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This movie is not about Slavery: A Critical Viewing of Django Unchained

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The Story

I’m not a Tarantino fan just as a matter of taste; however, I have appreciated a lot of what he does artistically. His cinematography is always brilliant and I like that he takes the risk of finding humor in the gruesome and painting horrors in vivid colors. And he never flinches. That said, I think it was my general distaste of Tarantino’s flair that made me take so long to watch and actually engage this movie, but I finally got there.

I mostly wanted to see this movie because it was so talked about and a number of friends had strong feelings about the film. A few people I knew were already opposed to the film because they thought Tarantino’s style paired with the holocaust of slavery would be disrespectful. The one thing that bothered me about this was that most of these people had not seen the movie and had already decided not to see it. I found that more problematic than anything I thought I might see on the screen because it is so typical of the so-called race conscious to make presumptions and use that as a justification for ignorance. I strongly believe that if you are going to oppose something (especially vehemently) then you had better know what it is you’re opposing or else you fall victim to the ‘angry black’ stereotype, which assumes that we are all angry and are never able to articulate why. However, those of my friends who actually saw the movie had positive things to say about it.

A female friend of mine called me one day and asked if I had seen the film and I told her that I hadn’t and wasn’t planning to and she went off on this rant about how she really wanted me to see it so that we could dialogue about it and that she wanted “to be loved like that.” I knew I would have to eventually see it if for no other reason than for the two of us to have an intelligent discussion about it. But, I also was extremely curious about this Black love story. So I grabbed the movie from Redbox (and some take out) and headed home to check it out. I don’t think I was prepared for my reaction to the movie.

Slavery as a Settingdjango-unchained-green

What I first discovered about the movie besides it’s standard Tarantino-esque style (which is always interesting and provocative) was the way that slavery is used mostly as a backdrop to the story. Creatively, I don’t really have a problem with it although some people such as Spike Lee (who also refused to see the movie) found this disrespectful. I make this point because I felt it was very important to keep this in mind as I watched and critiqued the film because this told me that this was not a historical drama seeking to make accurate depictions of slavery or to add some profound insight into slavery. It was a western story told in an antebellum south setting. This also led me to begin to wonder why, then, did this movie seem to have such a big impact on audiences (particularly Black audiences).

Uncomfortable and Disturbing

The strongest emotion I felt about the film was discomfort and uneasiness. I have felt similarly to some of Tarantino’s films simply because the dark humor mixed with the gruesome violence is unsettling (and I think intentional). This time, however, there was something else that added to the discomfort and made most of the movie disturbing for me. It started with this scene:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PImN7rl68xM]

This is the first scene where I began to be uncomfortable and started to question what was happening in this film and where exactly it was going. I know that it is not a historical drama and wasn’t meant to be taken too seriously, but that only saved me from getting angry; it did not put me at ease.

What struck a nerve for me was that Django was the only slave that Schultz freed, going as far as drafting/forging the bill of sale. And while he had no interest in keeping the other slaves as property, he also had no interest in their freedom. The clip above cuts a little short of the speech he gives before he leaves them in which he tells them their options: to help their dying master or follow the north star (which he is kind enough to point out). What disturbed me the most about the scene was the thought that, in a realistic context, these slaves would probably be as good as dead. It is not likely they would make it far as a pack of obvious slaves with no free man papers. I imagine they would eventually be caught and killed for the murder of their master or returned to slavery under closer watch and more vicious punishment.

I reminded myself: this movie is not about slavery.

