Django’s Unchained Melody

DjangoUnchainedI remember seeing the trailer for Quentin’s Tarantino “Django’s Unchained” a few months back and I groaned with the rest of the black members of the audience.  Honestly, it wasn’t at the casting choice of Jamie Foxx, or even seeing Leonardo DiCaprio as a slave owner, but really it was the issue of slavery.  We, as a collective in this country, don’t talk about slavery so easily.  The Atlantic Slave Trade, and the role of the then British colonies and soon the United States’ role in this abhorrent and peculiar institution has been relegated to books and PBS documentaries that get rolled out during February and maybe during the Kwanzaa holiday celebration.  But to see it in a main feature film length movie is somewhat unheard of.

Certainly one by Quentin Tarantino.

This country is used to the feel good movies about slavery, of which come to mind only one: “Amistad.”  This was a movie gloriously about redemption and most importantly the role of the white players in the said redemption, and obviously told from the eyes of Martin Van Buren and John Quincy Adams, additionally the young attorney played by Matthew McConaughey.  But, in a segue concerning McConaughey, another movie that is told from the viewpoint of the white players is “A Time to Kill.”  When we address these deep-seated issues of racism and this country’s rather dark and abysmal secret in the form of a full-length feature film that gets a full release in movie houses, in marketing to a country that’s still majority white, these movies tend to play on white sentiments and perhaps guilt.  For all other non-white demographic groups (read: black folk)  the metonymic Hollywood turns to Spike Lee, John Singleton, and yes, even Tyler Perry.

However, after watching “Django” (the “D” is silent) from beginning to end, I have to say this is indeed a movie that steps outside of the box of the typical Hollywood parameters.  In very typical Quentin Tarantino fashion, there were some scenes that played only to the comedic aspects that were gut-busting funny, while in other scenes I was gripping the sides of the armrest arrested by the drama, the tension and the discomfort that a certain scene produced.  Not to mention, the horrors of slavery were not left to the imagination.  If there was ever a movie that fully displayed the atrocity that was the American plantation and the slaveocracy that was the antebellum South, it was “Django Unchained.”  This movie, by my accounts was not Hollywood.

Not unless I’m grossly mistaken, Quentin Tarantino never set out to make movies that challenged societal norms inasmuch as he created movies that just happened to be outside of the box.  When Spike Lee makes a movie, it’s usually personal and attempts to tell some highly realistic and believable story, yet still provoke and inspire.  Yet, when you walk out of a Tarantino movie, one of the first take aways is literally what was the body count and how much blood got splattered on the walls.  There’s this one scene in “Django” where the body count is ridiculous and  it obviously plays on some of the western themes of the 1950s and 1960s, but in Tarantino fashion, the blood splatter is that of super-humans with a mechanical pump pushing out red-dyed corn syrup; after this scene the walls seemed purposely painted with blood.

I think to go to this movie and expect to see some relatively accurate historical, yet fictionalized, account is quite ludicrous.  To expect anything less or more than entertainment from this movie is paramount to really believing that Jack Dawson and Rose really existed in the movie “Titanic.”  It’s entertainment, and it’s billed as entertainment.  Tarantino didn’t make the rounds on talk shows discussing the deep issues of racism in this country and out of the depths of his soul he fashioned the character “Django” and certainly Jaime Foxx, always the comedian, didn’t speak about how he had to really dig down and find himself to play this role.

However, in this country, as I said, we don’t handle these topics of race and oppression well.  If I had a dime for every news story that was released about a college party full of whites who decided to dress in black face, throw on jerseys, wear oversized pants, don fake gold jewelry and any other type of antiquated or culturally insensitive stereotype you could imagine, I’d be dining with Bill Gates as I type this.  Even most recently, Mexicans have now had the unfortunate pleasure of sharing the pain caused when whites feel its okay to engage stereotypes in the name of entertainment.

Perhaps that was the ultimate issue here: what constitutes entertainment, moreover, what constitutes appropriate entertainment?  For some the institution of slavery is unequivocally taboo, while for others it’s a bit more gray, and yet and still for others the answer is an unashamed yes.  Clearly, I paid my money to see this movie knowing full well the slaveocracy was going to be a large part of the movie.  Yet, while I laughed uncontrollably and tears streamed down my face at the “baghead” scenes (where Jonah Hill comically made a random appearance) and cringed noticeably as a whole movie theater of mostly whites laughed at one of Samuel django-jacksonL. Jackson’s uttering of “Nigga please!”  But, for me, I grew up in a household where no one uses the n-word, and till this day, it isn’t a part of my working vocabulary.

For those that are opposed to the commoditization of, well, for this instance let’s use slavery for the sake of entertainment, in what ways are we allowed to view it?  Is it only appropriate in a clear made-for-TV drama such as “Roots” or “Queen”?  Is the movie “Amistad” an appropriate movie to bring up the issue?  Or is this such a topic that only black directors and producers should be allowed to use it as a functioning piece in the motion picture?

I really don’t think so.

I think Tarantino, for the most part, inhabits the rarefied air of that wonderful mash-up of “directors/producers” that when they direct and produce a movie, they consistently hit a chord with the larger public in some shape form or function.  They usually find their niche, and ride it out until they retire from the business in general.  So, for me, to hear Spike Lee in an interview with VibeTV say

I can’t speak on it ’cause I’m not gonna see it…All I’m going to say is that it’s disrespectful to my ancestors. That’s just me…I’m not speaking on behalf of anybody else.

bothers me because it places Tarantino in a box he clearly doesn’t see himself residing.  The flippant response is that simply because Tarantino is white, he’s not entitled to an opinion, or more pointedly a voice and viewpoint on the issue of slavery and what that would look like in a Tarantino-esque movie.

