Reviewing Django Unchained [SPOILERS]

Preamble: DON’T read this if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to know anything about it or have your reaction influenced by what I’m going to say here. Bookmark the page and come back to it after you’ve seen it. I also don’t suggest reading this if you don’t intend to see the film – and I do hope you will choose to go see it. If you’re looking for THE definitive Black perspective on the movie, I would suggest that you revisit the fact that Black folks are not a monolithic group and consider that this is MY perspective, singular, and not intended to represent the perspectives of any other people of African descent either in the U.S. or abroad. Having said that, the opinions I express here may be seen as controversial and will likely conflict with the perspectives of other Black people you may know and which you, if you identify as a Black person, may hold. Finally, this is also not intended to present the “RIGHT” way to view this film and although I consider myself a pretty thoughtful and reflective person, I’m not a student of film, so I’m not going to get into all the fancy language of film archetypes and genres except by way of referencing other folks who do. Okay, I think that’s enough of that. Let’s get into this. Oh, one more thing: I use the N-word. 

From the first preview I saw earlier this year, I knew this movie was going to provoke a lot of discussion. Indeed, people are talking about it before they’ve even seen it. Take for instance, Spike Lee, who hasn’t seen the move and doesn’t intend to. He is quoted in this HuffPost note (because it’s not really a full article) as saying that the film is “disrespectful to my ancestors.” This “story” (what’s the story here – that Spike Lee doesn’t like it?) has also been run in USA Today and other news outlets. We don’t know on what basis he has a problem with the film, other than I heard it mentioned elsewhere that he didn’t like the liberal and excessive use of the “N-word” in the film. Well, as much as I have enjoyed several of Spike Lee’s films, I don’t regard him as an authority on respect or on restraint against using objectionable language. Maybe his uninformed (because he hasn’t seen the movie) opinion might carry more weight with me if he cares to revisit his films “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Girl 6” and discuss the disrespectful portrayal of Black women or his own liberal use of the “N-word” in most of his movies. Otherwise, Spike can hush and stop allowing himself to be used as handy tool of Black-disapproval for a media more interested in creating sensationalism than provoking intelligent and informed conversation. (Sorry HuffPost, but you messed up here.)

The smartest thing I’ve seen yet about this film though came from someone else who was responding to that link to HuffPost’s Spike Lee commentary shared on my fiancee’s Facebook wall. Ryan Fitzmartin, a film student at Emerson College in Boston, wrote the following in response to Spike Lee:  “I think the objection Spike is making is that Tarantino is making a comedic film about a dark issue. But that’s what Tarantino does. Inglourious Basterds was a dark comedic revenge fantasy against the Nazis. I’m assuming Django will be the same. I don’t think anyone could mistake what’s being covered in Django as reality, and I highly doubt Tarantino will make Slavery look “fun”. I think Spike Lee’s opinion has merit, but he does have a tendency to speak before thinking, and in this case, I think that’s what he did” (emphasis added). I think we all ought to do well to remember Ryan Fitzpatrick’s name – I think we’ll be hearing from him a lot throughout his career.

Having seen a lot of Quentin Tarantino’s films, including Inglourious Basterds (2009) and having thoroughly enjoyed it for exactly what Ryan describes it as “a dark comedic revenge fantasy,” Ryan’s parallel between that movie and what he suspected he would find in Django really resonated with me. Really, in a way, aren’t all of his movies “dark, comedic revenge fantasies?” I mean, the “Kill Bill” trilogy certainly could be described in that way, as could “Pulp Fiction,” at least in my mind. And I enjoyed all those films, bloody though they each are.

So, I went into the movie last night with my fiancee with that in mind. We went to the 9:45pm showing in Bowling Green on opening day and early enough to see the audience for the previous showing let out. The theater had been packed with overwhelmingly mostly White faces – this is Bowling Green, Ohio after all. The 9:45pm showing was no less crowded and no less White. Again it’s Bowling Green and this is a Quentin Tarantino movie after all.

