slavery. I am not a movie critic, but I am a stickler for accurate black history. We can attribute my obsession with historical blacks to my parents who not only ensured I understood the brilliance and beauty of my ancestors, but also ensured I called out the inaccuracies when present in history classes from elementary to high school. This reality of my experience brings me to necessarily call out the many challenges of Django Unchained.

The lives sacrificed during the Middle Passage and beyond is exactly where my mind went as the ill-timed Western song, "Oh Django" blazed through surround sound speakers in the theatre while half-naked black men marched through fields on the movie screen in shackles. Second thought: What is this?!

I watched Oprah's Next Chapter when Kerry Washington and Jamie Foxx appeared, respectively. On the show, Django Unchained was reflected upon by both actors like it was the 2012 version of the black classic, Alex Haley's Roots. I admit that I should have been sufficiently warned that would indeed not be the case given that this is a Quentin Tarentino movie and not another Spike Lee Joint -- my expectations were different. I know Tarantino has justified his use of slavery in this Western flick by stating that he thought "it would be better if it was wrapped up in genre." To me, it was wrapped up in costume, diction, and all other kinds of confusion.

Within the first fifteen minutes, I felt guilty for watching the movie. All I could think about and feel were Spike Lee's sentiments -- who refused to see the movie "out of respect" for his ancestors -- and his words resonated throughout my entire being. Now, as I try to make sense out of this conundrum I find myself in and as Pulp Fiction plays on my "On Demand", I am thinking deeply about the serious points raised in Lee's,Bamboozled (2002).

Never mind Django's predictable white savior who was unsurprisingly named Dr. KING (emphasis added) Schultz. Totally disregard the fact that "nigger" and its variations are used over one hundred times because that was a part of the vernacular during slavery. And let's completely ignore that when given the opportunity, newly freed Django decided to dress like an oompa loompa in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory or Santa's helper or something else terrible on a horse and therefore, not so hero-like. Or overlook the young slave girl who endearingly calls a plantation owner "BIG DADDY", which was a term reminiscent of a hoe in a Blaxploitation film and made me cringe accordingly. I want to pretend like NONE of that happened. I have a more basic question: what does Django even mean?

The "original" Django was an American Western film in 1966 when it was directed by Sergio Corbucci and it is now as Django Unchained (the remix?) in 2012. Yet, I have made tremendous effort to find deeper meaning in Django, which according to the New Yorker is a Romany word -- the first-person singular of the verb "to awake." And lo and behold: there is no demonstrative proof of the name "Django" being used before 1910 (ICYMI: post slavery).

Throughout the movie, we are reminded of the gruesome nature of the era by the Mandingo fighters, dog brutality against the enslaved, nooses, or even the images of black women being made available at the beckoning call of "Massa" and his friends and houseguests. All of these images and scenes are inherently disconnected from the theme and/or the moral of the story. In fact, the scenes played the role of triggering guilt when I laughed at an immediate prior or following scene.

There are some redeeming qualities about Django Unchained, but at what cost? I struggle to make the case that the positives outweigh the negatives. If Django is a zero sum game, I think we lose overall. Sure, we have a black hero slave-turned-bounty hunter beating out a handful of white villians. And we were entertained by the always hilarious Samuel L. Jackson who starred as Stephen the "House Negro" -- but again I ask at what cost?

So how is Django winning?

Black love. As a woman who grew up on fairy tales, it is always great to see a knight in shining armor (or knight in Western, cowboy wear) rescue his lady love. For black slaves to find freedom in their love is icing on the cake.

Controversy and conversation has to be good for movie sales. Let's be real: This is the umpteenth piece written on this movie. The movie is unquestionably a strong conversation piece -- even for Spike Lee, who as of today, still refuses to see it.

To make a long story short: Django was not Kunta and was never supposed to be. He was not Toby either... Django was a freed slave who became a bounty hunter with the sole mission of rescuing his wife. He was not intended to be our hero -- not a black slave revoltee: Toussaint, Denmark (Telemaque), Nat, or Gabriel -- but rather he was intended to be her hero. Now that your expectations are managed, you can go see the movie.


'Cause you're black,
Folks think you lack
They laugh at you,
And scorn you too,
What did I do,
to be so Black And Blue?
When you are near,
they laugh and sneer,
Set you aside and you're denied,
What did I do,
to be so Black And Blue?
-Fats Waller