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“Django Unchained”: Artistic Iteration and our shared Racial Conscience

01/02/2013

This Tumblr post has come my way via Facebook recently. I understand and am highly sympathetic to the anger the blogger reacts with in this post. As someone who spends a lot of thought-energy contemplating the way that Asian men are emasculated and humiliated in modern media, I totally get it. Finding developed, full-bodied, truly human minority characters is often difficult in film, and when a filmmaker (in this case Tarantino) builds upon media tropes with a racist history in such an ostensibly flagrant way, anger is completely understandable.

However, we must make sure that our anger does not overcome our rational judgment, nor our ability to judge a work of art on its merits, and the way the structure of that art might be messing with our expectations. I saw this film just a couple days ago, and I have to say I don’t agree with some of the factual assertions made about the film in this post.

The first issue to address is the notion that Tarantino has somehow set out making a chronicle of slavery, and the inherent assumption in the article that Tarantino’s choices as a filmmaker construct “Django” as a piece of film meant to have each of its elements interpreted literally.

The first thing to recognize is that as a Tarantino movie, the film is appropriating huge amounts of genre tropes and regurgitating them in unexpected combinations. In “Django”, he’s mixing the spaghetti western with blaxsploitation with Norse mythology. The combination is the kind of parodic and intensely self-aware experience that is typical of Tarantino – his refusal to obey the dicta of a single genre liberates his characters, I think, from the kind of lazy blanket interpretation we’re so used to making in film. Part of the brilliance of his films is the fact that he uses our rich (and often dark) cultural history in order to subvert our expectations and create rich characters that defy the boxes we, with our trained media consciousness, want to put them into. I appreciate and am sympathetic towards the critique that the comical ultraviolence makes a cartoon out of a very real, unambiguous, and sadistic institution. However, I do think there is an alternate interpretation.

One aspect of the film that the Tumblr post does not recognize is its essential nature as a homage to the spaghetti western. As such, the author of the post also fails to recognize the long history of the spaghetti western as a vehicle for trojan-horse social criticism. I could try and write about this on my own, but this article from New York Magazine does a much better job of explaining the genre than I can:

…[D]espite their reputation as a vehicle for cheap thrills and badly dubbed Eastwoodian one-liners, many spaghetti Westerns turned the iconography of the American West inside out and revealed it to be full of lies. Nobody should be surprised that Django Unchained, in its homage to this most subversive of genres, fully adopts its revolutionary spirit and moral outrage.

Go read the article – it lists a huge number of American and Italian-directed Westerns that subversively critiqued the era they were set in, making poignant statements against majority-culture soapboxes of the time. Spaghetti Westerns have spoken against McCarthyism, shown solidarity to Irish Nationalists, and, always, poked holes in the nostalgic libertarian paradise that is the whitewashed vision of the Wild West. As such, when considering “Django Unchained”, its status as, essentially, a spaghetti western with blaxsploitation elements should give the literalist critic pause – Tarantino may be shameless and sadistic in aspects of his filmmaking, but he’s not dumb, and above all he is an acolyte of film as art and a devoted student of its history. As such, it would be unfair, I think, to look at the elements of the film individually and judge the intent of the filmmaker without considering these contextual elements.

In addition, Tarantino’s cameo as an Australian slaver and even Calvin Candie himself can be read as Tarantino’s self-criticism, as his acknowledgement of the charges leveled against him, and his admission, to a certain extent, of sacrificing moral sentiment at the altar of artistic expression. His cameo character is quite literally an ignoramus who profits from the material exploitation of white racism, such as people like Spike Lee have often accused him of being. And the most evil character in the film, the sadistic Candie, has elements of this self-criticism as well – he makes several monologues justifying his racism by having been “surrounded by black faces,” a rather obvious reference to Tarantino’s earlier justifications for, for example, his infamous scene in Pulp Fiction. Whether this self-critique exonerates him in any way is debatable, of course, but it’s worth pointing out that the film is more nuanced than the article gives it credit for.

The article also draws conclusions from what, I think, are factual inaccuracies about the prevalence of black characters and the nature of the relationship between Cristoph Waltz’s character and Jamie Foxx’s.

First is the idea that Django himself barely says anything for “90% of the film.” This is simply factually untrue. The whole first 2/3rds of the film revolves around the friendship between Django and Schultz, and is developed through extensive, long dialogue scenes between the two. The last third of the film focuses on Django himself exclusively, and, well, there’s so much action that there’s barely any dialogue anyway, and when there is Django is the camera’s focus.

Second is the idea that Kerry Washington’s “damsel in distress” character is a “mute and helpless” one. While it is true that the character is not possessed of a particularly progressive feminism, you have to take into context the idea that Django’s whole quest is a paradigm of the Norse myth of Siegfried and Brumhilde. Brunhilde (Washington’s character) is being held captive in a circle of hellfire (the plantation) and guarded by a dragon (Candie), who Siegfried (Django) must pass through and defeat in order to win his bride. And then that classic mythological narrative is spun through the lens of the spaghetti western setting and the “revenge on the man” blaxsploitation theme. Brunhilde is, until Django is reunited with her, presented as a vision and a dream. The reason she doesn’t say hardly anything for most of the movie is because, in the plot, they are literally not in her physical vicinity.

Speaking of which, the post also doesn’t mention Brunhilde as the utter rejection of the usual angry, violently vengeful black female from the blaxsploitation era, which I thought was interesting.

Finally, vis a vis the “comic” violence towards black people and the “lightness” towards the KKK alleged in the film, I think it misses the boat entirely on the substance of the film.

None of the most brutal violence depicted towards slaves in this film is played comedically, at all. It is horrific, meant to be so, and becomes precisely Tarantino’s hallowed revenge motive as almost all of his recent films have. I literally cannot think of a single time in the film where the torture of slaves is played for laughs. Is the violence gratuitous? For some people, certainly. For me, as someone whose cultural history is also glossed over in media in terms of the violence visited upon my ancestors in the railyards, it was in a way refreshing to understand how utterly dehumanizing and sick the institution of slavery was. It is a direct and brutal response to the “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” zip-ee-dee-do-dah characterization of slavery, and it’s tremendously effective. It is decidedly not played for laughs.

The scene with the “KKK” (technically not, since they did not form until after the Civil War), is not a “light” treatment of the lynch mob, but an evisceration of their power – it takes the tool of fear, the white mask, and inverts it as a comic spectacle. He quite literally shows how racism blinds people to rationality and truth by constructing an entire scene full of people complaining how the white hood restricts their ability to “see” properly. To suggest that the lighter tone of the scene somehow props up white supremacy as “not that bad” is baffling. Yes, it is a comic scene, and it is funny precisely because it injects the small problems of organizing large groups into a normally serious context. However, the effect is not to make the mob seem nicer or less vicious, but rather to rob them of their power of fear. It is an antagonistic stance from Tarantino, not a sympathetic one.

Oh, I forgot to talk about DiCaprio’s performance. This point is the weakest of all in the tumblr post. I simply don’t understand how an actor creating an extraordinarily effective performance can be reasonably interpreted as “being a convincing racist,” when that is the character’s entire purpose. By this measure, any actor who plays a believable villain can be accused of secretly harboring the vice and evil their character possesses – this strikes me as rather silly.

Sorry for the length, but I think the film deserves a more nuanced critique than the article suggests. I understand the arguments against it and appreciate them, but generally dismissing the film (with factual inaccuracies, no less) without even considering the nuanced ways in which it attempts to escape the confines of its genres is, I think, intellectually and morally unsatisfying.

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