We took our seats at about the center of the theater, slightly forward of the exact middle row, and waited through the dozens of commercials and then innumerable movie trailers (awful lot of middle-aged, practically senior citizen White men starring in action movies these days, wouldn’t you say?). Finally the movie began and my fiancee took my hand and we held hands for almost the entire movie. A gesture that was probably as much about us being sappy as it was recognizing the need to brace ourselves and support each other through watching a film that even Oprah – who produced Beloved and Precious and starred in The Color Purple; she’s no stranger to brutality in movies – said of Django that she couldn’t watch some of its scenes (read this for a good reflection on the film by the director, some of the film’s stars, and Oprah, who has endorsed the film).

As the film began, set in 1858, two years before the Civil War, I began to think about the film Lincoln, opening around Thanksgiving. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to see the connection. A. O. Scott, a film critic for the New York Times, saw the movie and reviewed it. You can read his review here. As a really smart critique of Lincoln by Aaron Bady in the Jacobin commented, slavery was already at death’s door by the time the Civil War started due to increasing frequency of runaway slaves and slave rebellions, the work of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and other abolitionists (across races), and increasing distaste for the brutality of American slavery. I saw in Django a reflection of the decline that Bady references, sans historical realism of course.

Yes, Spike is right, in Django’s screenplay which was also written by Tarantino, the N-word is featured prominently, even enthusiastically. Via the site WhoSay, posting to Facebook, D. L. Hughley’s synopsis of the film was “Went 2 see Django last night it was spectacular! But They said nigga so much n it even Rappers are gonna say Dayuuuum!! #TeamDl” I laughed in response to Hughley’s comment, but let’s be real, shall we? The film is set in 1858. How do you think Black folks were regarded at that time? What language do you think they would have used to talk to and about Black people? They called them all sorts of things that were never meant to be affirming or culturally authentic or relevant: coons, darkies, jimmies, a new term I hadn’t heard before that starts with a “g” but I can’t remember it now, and, yes, niggers. Yes, I wrote the word that shall not be mentioned. Niggers. White people called Black people niggers in 1858, probably more than they called us anything else because we were not considered to be morally equivalent to White folks, we were not considered as human as White folks, and therefore did not need to be regarded as much more than a derivative of the word Negro from the Spanish negro meaning black, from the Latino necro meaning dead. Black people called other Black people niggers in the same way that a child who’s called been called stupid their whole life thinks that Stupid is their name. Here’s the thing, Tarantino uses nigger in its historical context – unlike the plethora of films (including Spike Lee’s), rap lyrics, and other vehicles of so-called artistic expression whose use of the term is divorced from its ugly, racist past (and present, because it’s still a handy pejorative for mostly White people to use against targets that are always Black people). Perhaps seeing and hearing its original usage and intention, will disabuse present-day Black folks and their White friends from calling each other and other Black folks, “niggers.” Even the teenage White boys sitting behind my fiancee and I were quick to comment out loud, “That’s so racist” at the first use of the word by a White character in the film.

And then there’s Christoph Waltz’s character, Dr. King Shultz – yes, “Dr. King” and I don’t think that’s an accident but I’m clueless as to what the commentary might be there. Shultz is a German bounty hunter, pretending to be a traveling dentist, rounding up people wanted by the law for stagecoach robbery and murder, choosing to bring them in dead. He’s quite skilled with his marksmanship and takes on Django – buys him as a slave from other slave traders, while setting the rest of the men chained together free. As Shultz’s slave, Django is treated with respect, seemingly almost as an equal (a redemption perhaps from the German character Waltz plays in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) though no less ignorant of Black people’s humanity than any of the other White slave owners and traders in the film. He expresses surprise and queries “your people believe in marriage?” when Django describes Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) as his wife. Upon witnessing a Black man be torn apart by dogs after being caught trying to run away so that he doesn’t have to forced to fight another Black man to death, Shultz is noticeably queasy. What’s interesting to me about that is that Shultz displays the same kind of ignorance that well-meaning White folks tend to have when they endeavor to “help” Black people fight institutionalized systems of racism, like slavery was in the antebellum South – and not unlike the White college-graduate in the film The Help, or any other movie where White people are featured “saving” Black folk. White folks are often quick to want to “help” but not fully cognizant of what “helping” might need to entail to achieve the end goal and totally unprepared to face the extent of the brutality that will be used to maintain those systems of oppression. Shultz loses his life when he loses his cool after recalling the man who was torn apart by dogs and kills Candy- jeopardizing the lives of Django and Broomhilda who were a handshake between Monsieur Candy and Shultz away from freedom.