Between “Django Unchained” and “The Help,” the black community, has and will produce a myriad of opinions, some unfounded and some profound.  My ultimate response was that how, or rather, why is it that only blacks are singularly allowed to have a voice and viewpoint on such topics.  Conversely, to allow whites to dominate the conversation solely is highly problematic.  This is where the waters get muddied.  For far too long Hollywood has dominated the conversation as it would be on this issue from blackface and the maid and servant characters in movies all the way to “Amos and Andy” and I needn’t name the list of more modern sit-coms that have what some deems coonish characters from J.J. Evans on “Good Times” to Mr. Brown on “Meet the Browns.”

Also, in the midst of all of the kerfuffle that has ensued behind the release of “Django Unchained” I think America’s favorite essayist and provocateur Toure does have a point in his opinion piece:

There’s the romantic love that pulls together two of the main characters: Jamie Foxx’s Django who is willing to travel through hell and risk his life to save his wife, Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda. As he travels toward her, Hildi appears in his daydreams looking luminous and gorgeous. We rarely see Black love portrayed in a Hollywood film in this way — a Black knight in shining armor battling dragons to rescue his radiant queen.

At the end of the day truth be told, I was just happy to see a black, former slave (hence the titular reference of him being unchained) kick ass and take names on the white tormentors across the board.  The movie was definitely about Django.  There was no questions at all about who the movie centered around who was the central driving force for the movie; it was not Christoph Waltz’s character nor that of Leonardo DiCaprio, and certainly not Samuel L. Jackson’s character.

I think to take the modern-day sensibilities that we do have about the institution of slavery in this country and the construction of race as a tool of oppression in western society are all retrograde and we look through the lens of our triumphs over these egregious sins, but never look through the lens of the mistakes that were made–the tragic mistakes committed that served to move this country backwards rather than forwards.  As a country, even as black people, we look at this movie having the foreknowledge of a [half]rican American president, of a Civil Rights and Voting Rights Bill being passed, of Brown v. Board of Education and even knowing that a Civil War took place when this movie was set in 1858 when the crucible of slavery saw no end but a war, and following a Dred Scott decision that did nothing but solidify the institution of slavery.*  To do so takes away some of the artistic veneer that this movie presented so well.  Even as Django’s white mentor and liberator Dr. King Schultz bounced away on a horse in a full length fur coat a la Bishop Magic Don Juan, I fully expected to see a green Cadillac parked off in a distance in one of the scenes.  Being a Tarantino movie, I wouldn’t have considered it our of place.

To not see the movie and automatically form an opinion is simply uninformed.  If you don’t want to see it because you fundamentally disagree with slavery being a plot device in a movie, that’s fine, so be it, state that as your opinion.  However to claim “disrespect of your ancestors” is illusive of the fact that, ahem, he was a freed black and former slave who kicked the ass of his white oppressors and tormentors, and still ended up with his wife.  Where is the disrespect in that?  If you have a problem with the guns and just the visceral terror and the pornography of violence that saturates this movie until it drips and oozes from your psyche as you leave the theatre, then fine, be honest about that sentiment as well.  Otherwise, I will name you as one of the followers of the newly crowned and named Spike Lee, the Uninformed Opinionator.

Go see the movie, don’t see the movie.  But did I mention the main character is a former slave who kicks ass and takes names of the white tormentors and oppressors and still gets his wife in the end?

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

 

 

I thought it was interesting that when the subtitles announced that the movie was set in 1858 that the line “two years before the Civil War” were announced as well; I guess the producers figured the American movie-watching public wouldn’t automatically know that 1858 was approximately two years prior to the Civil War.

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8 responses to “Django’s Unchained Melody

  1. Very thoughtful, BUT, make sure you also see:

    http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/tarantinos-candy-slavery-in-the-white-male-imagination?utm_source=iContact&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Shadow+and+Act&utm_content

    It’s likely that Spike Lee had already seen a working script or screenplay, well before production. He might have been “approached” about the project. So, if that was the case, he might not be so uninformed as you carelessly contend.

    Even with out that foreknowledge, Mr. Lee, has a right to nurture many of his presuppositions. He actually has to pay for his statements by being publicly thrashed.

    Also, don’t forget to include France, Spain and Portugal in your list of colonial efforts to brutally pump up their wealth with the Blood of Africa. So far, it seems that many have missed the likely Loverturian reference with Django’s first choice in garb.

  2. There’s a book by Yann Martel called “Beatrice and Virgil” which I think somewhat discusses this topic, albeit from the point of view of the Holocaust instead of slavery. However, there’s definitely a similarity there. If we’re only allowed to read and discuss the Slave Narratives and watch the PBS shows on that period, then the period will be forgotten and whitewashed over as everybody attempts to act like America doesn’t have its roots in America (if that makes sense). I saw the movie and honestly didn’t know it would be about slavery,

    I heard the phrase “Black cowboy” used to describe Foxx’s character and thought I’d give it a try. The fact that it discussed the issues of that period so openly and in such a situation where so many of the main characters (Samuel L Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio as well as others who slip my mind) had roles that were truly villains in today’s supposed post racial society really surprised me. It will be really interesting to see the conversations that this generates about the types of slaves, the different types of cities/states in the south (Texas vs Tenn vs Miss vs the west). I’m curious to see if people treat Candy as a villain in a superhero movie where some flock to him and defend his actions, or if they’ll truly stay away from him at all costs thinking that anything that sounds like a defense will make them a racist or seem racist.

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