The first time I saw the trailer for Django, I thought it would be cool, but I was pretty sure that I would skip it. I like Quentin Tarantino the director and writer. I did not appreciate Pulp Fiction the same way others have. Ditto for From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, which remains the only movie in my life that I walked out of midway in favor of Bed of Roses - yeah, seriously.
But then, I kept seeing the stories about it and realized that I was so curious I wouldn’t be able to help myself. Here’s Adam Serwer at Mother Jones (There are spoilers in the piece, FYI):
Django is an inversion of the genre, where the loner seeking revenge is a former slave instead of a former Confederate; where the alien savages who stole his life from him are white, as is the sidekick with the nonexistent past: Tarantino hasn’t simply flipped the notion of a Western hero, he’s even given him an inverted Magical Negro sidekick in the character of King Shultz, a German abolitionist bounty hunter who appears out of the ether to free Django, and dies to facilitate his revenge—much as the death of Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) sets off Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven. Except in Django, deserves has everything to do with it. Django kills white people like he’s trying to make up for a century of on-screen genocide in Western films where black, Latino, and Native American antagonists are treated like disposable pocket litter. The only white man in Tarantino’s Mississippi who survives meeting Django is played by Franco Nero, his Italian namesake.
I’m glad I relented to suggestions from friends that I see Django for a couple of reasons. Despite how graphic some of the violence was, even the ridiculous violence, as Serwer writes, it was completely accurate when portraying the institution of slavery.
Frankly, I’m a sucker for a man who can make me laugh, so there’s also that. In a scene that evokes the KKK with white racist men wearing bags over their heads, there’s a bit where they start arguing about the fact that they can’t see, that one of their wives put a lot of time and effort into the thing and can’t y’all just get over this whole can’t seeing thing? I’ve got a goofy, dark sense of humor, so maybe it was just me, but I could not stop laughing loudly throughout this bit, in part because it humanizes virulent racists while also mocking their stupidity and vanity in a surprising way.
It also makes you forget what they are. That felt dangerous to me. And kind of a relief. The type of emotion we go to the movies for.
I was surprised that Tarantino’s use of violence and wit sketched an accurate portrayal of racist terror. There is also the matter of racist glee at torture and torment, which I’ve never actually seen depicted in such a harrowing way.
Because slavery and violence are rarely spoken about as a kind of spiritual terrorism to say nothing of emotional and psychological antagonism against blacks, I was pleasantly surprised by that accuracy here, explained best by Jelani Cobb at The New Yorker:
The theme of revenge permeates Tarantino’s work. If the violence in his films seems gratuitous, it’s also deployed as a kind of spiritual redemption. And if this dynamic is applicable anywhere in American history, it’s on a slave plantation. Frederick Douglass, in his slave narrative, traced his freedom not to the moment when he escaped to the north but the moment in which he first struck an overseer who attempted to whip him. Quentin Tarantino is the only filmmaker who could pack theatres with multiracial audiences eager to see a black hero murder a dizzying array of white slaveholders and overseers. (And, in all fairness, it’s not likely that a black director would’ve gotten a budget to even attempt such a thing.)
Like Cobb, and Spike Lee, some of my hesitance to support Django had to do with the unfair privilege afforded Tarantino to take creative liberties with not just using racist language with such entitlement (which is how it comes across even if it’s not his intention) but also with the power and assumption of greatness that would never happen for a black director. I find the idea that Tarantino should not be allowed to be great because he calls black folks out of our names to be a symptom of our greater anxieties. As a bit of a digression but for the sake of context, a friend and I were talking about Junot Diaz, the amazing and talented author and thinker with respect to misogyny. The tension and irritation I know some women of color bring to his work has to do with the fact that even though he critiques misogyny in interviews and in his work, he still benefits from the privileges that misogyny affords him.
There are tons of creative men - white, black, brown - who have this privilege. If they make mediocre films or books, do we stop to analyze why? Well, sometimes. With Tarantino, it is all the time. In the case of this film, that criticism was a relentless din. I don’t have an answer for why I find that odd and complicated. Like I said, I don’t even really like a lot of what he produces.
I don’t think I’ve seen a film truly bring to life the brutality of slavery without offering its audiences a simple, often bleak ending - or at least one that envisioned a complicated, bleak future. I want to say something about Quentin Tarantino’s use of the word “Nigger” but I think that that dialogue ends up actually being a red herring for the conversation we’d like to have but haven’t been able to about who gets to use racial slurs, ownership of language and power, and who we allow to have creative license to be insulting and grating and who we find offensive.
For what it’s worth, yes, I find the use of Nigger so frequently and over and over again offensive - but what is even more offensive is feeling the animosity and judgment of a white person who is calling me a Nigger in their head and with their eyes while fixing their mouth to say African-American, as if that will erase the thought that is the damaging prison of racial disparity and discord.
Anyway, the point of that digression is that creativity and racism are embedded in American culture. All creative products are considered superior if they are made by white people. Remember the hip hop dust up at the White House? Yeah, that. It permeates everything in our culture. That Tarantino benefits from this is neither his fault, nor is it new. I’m not apologizing for him, I’m simply pointing out why I think the discussion of the flaws in his movie as historical sticking points and the use of the word Nigger miss the point.
I want to defend Tarantino the artist without apologizing for his swagger related to racist language, which makes me uncomfortable. What is true is that we made those words for each other, so penalizing him with interrogation about his privilege doesn’t negate what he made. And I’m also a sucker for a love story, so because Django is about heroic love, about the kind of victory that necessitates revenge, it thrilled me unexpectedly.
Not just any heroic romantic love, which we never see, really, between black men and women anymore, but also about the love of freedom, the universal thirst for power. At the end of the day, I cared much more that Tarantino was true to that than I do about the Spaghetti Western thing or whether or not the details of slavery were historically accurate. I also feel like that’s ignorant, but I know enough about history that I would not ever expect Tarantino to offer me an accurate lesson on the institution of slavery.
Naturally, in Django, the thirst, by the way, is for mostly male power. Another thing I hate about Tarantino films is their aggressive marketing of testosterone to the exclusion of everything feminine, which is boring. I want him to stretch into feminist territory. I say this, by the way, with the full knowledge that I’ve not watching Kill Bill for more than 5 seconds. So maybe he’s done this and I just missed it.
So, the film is not perfect. Jelani Cobb, at the New Yorker, wrote that while the movie is not Tarantino’s best film, it’s his most clever. Because I have skipped most of Tarantino’s films, I wouldn’t have much to compare it to, but I’m inclined to agree. But as someone said to me on New Year’s Eve, it’s as close to perfect as we can hope for until someone writes the perfect heroic black victory love story and revenge fantasy.
My friend’s very insightful and thoughtful review of Django Unchained.