No single Hollywood film in the last decade has sparked the kind of controversy and wide-ranging response as Quentin Tarantino's latest, Django Unchained. Is Django racist? Some believe it is, some have said it's one of the year's best films and everyone seems to have an opinion on the film's larger impact.
One of the more interesting, though hardly unexpected developments to accompany the film's release has been the peculiar predicament it has created for blacks who like to think of themselves as progressive or forward-thinking. For progressive, forward-thinking blacks, Django presents a bit of a quagmire. On one hand, it's a Quentin Tarantino flick and, generally speaking, Quentin Tarantino flicks have a pretty strong place in the canon of acceptable cinema for smart-thinking black folk. His highbrow homages to lowbrow and oft-ignored or forgotten movie genres tend to appeal to the collectively imagined sense of otherness cool black nerds and wannabe cool black nerds have ushered into vogue. Tarantino flicks pretty much occupy the space between post-Hard Eight Paul Thomas Anderson and pre-Dark Knight Rises Christopher Nolan... and that's a good thing for most. In Django, you have a film about a super-slave who kills white slave masters, slave trade profiteers and house negros by the handful. And if that isn't enough to pique your excitement, this super-slave just so happens to be married to none other than... the great Olivia Pope.
On the other hand, the film's director is a white man. And not just any white man, he's a white man who's had a couple of run-ins with Spike Lee -- and while Spike's standing in the smarty-art black community has been a bit tenuous at times, he's still on the team. Tarantino is also the kind of white guy who maintains a discomfortingly comfortable relationship with black folks that always seemed to lead to annoyingly awkward pairings ... like that of him and RZA. Those pairings always lead to annoying, irreconcilable questions like,"Why is Quentin Tarantino wearing a Wu-Wear hoody... in 2013?" "Is it because he and RZA are really good friends?" "If they are good friends, did he tell RZA that The Man with the Iron Fists was ... 'f*cking re-dik-a-lis' or did he encourage him despite knowing how bad it was?" "And if he did, is it because he thinks that while it mostly sucks, it ain't half-bad as rapper-directed movies go?" Add to all of that awkwardness Tarantino's notoriously curious affinity with the n-word, the fact that the word appears in Django Unchained more than 100 times, and the fact that Django's love interest in the film is none other than... the loathsome Olivia Pope -- and you officially have a mind-numbing array of equally awesome and offensive circumstances coalescing #AtTheSameDamnTime around a single film and director. It's easy to understand why the "black intelligentsia" (as one friend of a friend put it on facebook) came out in full force across the blogosphere attacking or championing the flick.
Now while there has been a great deal of unnecessary intellectual flexing going on on Twitter and Facebook since the film debuted, there's also been a ton of great stuff written about it. Aisha Harris' piece for Slate, "When Blaxplotation Went West," did a great job pointing out how not revolutionary Django is when compared to its black exploitation film era predecessors:
Of course, these blaxploitation movies had a different aim than Tarantino necessarily does in Django. Made at a moment when Hollywood was finally recognizing black audiences as an untapped market, the point was to give hope, however fantastical, to those viewers.
Django Unchained offers its own slave-revenge fantasy, but it sticks closer to the more conventional aspects of the Western than any of Williamson's films do -- in Tarantino's world, the outcast individual is mostly in it for himself; he's not standing up on behalf of his fellow subjugated man. You can choose to identify with Django, but if you do, you're rooting for his overcoming of oppression, not a collective victory for the black race.
Jamelle Bouie on the other hand, does a solid job pointing out how Django, in may ways, represents an alternative take on Hollywood's traditional depiction of slavery, stating:
The most important thing about Django Unchained is that it's a reaction against, or corrective of, movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. At every turn, it subverts or inverts the racist tropes that have defined Hollywood's -- and our culture's -- treatment of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. The sympathetic, gentlemanly slaveowner? Inverted in the form of Leonardo DiCaprio's venal, brutal, and sadistic Calvin Candie. The pliant, fearful slave? Inverted in the form of Jaime Foxx's Django, a gifted and confident sharpshooter. The brave white vigilantes? Shown as fearful and incompetent.
It's worth recalling that slavery was made unsustainable largely through the efforts of those who were enslaved. The record is replete with enslaved blacks -- even so-called house slaves -- who poisoned slaveholders, destroyed crops, 'accidentally' burned down buildings, and ran away in such large numbers their lost labor crippled the Confederate economy. The primary sin of Django Unchained is not the desire to create an alternative history. It's in the idea that an enslaved black man willing to kill in order to protect those he loves could constitute one.
