Note: This isn’t a review of Django Unchained, as much as a call for dialogue regarding the controversy surround the film. There are no spoilers. Enjoy!
I’ll start by saying that I’ve been waiting for Django Unchained to be released since I saw 2009’s Inglorious Basterds. After watching Tarantino’s holocaust revenge opus, I left exhilarated and said, “Man, if Tarantino does a similar flick about slavery, I am SO there.” When I learned that Django was in the works, I sat (not so) quietly, and waiting with anticipation. I expected two things: 1) Watching a masterful blaxploitation film about slavery, that in post-Obama America, would remind people of all shades about the severity and ridiculousness of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and 2) People of all shades refusing to see it based on the premise alone. My expectations were met on both fronts.
From what I heard from people who refuse to see the flick (which includes Spike Lee. However the rumor that Will Smith is boycotting the film is unsubstantiated. He just passed on the role, like when he decided to pass on the role of Neo in The Matrix to be in Wild Wild West, but I digress), the decision not to see the film is based on three assumptions:
1) Quentin Tarantino, a white man, should not make a film about slavery/ He just wants to claim his “black pass”/He wants to use the n-word and get away with it.- The recent resurgence of both independent and major studio films directed, produced or written by black people have stayed to a few themes: A love story, a romantic comedy, a comedic love story where everyone realizes that Jesus is the answer, with slight variations. I don’t fault black filmmakers for this because we don’t have the privilege to take the same risks in the movie industry that our white counterparts have. Now THAT is something that we should be holding forums about. When black people do anything, it is with the spoken/unspoken burden of “the race.” Our work has to represent all black people in a positive light. We can’t write ourselves being pimps and prostitutes, which is why Craig Brewer’s Hustle and Flow ruffled so many well-to-do negro neck feathers. We can’t write ourselves as anything but upstanding citizens, and ESPECIALLY not as slaves. So we don’t. But then a white person does and does it well. This may be the most unsettling aspect of Django Unchained for most black people. A black person didn’t create it.
You should still see it because– When a system is created to favor one group over another, like in the case of racism, you can’t really take it on without help from enlightened members of the privileged group. In social justice work, these people are called allies, and they are as important to the work as the oppressed. Like it or not (and the film has a great moment of internal critic about this fact), because Django (Jamie Foxx) was a slave, he need a white ally, Dr. King Schultz (Another Oscar-worthy performance by Christoph Waltz) to free him before he could realize his goals. Until black people in the industry have fewer restrictions on their creative freedom, white people like Tarantino who use their privilege to take risks, and their mastery of the medium to do it well, are essential.
2) Films about the Transatlantic Slave Trade, if we must have them at all, should be solemn and not include anything stylized or remotely entertaining Media is so powerful, so pervasive, that it’s easy to muddle the lines of what media is really for. Journalism, whether in the form of a documentary, news special or article, should be held to a higher standard than say, a western or a rap song. We expect movies to say something true about life, but the point of fiction in any form is escapism. For $10, we agree to be entertained by worlds that live in the imaginations of others. There may be historical elements that the story is constructed around, but the rest of it is to engage our imagination. Like in this well-worn premise: A man hit a low point after his beloved is taken and held hostage. He meets someone in his travels, finds out that they have connected goals, and they venture off to find his love and seek vengeance on the men who took her away and tortured her. Set it in the 1990’s and it’s a Jean Claude Van Damme flick. But set it in the south, before the Civil War, and make the lead protagonist a black man, and you have Django.
You should still see it because– If black people want greater representation in media, we have to be willing to create entertaining stories about ALL aspects of our history. Do we really want to say that black people can’t appear in movies in any situation before Jackie Robinson integrated baseball? Which brings us to the last point…
3) I don’t want to see black people as slaves. Obama is in the White House, and wait, let me call you back once Scandal is over. – One of the main critiques that people have with Gone With The Wind is that slaves were shown as jovial, white people-loving child-like figures who were happy to have kind white people to take care of them. The Transatlantic Slave Trade was a horrifying stain on the record of human history that should never be forgotten. However, there is a risk that it will be. In 2010 Texas school boards approved a measure to remove the term “slavery” from their history books and primary school lesson plans. Earlier in 2012, Arizona banned alternate (read: non-White) historical perspectives from their primary and secondary schools. The erasure of history is already happening, and while there are dedicated groups of activists that are fighting it, it’s not enough.
I had a moment when I was watching Django when I could feel the fatigue setting in. I was fine with seeing Schultz and Django blasting round after round of ammo into slave owners and their accomplices (Sidenote: Leave it to Samuel L. Jackson to deliver the most compelling performance as a house negro EVER to grace the screen. Watch out Dr. Dre! He’s a REAL NWA, but I digress again). But whereas most films set in slavery stop the cruelty at whippings and hangings, Django goes further. Way further. Branding. Harnesses. Being strung up by your limbs and left to hang. The threat of having your genitals removed. And one act of violence that every character in the film, white or black, found hard to shake off. Short of rape (which I applaud Tarantino for omitting from the film. We know that black female slaves were forced to have sex against their will. It’s referred to in Django but the act isn’t shown), Django struck a stunning contrast between stylized, shoot-em-up, Spaghetti-western-style violence (which is fictional) to the harsh, demonic violence against enslaved blacks (which was very real).
You should still see it because- Revisionism is harmful in all forms. There was never a moment that Tarantino let the viewer forget that slavery wasn’t just about black people being physically bound to work that they didn’t get paid for and didn’t choose. Slavery wasn’t just a lack of autonomy. It was cruelty that I struggle to find words for. It was dehumanizing to both the black people enslaved and the white people who owned them, making descendants of Africans docile, fearful, inferior beings, and their white masters monsters. However, slavery is historical trauma, and asking the descendants of slaves and slave masters to willfully watch any film about slavery is a tall order. But we can’t bask in the post-racial glow of a black president and have no context for why his position in our country was such a miracle. And while I love watching the gorgeous Kerry Washington walk fast in Prada and run the world from a DC loft in Scandal, her role as Broomhilda, Django’s wife, is an important as well.
Someone I greatly admire, a marketing executive who was born in Germany but has lived in the U.S. for the past 20 years said something to me recently that summed up my whole philosophy about media and art. She noted how reluctant Americans are to acknowledge our dark past. Coming from a country who experienced an embarrassing human history as well, she said this:
“If you aren’t honest about who you really are, the bad as well as the good, someone else will be. Then, you’ve lost the chance to be credible. Show it all.”
I invite all media makers to take this philosophy to heart.
If you’ve written a post on Django Unchained and you want me to read it, please leave a link to your post in the comment section. Thanks!
If you want to read more about Django Unchained, I recommend these links:
From Slate: When Blaxploitation Went West