Strictly in regards to a critique of the film, this scene shows us that Schultz does not fit any of the standard archetypes that we have seen in actual slavery movies. Schultz isn’t an abolitionist and possibly not even anti-slavery. He does appear to be a man with respect for human life and human dignity which is evidenced by his response to the way slaves are treated. But more than anything he wants Django’s help (which is what the story is about). So, for me it was a little difficult to swallow later that Schultz would help Django rescue his wife. He just isn’t that caring kind of guy. So the build of this connection that they share that seems to want to border on friendship, seems forced and out of place with what we are shown about the characters. The fact that this seems forced lends itself to the idea that although it is not a movie about slavery, it was not just some artistic statement devoid of subjectivity. Hmm…

I was probably mid-ways through the movie when I became hugely uncomfortable and seriously disturbed. It was this scene that brought these feelings

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xw1BLRl2qiI]

It is not so much the graphic violence and unflinching visuals of this scene that bothered me. What bothered me was the struggle that is happening between Django and Candie. (Let me say I enjoy and respect both Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx as I have watched their acting careers develop: Leonardo from the teenish heartthrob roles and Jamie Foxx from goofy slapstick roles). Both these actors are definitely delivering in this scene.

What I thought of while watching the scene was the fact that Django is forced to choose between possibly saving this person with whom he can relate to through the experience of slavery and if it had not been for chance, he would still be enduring and the certainty of being able to locate his wife and free her. This is an excellent metaphor for the kind of psychological battles that Black people face everyday. The being looked in the eye and having your existence challenged and being forced to give up some part of your humanity in order to obtain something you really want. As I re-watched the scene I watched how Candie’s eyes are searching for a sign of humility in Django which would reveal that he is not the slaver he is pretending to be and, therefore, not worthy of the journey that Candie is taking them on. Django’s eyes do not faulter or flinch but you can see a pain being forced down from behind his eyes.

I think this scene disturbed me because if this is not a movie about slavery (as I kept reminding myself) then what the hell was this stare about? Is it a statement about the psychological dilemmas of Blackness? Or is it a statement that a person should be willing to sacrifice any and everything, including one’s humanity, in pursuit of a goal? There was so much happening in that scene that I began to struggle with my mantra about this not being a slave movie. This scene is obviously intense and it is not humorous or attempting to be as most of the other parts of the movie. So I just wanted to know what did this mean? And even without the consideration of race and slavery, what is this character Django representing when he makes the choice to disregard the life of this innocent man who is being murdered to challenge the resolve of his deception?

I said to myself: This movie is not about slavery, but I don’t know what the hell it is about.

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Neo-Blaxploitation?

I found Django’s character to be hugely unlikable. It is not even the fact that he is kind of the atypical hero, but it is because I don’t find him to be heroic at all. He is a selfish and persistent man focused on the goal of finding his wife. There isn’t anything he won’t do to get to her nor is there anyone he won’t sacrifice to get to her; that’s not really heroic.

SHAFT2Django is not hugely intelligent, although he is clever. He is an angry, arrogant, emotionally distant, reckless, and violent Black man. This is somewhat troubling because Black men are often represented this way when created by White creativity. In terms of Black male representations, Django is a regression back to the Blackploitation era of Shaft and Black Dynamite. 1300233-black_dynamite_logo

The characters depicted in the movies of the Blaxploitation era of film were labeled as good guys but often their behavior, morals, and ethics were in direct contradiction to that label. They were overly sexualized, overly violent characters who were incapable of expressing love except in dedication and their willingness to be martyred for their loved ones. In that regard Django fits the bill perfectly. There is nothing new, exciting, or revolutionary about the character of Django besides the fact, in a slavery setting, a main character gets to exact brutal and violent revenge on the slave owning bad guys. While this trope was common and mostly celebrated back in the ’70’s when we hadn’t seen majority Black casts of films with Black major characters, it doesn’t have the same endearment 3 decades later.

Django Denied

I have read some Black people respond to the movie stating that hey obtained some satisfaction from watching the slave owners actually get it (which ofcourse is not often seen in actual slave movies because this realistic account of this are few). This catharsis that they are referring to is somewhat disappointing. If close attention is paid to the ending of the movie, we never get the sweet joy that we desire. Django gets to kill the pawns of the bad guy, Candie. But he doesn’t get to kill Candie.

