Image via Spinoff Online
(EDITOR’S NOTE: There are hella spoilers in this post. Please read at your own risk.)
Our own Dustin Freeley wrote something pretty smart about Quentin Tarantino’s seventh film. It ended with this thought:
The overall thesis of Django Unchained is that distance alters our view of history, thus allowing us to channel our penchants for violence in different directions that we deem proper, sanctioned, or acceptable.
Distance is precisely what is wrong with Tarantino’s seventh film. To be more precise: there isn’t enough of it.
I live in America. Not the part with Nicaragua or Canada or Brazil. The part with Mississippi and Rhode Island and Utah. My country has a peculiar history with a peculiar institution. This history ended formally. And then it came back in a different form. After the second time, it ended in a semi-formal manner. And everyone assumed things were cool. Which they weren’t. But, according to a naive, unspoken conventional wisdom, if we just wait for the people from the past to die out, then whatever happened to them in the past won’t matter, right?
Oh, wait, I should probably clarify. The institution I’m talking about here is racism.
Slavery has existed in many forms throughout recorded history. (As have institutionalized discrimination, caste systems and, of course, racism.) But it took proto-Americans from Europe’s colonial powers and Southern agriculturalists to perfect it as a method of pure evil. Those bastards decided it wasn’t enough to buy and sell human beings for the purposes of maintaining a captive, unpaid labor force. They also chose to breed a wicked, race-based psychological hegemony into a culture so the culture would consent to allowing the captive, unpaid labor force to exist. Then they wrote a bunch of laws to preserve an order where multitudes of human beings guilty only of possessing abundant melanin were categorized as sub-human. Slavery in America wasn’t the result of racism, slavery was the thing that enabled racism to exist in America.
As you may be aware, racism did not die when the Transatlantic African Slave Trade did. It’s a pretty adaptable institution. In America, it remains our most peculiar tradition. Or, again, to be more precise: it is our most fucked up tradition.
Image via JayMcKinnon.com
Quentin Tarantino is a smart dude. He doesn’t lack for a sense of history. Indeed, his work has always suggested that he’s a sponge of the highest order. Where cinema is concerned, he has a clear sense of taste yet there’s almost no aspect of the art form (or its history) he doesn’t find a way to celebrate.
Like any good cinephile, though, he can get lost on the way to real life. I think that’s what has always driven the criticism of how Tarantino films deal with race: we don’t trust that he’s grounded in the same realities thrust upon the rest of us. He tells fantastic stories that rely heavily on what could pass as ordinary conversations or mundane events. So they feel authentic. But they’re always plucked from Tarantino’s personal ether, a space created mostly out of countless fictions.
In Tarantino’s fictions, he doesn’t just play with taboos, he mangles them gleefully. We can all delight in this when his fantastic stories exist on the fringes. When his characters are professional assassins or bush league hustlers, they don’t feel all that real. Tarantino’s creative license covers just about every scenario he can imagine for them. The trouble for him—and for us—occurs when Tarantino hopscotches toward some kind of truth—like the kind that may be grappled with in a historically-based fantasy.
Inglorious Basterds was easy. Jewish-American soldiers killing German Nazi soldiers for sport? It built what seemed to be the ultimate revenge fantasy—in part—on the very real bravery of the various European Jewish Partisans who fought the Nazis in the 1940s. No one could possibly object to this fiction. Not Angela Merkel. Not even Thilo Sarrazin. (Well, maybe not Thilo Sarrazin.) The Germans, after all, have spent decades performing penance on the world stage for the Nazi Holocaust.
What their predecessors did was awful. But there was a relatively clean break with it. After the awful thing ended, German laws, German culture and the German people changed in a way that would make it awfully difficult to repeat such ruthless, gruesome inhumanity at such an enormous scale. They created a sufficient distance to try and separate themselves from the awfulness.
So when Quentin Tarantino came along with his first idea for a period piece, no one questioned his creative license. He painstakingly recreated the details of life in 1940s France—occupied by Hitler’s army—in service of a fantastic fiction. Tarantino took us back to that place and all the things that happened there so he could he could unwrap a universally righteous fantasy. His juxtaposition of truth and fiction worked in that film because of the distance separating today’s Germany from its Nazi era.
Django Unchained? Not so much.
Image via BeginningandEnd.com
Hella folks have written hella deep things about their experiences with Django Unchained. There hasn’t been a piece of art that delivers such a disruptive, reflective experience since…well…I’m not sure there has been an American film like Django before. Movie goers have long been inspired to chew on personal or interpersonal dilemmas via films like Sophie’s Choice or Indecent Proposal. Advocacy films like Bowling for Columbine or An Inconvenient Truth have blatantly sought to shift public opinion on various policy issues. And, of course, where race is concerned, there was Roots. But not even Roots held up such a foggy, jagged mirror to American society the way Django Unchained has.
Some of the first sounds we hear in the film are of the swaying and clanking of the 19th century cast iron lamps that were once used like headlights (or flashlights) to illuminate a traveler’s path. It’s a subtle detail meant to transport us back to the 1850s when such technology was the norm. It’s one of many details that feels vividly authentic. Like the way a certain epithet is tossed around so casually, so venomously and so assertively.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This author has seen too many people he cares about suffer because of a word that begins with the letter “N.” I won’t claim to understand their pain, but I know the way their bodies flinch and the look of rage that fills their eyes when they hear anyone say it. It remains the most powerful word in any language, and it’s not a good kind of power. If Samuel L. Jackson is reading this, that’s why I don’t use it, B. Judge me however you need to. I’m good with my decision.)
