Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Race Matters: Quentin Tarantino and "Django Unchained"

Two nights ago, I finally saw Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around the various issues surrounding the film. I've seen links for dozens of essays and reviews, and except for a quick skim of Roger Ebert's writings, I haven't read any outside analyses or critiques, although I did read this quote from filmmaker Spike Lee, taken from his Twitter account: “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.” Before I get into my own thoughts on Tarantino's intentionally outlandish take on slavery in America, I will offer this statement: I don't believe Tarantino is racist; far from it. He and Lee have a colorful history of verbal sparring, and Tarantino has been defended for his n-word laden scripts and interpretations of racial history by the likes of black actors Jamie Foxx (who stars as Django) and Samuel L. Jackson (a frequent contributor in Tarantino's filmography, who portrays Stephen the house slave). While I believe the occasional claims of racism are unfounded, I do believe that he was slightly misguided in the making of Django Unchained. Slavery in any fictional interpretation has to be tread upon carefully--for all of Tarantino's bombast and Pollockian mixes of fictional history and film homages, he very well may have overstepped some boundaries. While this may seem like I'm trying to balance too evenly between defense and criticism, I'm doing so because, as someone fascinated by both the film and America's racial history, I'm genuinely conflicted by my emotional reaction to the film.

Django Unchained takes place in 1858. During a slave transfer, a former dentist and current bounty hunter named King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) kills one of the white men, wounds another, and unchains Django. Before leaving, he throws the shackle keys to the rest of the slaves, who then finish off the wounded driver. Schultz is seeking Django's help in identifying a trio of wanted killers. They end up at the plantation of Big Daddy (Don Johnson, seemingly playing a strange combination of Dennis Hopper and Colonel Sanders), where the brothers work. Right before a slave is about to be whipped, Django shoots one of the brothers and whips the other one to death. Later that night, Big Daddy and a group of men are ambushed and killed in their own attempted killing of Django and Schultz (the men wear white bags with eye holes cut out, a hint to the KKK and the basis of a comical discussion about not being able to see and questioning the worth of having their faces covered). Django turns out to be a skilled marksman, and Schultz takes him on as a fellow bounty hunter. As these plot points unfold, we learn that Django's wife (Broomhilda, played by a very understated Kerry Washington) speaks German, having been raised by a German nanny on a plantation. After being separated from her husband, she's enslaved on Candyland, the Mississippi plantation of the psychopathic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). A plan is set in motion: Django and Schultz will visit the Candie plantation under the guise of purchasing a fighting slave (more on this later) and make an offer for Broomhilda; after, Schultz will set them off as freed slaves. This is a fairly concise overview. I'm attempting to avoid spoilers, but they might come up unexpectedly. This isn't meant to be a standard review, but rather a look at how Tarantino handles a delicate imagining of revenge and justice.

In 2008, I wrote an analysis of D.W. Griffith's The Birth Of a Nation, a technically beautiful film with a deplorable message and depiction of black people. In an odd twist, Django Unchained is a technically enjoyable (it has impressive wide panning shots, beautiful landscape photography, sharp editing, and various combinations of classic western motifs and Spaghetti Western influences) with what should be a great message: a freed black slave dishing out revenge on white slave owners on behalf of thousands of other slaves. In one of his monologues, Calvin Candie expresses genuine wonder as to why a slave didn't rise up and kill his own father (which then leads to a ridiculous hypothesis based on phrenology and submission). But as a white artist, did Tarantino go too far? This isn't his first foray into violent revisionist history. When Inglourious Basterds premiered, there were quieter voices wondering how the film affected Jewish audiences. But the biggest difference lies in the settings. Basterds didn't have any graphic scenes from the concentration camps--the events unfolded in movie theaters, countrysides, and banquet halls. It would have been subject to the same critiques as Django had it featured prisoners in the camps rising up against the Nazis. In Django, we see slaves being whipped, abused, and mistreated on a consistent level. Had the film shown a free slave searching down a single slave owner in a neutral setting, I believe the controversies wouldn't have been as extreme.

Even in fictional settings, the audience has to adjust to Tarantino's cartoonish, comic book-style violence with the realization that some of the actions actually took place. In one of the most wrenching scenes, one of Candie's fighting slaves is ripped apart by attack dogs. In his parlor, he watches two black men fighting to the death (creative license on Tarantino's part, but no less unsettling), and offers a hammer to the winner to finish off the loser. Dozens are shot and killed, with geysers of blood shooting out like video game pixels, but that's nothing new on Tarantino's part. Again, it's unsettling because even in the most exaggerated forms, these actions happened in some capacities. And having them played for the occasional laugh is jarring. The "mandigo fighters" are meant to illustrate Candie's blood lust and moral shortcomings. But when one blinks and takes into account the very real history of slavery, it gets to the point where one has to ask: is this supposed to represent a universal fantasy of revenge, or are we simply watching Tarantino's vision of what should have happened?

Again, I'm not hinting at racism, and there are various, unexpected moments of perverse philosophy throughout the film. Stephen, the elderly Candyland house slave, is viewed by Django as an Uncle Tom, sacrificing his heritage and turning a blind eye to the mistreatment of slaves in the name of his own relative comfort. Candie berates him in public, but in private, the two men talk on equal footing (Stephen's observations set off a chain reaction of events that lead to the film's climaxes). But apart from these hierarchies, Stephen could also be seen as a minstrel character. He's loud, boisterous, and goofy in front of the white company, but sullen, serious, and no-nonsense when surrounded by the other slaves. This is a carefully rendered character on the part of Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson. Is he truly devoted to Candie, or does he know what games to play to be treated better than the other slaves? I believe it's a clouded combination. Vital questions and observations, yes, but it all comes back to Quentin Tarantino. He has a right to make any film he pleases, but should a take on slavery have been left alone? Since the invention of film narratives, the West and the 19th century have provided a background for hundreds, if not thousands, of morality plays, existential studies, and plain old good vs. evil fights. But one has to acknowledge how sensitive slavery is to anyone with a conscience, let alone the living descendants.

In 2007, I visited the capitol building in Columbia, South Carolina, and I'll never forget how sick to my stomach I felt upon making two observations. Seeing the Confederate flag flying from a state building up close causes much more tension than seeing it on television or in a photograph. And tucked to the side of the building was a small, touching memorial to the slaves who lived there, with a stunningly detailed image of the layout of a slave boat. Again, anyone should be appalled by this, but I simply cannot imagine knowing my ancestors lived through something that atrocious. And that's where Spike Lee makes a valid point (although his refusal to see the movie and condemning it on reputation is less than I would expect from a filmmaker, especially one I admire as much as Lee). In his own way, Tarantino offers unbelievable depictions of the comeuppance that slave owners should have received. DiCaprio's portrayal of Candie is courageous, since he takes on the role of a heightened version of the most deplorable, racist mentalities (and in an odd twist, Candie's death is the most subdued one suffered in the entire film). But Django is a fictional character, and the focus of the film is on him and his payback. However, there's no way to depict that time period without casting a light on history. This film is entertainment and escapism, but it's it's so real in its period details that reality keeps rearing its head. I don't believe Tarantino has done anything wrong or offensive. But these realities have to be acknowledged. I can imagine some people rolling their eyes and assuming I'm writing from a foundation of extreme political correctness. But Django Unchained, for as much as I enjoyed it, toes several lines very precariously. Tarantino has nothing to apologize for, but if I were him, I'd readily acknowledge and accept feedback for such the audacious, blunt period setting. From a character and technical standpoint, Django is very well-made. But there's no way to see it or write about it without a serious acknowledgement of the events that made even the most fictionalized plot possible.

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