Monday, February 11, 2013

Django Unchained

There's a Django Blowout at The Rumpus. Actually, it's been up for several weeks, which in the interwebs is equivalent to the T'ang Dynasty. But I was slow to get to the movies (the nearest theater is an hour away) to see Django and slower still in simmering a head full of thoughts about Tarantino's latest (and arguably greatest) film.

I'm fascinated by Django Unchained, captivated by the deft balancing act Tarantino pulls off between the cartoonish over-the-top violence and the disturbing, painful scenes that are almost unbearable.  I am reminded of a phrase from Cormac MacCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is: “death hilarious” (which I believe owes its origins to the sharks surrounding the Pequod in Moby-Dick). Anyway, there’s a sense throughout the film that Tarantino wanted to make this film entertaining so that we are more inclined to deal with the issues it brings up than if it were a brutally realistic portrayal.

It’s almost too easy to make a film like Schindler’s List, where it’s so realistic and so awful and so distancing for the viewer, where misery trumps entertainment and viewers go away feeling depressed. Or an historical "and then" dramatization wiped clean of grit. With Django, I found myself laughing, fist-pumping, flinching, gasping, on the verge of tears, on the edge of my seat….and it’s a film that I will watch again. Americans (all of us) need to examine the bloody, destructive, oppressive pillars on which our nation [empire] was constructed and continues to be [see drone wars, etc.].  Django is devilishly crafted to make us look at ourselves in a dark mirror of violence. And there’s just enough slick style and panache to go with the truly horrible to spur conversations and further viewing. Kudos to Tarantino.


I join Anisse Gross in applauding Tarantino’s risk-taking. And yes, it’s far from a perfect film. For instance, it’s definitely a problem that Broomhilda isn't developed into a real character but remains a voiceless figure. But I’m impressed that under the ultra-loud, in-your-face exaggeration of Django (a hall-mark of Tarantino’s style) there is also a "hive of subtlety” layered throughout the film. Much of this subtlety and subconsciousness is referenced by Ade Adeniji in Take #4 “Substance Amidst Spectacle.” Like the scene where the white sheriff welcomes Django into his cabin for birthday cake. Or when Django has to talk his way out of his rock-mine fate. His question to the Aussies, “Do I sound like a slave?” echoes out to Douglass and others who had to take on the twin burdens of proving their humanity (i.e. yes, I really wrote this book about my life) and also the burden of later proving—often on the lecture circuit—that they had indeed been enslaved (i.e. yes, these are scars upon my back).

The points of criticism I've heard all seem a bit tired. The use of language. The violence. The fact of a white man telling a story of slavery. The frustration that Django doesn't free his fellow slaves.  The first two don't really merit commentary. The third is a failure of imagination and a discredit to empathy. And as for the last, critics who want Django to more of a Touissant L’Ouverture than a man on a mission are expecting too much and are forgetting the film works within the tropes of the Western. This can’t be THE film about slavery in America. (Besides… who knows what the freed Django and Broomhilda might do after leaving Candyland? And how many fellow slaves did Douglass free on his way out of Maryland?) I don’t find fault with the film for building it’s premise on the hero’s journey (to rescue his love) instead of on a grander rebellion scheme to free the millions in chains. We can only assess it for what it is, not what it isn't.

The role of Dr. King Schultz has been taken to task, too, but I think Tarantino addresses this well in part 3 of his interview with Henry Louis Gates (see, where he dismisses the notion of Schultz as a White Savior:
QT: “…one of the tropes of Westerns and telling a story like this is you have an experienced gunfighter who meets the young cowpoke who has some mission that he has to accomplish, and it’s the old, experienced gunfighter who teaches him the tricks of the trade: teaches him how to draw his gun, teaches him how to kill.
“… Now, you go to the kung fu films — that’s always the case. There’s an older guy teaching the younger guy and sending him on a vengeance journey.”
“… I actually was hoping to get a little bit of narrative anxiety going on about halfway through the movie: Wait, is this just going to be Schultz doing everything? What’s going on here? Hopefully, if you’re unbiased, from where I’m coming from, it makes sense how the whole first part of the story’s going. But when is Django going to be the hero? Because truthfully, in the first half of the story, he is Schultz’s sidekick. But to me that’s OK.
HLG: But that’s an apprentice period.
QT: Exactly. It’s his origin issue of his comic book.”
Tarantino has the genre of the Western on his side. See also the Slave Narrative where, for example, Frederick Douglass has the likes of William LLoyd Garrison write a preface to his tale. This device is likely attributed to racist publishing practices or at least directed at racist readers who couldn’t believe a former slave could write such an eloquent tale. But I digress…in the content of the narrative itself, at least in the popular 1845 edition, Douglass attributes his escape to freedom to the assistance of several white sources, notably a white mistress and some Irish street kids in Baltimore who taught him to read and write.
As with Melville’s novella Benito Cereno, (another contentious, misunderstood tale of slavery by an American original) the aim is both entertainment and soul-searching. Americans need to feel our complicity in the violence of slavery, and one way to do that is to try to make a film about such a brutal topic through stylized fantasy rather than historic realism. Thus that recognizable Tarantino coolness that leaves me feeling uncomfortable with how much I enjoyed the film and wanting to talk about it more, to go away and think about it all more. Ultimately, we need MORE works of art, film, literature, that examine slavery and from multiple angles. Django Unchained is a vibrant addition to this canon, and there is plenty of room for expansion.