The usage of that word—the one Nas used to title one of his albums—in Django has proven jarring to many. Others—like the folks who’ve simply described the movie as “awesome”—don’t seem to have been bothered by it all.
Seeing Django Unchained in a movie theatre with a bunch of strangers is not like any shared cultural experience you’ll have this year. (Maybe any year.) Everyone’s in the same kind of dark. You have no idea what any person’s belief system is. And when you hear anonymous laughter at something you find to be offensive, you can’t look in that person’s eyes and take them to task for it. It is uniquely unsettling. In the various conversations about the film, one writer described this phenomenon as a “Django moment.”
I had my first Django moment early in the film’s second act when a group of people who were being shuttled to the slave auction block were paraded through a muddy Southern street. Some of the more heinous things I understand about the Transatlantic African Slave Trade were fully brought to bear in the way Tarantino depicted those anonymous characters. The types of razor-edged shackles they were made to wear around their necks and the crude metal muzzles strapped to their faces, according to my limited studies, were all real as hell. I can’t remember whether anyone in the theatre reacted to that scene in a way I would disagree with. I was too jarred by what I saw to notice.
When we finally got to the infamous scene where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character sets dogs loose to literally tear apart a person who’s not fulfilled their obligations as a slave, I felt squeamish and angry. (The Liberian Girl left the theater and did not return shortly after that scene.) Quentin Tarantino can literally blow himself up on screen 100 times—which he did once later in the third act—but he can’t create a fiction satirical enough to equal or offset the many horrid truths his film depicts. This juxtaposition crumbles because these truths are just too close.
It’s been, what, 50 years since Bull Connor used police dogs to beat back civil rights marchers in Alabama? About 15 years have passed since some peckerwoods in Jasper, Texas used a truck to drag James Byrd, Jr. to his death. Hell, this year’s Heisman Trophy winner was involved in a fight about six months ago defending one of his drunken buddies who lobbed that infamous word that will not be typed here at a stranger whose skin was darker than blue. While slavery has been outlawed here for a very long time, we simply haven’t solved racism in America.
The problem with Django Unchained—regardless of its artistic excellence—is that it gives license to assume that we have. Or, at least, that racism is not really something we need to worry about anymore.
Image captured by Stanley J. Forman
Any -ism leverages 1) a person’s innate need to feel superior and 2) a highly contrived kind of insecurity to create a superiority dynamic so one group can put its foot on the collective neck of another group. That need to feel superior is not so bad on an individual basis. It’s often one of those obnoxious things a person has to grow through. But on a collective level? It’s way past obnoxious. One group’s need to feel superior to another—for any reason—is a building block for oppression.
In America, our most notorious example of oppression (racism) saw one of its most successful vehicles (slavery) end about a century and a half a go. That sounds like a long time—enough distance, perhaps. But we didn’t make a clean break. After a treacherous civil war ended and new laws were written, promises to make amends for slavery (e.g. 40 acres and a mule) were left generally unfilled. More distressingly, the institution of racism quickly took on another form: Jim Crow. Instead of performing penance or working to create distance, certain among us took pride in perpetuating the institution. Ultimately, that second form of racism ended in the 1960s. (Or the late 1970s if you lived in Boston.) Well, we’re pretty sure it ended. It’s not like we have segregated public water fountains any more.
What worries me most about Django Unchained is that Quentin Tarantino’s depiction of one example of American racism will come to stand as the definitive example of all American racism. Tarantino’s villains are many, and they are some of the most vile characters ever portrayed—a massive achievement by his gifted cast. That the hero gets the girl—and his revenge—in the end makes it all seem so simple. So complete. The great risk of Tarantino’s film is that the most truthful parts of his fantasy may help tighten the bow on a problem that was never really tied in the first place.
Image via The Oreo Experience
We hear some version of this common refrain among Americans: “My family didn’t own slaves.” It’s typically followed by an assertion that the speaker therefore doesn’t have the power to participate in racism. Time, the thinking goes, absolves the culture of its sin.
I confess that I’ve wondered what role my family may have played in the Transatlantic African Slave Trade. For the most part, we don’t have much melanin, and we never have. (Not yet.) At least one of my ancestors could have ended up on the wrong side of things. As far as anyone in my family knows, though, our people immigrated to America from various points in Europe in the mid-to-late 1800s and landed immediately in the coal mines, potteries or steel mills of West Virginia, Ohio or Pennsylvania. We’re a working class bunch. There could have been some racists in there somewhere. (And there probably were.) But we’re pretty sure no one owned slaves or profited from slavery. I’m kinda loathe to admit it, but I’m a little bit proud of that.
That’s where my sense of superiority kicks in. I don’t have to carry around that particular brand of guilt. And I can choose to shit on the people who did own slaves, or who benefited from the Transatlantic African Slave Trade. (See: A whole bunch of paragraphs earlier in this post.) At the very worst, my sense of superiority is obnoxious. At best, you might say it demonstrates a level of awareness. Even a kind of empathy. (Yes, I know, I’m much closer to obnoxious than I am to anything else.)
Now, let’s imagine there are a million Americans—or even just a few thousand—who walked out of Django Unchained feeling a similar sense of superiority. Imagine some—even all—of them feeling no direct personal connection to the truths that bled into Tarantino’s film. Imagine them concluding there is sufficient distance between America and its most fucked up tradition.
Imagine all of them being wrong. Imagine the cost of their wrongness.