Let’s talk about Calvin Candy, described as a Francophile who can’t speak French – the slave owner of a Mississippi plantation called Candyland with a brothel/fighting arena in a town five hours away full of Black women – slaves, don’t be mistaken – who were dressed in the grandest finery, schooled in the manners of high class society, flawless English (“luxury slaves”) – not the slave dialect commonly exclusively associated with Black slaves. Calvin Candy and Candyland reflect the cruel juxtaposition of monstrosity and refinery that was typical – yes, typical – of U.S. slavery. He meets his end at the hand of another White man who is refined for real. A statement about the role of education and refinement against the base attitudes and eugenics passing as science spouted by Candy, perhaps?

And then there’s Steven, the head house slave, who has served the Candy family for 76 years. As Samuel L. Jackson says about his character, he will likely become the most hated Black character in movie history. I certainly hated him almost immediately after he made his appearance. Scott’s review describes the character as “imagined,” however Steven was very much real in slavery and modern day racism (where do you think Uncle Tom comes from as a pejorative reference?). Likely born into bondage since his father and grandfather before him all served the Candy family, Steven knew no other life than what he knew at Candyland. He also saw the consequences of rebuttal and rebellion. He also received the benefits of living in the big house. He is thoroughly indoctrinated in racist ideology and colludes with slavery thinking himself spared from its horrors. Steven is a woefully pitiful, if not pitiable, character. In the end of the movie, when Django tells the other Black house slaves – including Sheba, Candy’s apparent mistress – to “get away from all these White people” and say goodbye to their mistress, Miss Sally (again, not a mistake in my view), Steven who is standing closest to the door tries to leave realizing that life as he knew it was coming to an end. Django tells him, oh no, not you, “You’re right where you belong” in the midst of all the White people he served and whose bidding he executed and he is killed along with the evil Whites at Candyland.

Now let’s consider the women in the film, Candy’s sister Sally and his mistress Sheba, the slave women on the various plantations Django and Shultz visit, and of course Broomhilda. The only scene where a woman speaks up to a man, in this case to put a halt to the exposure of Broomhilda’s scars received from the whippings she has received, is reserved for Sally. Sally’s character is a widow with a strange, hinting at incestuous, relationship with her brother Calvin who seems more daft than brave. Yet she has the bravest female moment in the movie – unless you regard Broomhilda’s refusal to be broken, to keep running away, as strength. I am willing to do that. Nevertheless, the women, including Broomhilda (or Hildie as she’s nicknamed), sit waiting for the rescue of a man, Broomhilda for her Sigfried. In this movie, apparently, revenge is a dish best served hot and by a male waiter to boot. Black women’s agency is either absent or shown to be futile. And that ticks me off not only because of its patriarchal sexism, but also because it is historically inaccurate. But then again, this is Quentin Tarantino.