Django_Unchained_final_scene_73819102_thumbnailDjango goes through all of this hell to find and rescue his wife. He finds her in the hands of a man who has tortured, abused, and humiliated her as well as threaten her life in front of Django. And after Candie has sold Django his wife (papers and all), it is Schultz that ruins everything and in effect steals Django’s sweet revenge. And of all things Schultz does so on the grounds that he cannot bring himself to be gentlemanly to Candie. So, instead Django’s final showdown is with an aged old slave who does nothing more than stand, talk shit, and be shot. Definitely a let down…and again disturbing. I was disturbed by this because it makes no sense for Django to have to settle for Stephen when Candie is the bad guy we wanted to see get brutally punished. Candie dies with one clean bullet from a White man who is more offended by etiquette than slavery. And instead we are forced to take joy in watch Django brutally murder an old slave, who although he was an “Uncle Tom” was still a slave and not responsible in any major comparison to Candie for the pain that was inflicted on Django or his wife. What’s that about??

The Point

I can’t say I hated the movie because, again, under the premise that this was not a movie about slavery, I have to accept that a lot of things may have been unintentional decisions despite how they made me feel. However, I definitely have no praise for the movie because there was nothing praise worthy about it from any perspective.

I guess overall I wasn’t really prepared to watch slavery used as a backdrop. It felt uncomfortable for the multifaceted issues that are inherent to that dark time in our country to be overlooked or made light of. I think this is why I had to constantly remind myself that the movie was not intended to be about slavery, which didn’t keep me from asking critical questions about the things that I was seeing and what it meant for them to be depicted that way. I while it quiets my hostility about some of what I saw, it didn’t make me feel any better.

For me, it was just uncomfortable and disturbing. If I had to choose a strong emotional reaction to the movie, I would say that it was scary or troubling in the sense that I’m not sure if their is a message behind the disregarding of the significance of slavery (which could be offensive) and even beyond that the plot was superficial, not humorous (I think I laughed once…when Samuel Jackson makes his first appearance and sort of pokes fun at the unrealistic nature of the movie’s plot), and anti-climactic.

While I know Tarantino is known for this sort of eccentricity that borders on being irreverent, I’m not sure I am ready to have slavery treated as a setting or have complexities and nuances dealt with so capriciously. And I have greater fears that our celebration of such a depiction is problematic in that it may lead America to believe that we are over it, and (on so many levels) we’re not. Not by a long shot.

I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,

An Angry Black Man

2 Comments on This movie is not about Slavery: A Critical Viewing of Django Unchained

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful response as I consider paying Quenten to put “niggar” in actors mouths once again.

    I agree… it wasn’t a slavery movie. I thought it was an interesting excercize in (even if inadverdently) exploring what whiteness is. Django becomes white in this story. I, was very uncomfortable with him disregarding other black folks to achieve his goal. If we saw a white man, do this, say, Conan, we wouldn’t blink twice. But watching a black man disregard his community to ‘get the girl’ feels a bit slimey.

    I still give Tarantino the time of day because I thought Pulp Fiction was one of the best roles a white director has put a black man in, possibly ever. (Both Jackson and Rahmes.) But so much of my black identity is my community. So when at the end, Django leaves the brothas in the cage and doesn’t choose to enlighten them, as he too was enlightened… I kind of threw my head up and said, ‘this is some white shit.’ This is an ‘American’ world view, that few Black folks ever achive. Maybe Obamah, Oprah, Jay Z and a few African dictators/ presidents.

    This just all brings to mind the inherant artifice that is black culture and / or American (white) culture. What’s black? Being super macho? Getting the black woman? Killing white people?

    And in Quinten’s mind… who’s the black man’s greatest enemy? Not the slave holder… but the black man pulling the strings.

    • I’m glad you got it…those undertones and connotations that let us know whose perspective is truly driving an expression. But I would argue that there is a Black culture (Black American) and it has its “White” influences because America is inherently White but it is completely “Black.” No, it’s not being super macho or getting the Black woman or killing White people. That’s the archetype “America” has painted on it. There is a culture that has developed out of the survival of slavery and Jim Crow and oppression. And it has its flaws – no doubt about it – but it is our culture. And the enemy is not the “White man” nor is it “the Black man pulling the strings” they’re both pawns in the bigger picture, which is the structure of white supremacy and the oppression of people of color. It’s not a person or group of people we should be fighting; it’s an institution.

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