Another common theme I've seen in the discussion around Django has been an eagerness to view the film through the same lens Tarantino's other 'revenge' flicks, Kill Bill Vols I and II and Inglorious Bastards. I find these comparisons a bit more problematic than they are useful. The Kill Bill series for example, is similar in that it too centers itself around a singularly focused, mayhem inducing character whose sole objective is to reunite with a loved one. Where it differs greatly is in that it lacks the weight of history and cultural resonance that undoubtedly informs the way a large portion of the moving-going populace perceives the film. Inglorious Bastards is similar to Django Unchained in that both films re-imagine an era of historic tragedy. The difference is the greatest tragedy of World War II, the holocaust, is not depicted nearly as overtly or as viscerally as is the tragedy of American slavery in Django Unchained. Also, the two films differ widely in tone. Despite its absurdity, Inglorious Bastards still treats the heft of the subject matter it covers with a sensitivity and reverence for the inescapably horrid reality surrounding the fictional world and events Tarantino has created. Django Unchained is afforded no such reverence or sensitivity. It doesn't even approach the dark, ominousness of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns for which so many readily compare it to.
And that is where my greatest issue with the film lies. For my taste, Django lingers a little too long in the slapstick comedy reminiscent of Blazing Saddles and in the subtle, buddy-flick humor of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. My gut kept telling me that the ancestors were frowning as the majority white crowd in the movie theater where I watched the film burst into frequent fits of laughter over the course of the film's two and a half hours. The tone just didn't feel appropriate. Even the blood, guts and gore that have become staples of Tarantino films, and that should be appropriate for a film about the slave-owning South, seemed counter productive to me. It's not as if the violence is unrealistic, or as if this stuff didn't happen in the South, we know it did. The problem is that, by showing non-stop killing, maiming, whipping and beating throughout the entirety of the film, by the end, the viewer is so desensitized that mental digestion of a slave master preparing to cutoff the genitals of a naked, upside down hanging slave is no more difficult than the mental digestion of Beatrix Kiddo chopping off the back half of O-rin Ishii's head ... and that's a problem.
Lastly, when you look at the characterization of each of the main players in Django Unchained, a pattern becomes clear: There is no middle ground in the 19th century deep South. You are either the brutal, slave torturing white master that is Leonardo Dicaprio's 'Calvin Candie,' or you're the benevolent, won't even shake a racist's hand slave-saver that is Christoph Waltz's 'King Shultz.' You're either the contented, happy to be serving massa house slave that is Sam Jackson's
Uncle Ruckus 'Stephen,' or you're the kill anybody, blow up anything to be free super hero that is Jamie Foxx's Django. I don't believe that most of the people in this world exist at such extremes. The truth is, most us would not have been Django and most white people wouldn't have been Calvin Candie. On the flipside, that doesn't mean that every white person who voted for Obama this election would've been an abolitionist in 1860, or that every black Republican would have been a conniving house slave. The truth ain't ever black and white -- it always lies in the gray. By painting all of the characters with such broad strokes and by wrapping the film up neatly into what is essentially a happy ending, Tarantino robs the viewers of any incentive to place themselves in the film and reconcile who they are today against who they might've been during that time. That annoys me.
Much like the film's polarizing characterization of its protagonists, the debate around Django Unchained is equally polarizing. It seems everybody with an opinion on the film must either be for it or against it. The problem with this kind of compartmentalization is that it creates an extremely narrow and myopic lens through which we're allowed to view the film. The folks who believe the film is great tend to cite its greatness as a buffer to all criticism folks might levy against it. The folks who are against it, cite its perceived racism as paramount to any artistic value the film might hold.
Let me be clear: Django Unchained is by no means a great film. Anyone who tells you that this film is high art worthy of all manner of praise is likely struggling to reconcile the various emotions the film suggests. It is meanderingly long, the characterization leaves much to be desired (as outlined above) and it departs way too far from the historical record for a film essentially billed as a slave narrative. And even if it were a great film -- its greatness would not mean it is thereby freed of all critical analysis.
Let me also be clear about this: Django Unchained is by no means a racist film. Does the film err on the insensitive side -- sure. Is it almost pornographic in its depiction of the brutalization of blacks...? Definitely. But it also gives one of the most shockingly graphic depictions of the horror that was American slavery that we've ever seen in a Hollywood film. It also shows just how deeply ingrained racism is in this country. And it also gives us our first big-budget, fictional super-hero slave. Despite its shortcomings, Tarantino has crafted an... interesting... alternative take on a difficult period of this country's history.
Django's most important achievement is that it forces us to come to terms with the fact that it's completely possible to be both thoroughly entertained... and thoroughly offended.