A word about mockery and dark comedy. Again I’m not a film student like Ryan who I quoted earlier, but I think we use comedy to handle difficult subjects. On December 21st, I criticized the mockery of the Mayan’s beliefs, misrepresented as a doomsday prophecy, and I was criticized in turn by one friend for not being sensitive to people’s need to use humor to help them get through stress. Well, I still don’t believe that we should co-opt and twist another culture’s beliefs into humor for our own stress relief. However, I do recognize the power of comedy to get us to see ugly truths that we otherwise would not dare to face. I also believe we mock what we do not respect and what we want to distance ourselves from. And so, we are given the hooded raiders, ala Klansmen, led by Don Johnson’s character in a great cameo, who are mocked and portrayed as disorganized buffoons who can’t even see out of the hoods they wear to mask their identities. What is strong enough to override what would otherwise be a central flaw in executing any kind of activity? Hate, racial hatred to be exact. If not for the preparation of Shultz and Django, the raiders’ hate for Black people and those who support them would have been enough to make the raid on Shultz and Django’s encampment effective. Who needs organization when you have blind hate? Ah, and maybe their blindness in the movie, unable to see out of their hoods, is a metaphor for the blindness of their hatred. There is no mockery of slavery here, just of slavers. Slavery is serious and awful and brutal and we don’t see it made light of in this film.

The other instance of comedy that stands out to me is when Django gets to pick out his clothes for the first time and he goes for an outfit that can only be described as silly. A slave at the next plantation they go to asks him in disbelief, “So you choose to look like that?” I nudged my fiancee and whispered, “black dandy,” being reminded of an article and photo-feature in the Chronicle of Higher Education from several weeks ago. As Stacey Patton discusses, black dandyism actually grew in response to the luxury slaves used in 17th century England. Turning expectations for race, gender, and sexuality on its head, Black dandies, then and now in the guise of academics, reflect an image of Blackness that stands in sharp contrast with how Blacks were expected to look and act. When Django dons his blue dandy outfit complete with white stockings and neck scarf and riding a horse no less playing Shultz’s freeman valet, he disrupts not only what Whites expected of Blacks but also what Blacks expected of each other. But this is missed in the film and Django only looks like a clown. After leaving that plantation, where Django kills 2 overseers in defense of  a Black woman about to be whipped for breaking eggs, 2 for whom Shultz had bounties (the ones that Shultz bought Django to help him find; Shultz kills the 3rd himself), Django purchases a new outfit that is more toned down, more typical of the everyday man in the American South at the time. No longer dressed the part of the dandy, Django no longer openly flaunts others’ expectations of how he will behave, what he will say, and how he will engage Whites and other Blacks. Instead, he continues to flaunt those expectations with his speech – a skill that Black folks have developed and perfected in multiple forms, including satire.

Scott’s NYT review, cited earlier, questions whether part of the criticism of Django’s violence as “excessive” is linked to the fact that it features a Black man visiting revenge upon White people. I think this is a very smart insight. Indeed, this movie is violent and blood literally runs down the walls in some scenes, people are blown away and blown apart by gun fire, blood spouts and spurts and gushes. This is a Quentin Tarantino film; by comparison, the Kill Bill movies were no less violent really, in my estimation.  But, contrary to what Spike Lee said, there’s no gang rape scene, and the greatest brutality is saved for the revenge killings of White people who brutalize Black people. I don’t believe that Tarantino glorified the violence of slavery but he didn’t back away from it either. When Broomhilda is whipped and branded, when the two slaves are embroiled in a blood match to the death, when the runaway slave is fed to the dogs – you hear more than you see and what you see is not gratuitous. Nevertheless it was enough to produce a visceral physical reaction in me, even beyond what I usually feel when I see brutal violence visited upon children or women. I could literally feel my chest tighten, my fiancee and I squeezed each other’s hands, my face felt flush with warm blood racing to my cheeks, water began to form in the corners of my eyes, and just when I thought I couldn’t take another second (beyond the 30 seconds intervals in which you see each of these acts take place) and would scream out in my horror and pain and go running from the theater – just at that moment, the scene was over and my breathing could return to normal and I could release some of the tension in my body. No, the greatest violence and gore is saved for the revenge killings, which caused me no unrest or tension and no small amount of glee. Just being honest, folks.

And that’s really where I think the movie’s biggest point for me comes through. Candy asks at one point why Blacks, who far outnumbered their White slave owners and overseers, never rose up and killed all the White people. Candy recalls how Steven’s father shaved Candy’s father with a straight edge razor 3 times a week every week for 50 years, yet never availed himself of the opportunity to kill him. Candy proclaims with no hesitation that had he been that slave, he would have killed the elder Candy and it wouldn’t have taken him 50 years to decide to do it. So, this revenge fantasy of Tarantino’s then takes on a whole new twist. Perhaps its not so much a revenge fantasy for Black folks, but rather for White folks. Perhaps this is one White man’s projected fears/fantasies of what would have happened had there been a Django in real life – or if the real-life Nat Turner’s raid been successful or any of the other slave rebellions that did occur throughout slave territories in the North and South before the 13th Amendment was passed (there’s that Lincoln film again). Why didn’t more Black slaves in positions of access to both weapons of murder and the opportunities to carry it out take advantage and rise up and kill the men and women who were responsible for brutalizing them and tearing apart their families? Is it because those Africans, brutally enslaved, were just naturally submissive? This was Candy’s rationale in the movie. I don’t think that’s the answer. Is it because they just weren’t as evil and regarded human life more highly than their slavemasters did? I like to think this is a more likely reason. But I think the truth lay somewhere between that and the reality that opportunities to visit revenge violence against their slave owners really were not as easy to come by as any of us in modern times may like to imagine that they were. Although outnumbering Whites on most plantations, the firepower was definitely controlled by those Whites and unlike Django in the film, learning how to use a gun properly is not really a “natural” talent that can be easily picked up. By the time Steven’s slave father would have sliced the throat of the elder Mr. Candy and tried to escape, more than a couple of overseers would have caught and killed him and anyone else trying to escape with him. Slavery lasted in the US for as long as it did, nearly three centuries, not because Blacks were so submissive and not for lack of trying to escape or revolt, but because the system of slavery benefited from a set of laws, both state and federal, social customs, and the intentional disabling of communication and social networks among slaves that were intended to preserve slavery on purpose. The existence of which made the success of the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman’s 300+ trips to the South to rescue slaves remarkable, if not miraculous.

In fact, Django does not set out to liberate all slaves or end slavery. Given an opportunity to set a trio of slaves free who were bound to a cruel life at a quarry breaking stones until their backs wore out (as Steven described it to Django), Django merely asks them to hand over the dynamite that had been put in the trailer with them and rides off back to Candyland. He leaves them without direction or guidance, their slavers dead on the ground, them still chained (?) in the trailer with the door open, and that’s where we last see them. Django doesn’t set anybody free before blowing up the big house, merely tells the house slaves to get away from the house. Django, in fact, is responsible for preventing Shultz from saving the life of the slave who ends up being fed to the dogs. Django is no abolitionist hero; he is only interested in rescuing his wife, Broomhilda, and other women who reminded him of Broomhilda along the way. So Django’s destruction of Candyland stands somewhat consistent with historical reality as an isolated event with little long-term consequence or significance: Even slave revolts that were successful were little more than isolated flare-ups, quickly subdued by even more repressive laws and actions on the part of individual slave owners seeking to ensure that there were no copycats among their slaves.

What does this mean for my opinion of Django? I think it’s a good film for what it is – a patriarchal (my view) and dark, comedic revenge fantasy as Ryan Fitzmartin described it. I am glad I saw it; I was delighted that the “bad guys” got what was coming to them at the end. I think other people should go see it and enjoy it (unless they have a general distaste for blood) for the opportunity to see a Black man getting vengeance against White people – not generic White people, but those directly responsible for brutalizing Blacks, as Scott writes in his NYT review. However, I respect the opinions of those who saw it and hated it and those who won’t go see it. It is a Quentin Tarantino film after all.

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