As all of the Django Unchained reviews hit the Internet, I'm sure plenty of African Americans will list why they hate Quentin Tarantino's new film about a slave's journey for revenge -- but not me. A friend and I recently attended a screening for the film, which opens on Christmas Day, followed by an awkward question-and-answer session with the director. We were two of perhaps 10 black people in the theater -- that's what makes what happened next so awkward.
In the film, Django (Jamie Foxx) is purchased by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter, and the two pair up to collect the bodies and ransoms of outlaws across the South. Because Django is such a natural, Schultz asks him to work with him through the winter in exchange for his help finding the former slave's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was sold to a different plantation. The search for Hildy leads the duo to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) -- which he shares with his head house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) -- and bloody drama ensues.
After the film ended, Tarantino began the interview with Peter Bogdanovich, the elderly director best known for 1971's The Last Picture Show, when a black woman interrupted their conversation, saying, "A lot of black people are not going to like this movie. I'm about to have a heart attack." Then a few audience members began to heckle Tarantino from the balcony, shouting: "This is bulls--t." (The director invited his detractors to offer their comments during the open session after the interview while admitting that Django dealt with heavy subject matter.)
"That's the thing about this film -- we're dealing with virgin territory with this kind of story and this history," Tarantino said. "It's a rough movie. As bad as some of the s--t is in this film, a lot worse s--t was going on. This is the nice version."
Then Bogdanovich said, in what I imagine was an effort to calm the situation, "It's significant that we have a black president. It shows you how far we've come."
My friend, who is also black, and I immediately looked at each other, shook our heads and resisted the urge to scream, "What does that have to do with anything?"
Herein lies the crux of the problem that many have, and probably will have, with Django Unchained: While it deals with race, the film's mere existence is not necessarily a commentary on how far we've come in terms of race relations in America, which some viewers might expect from a film about slavery in 2012. At its heart, Django is a spaghetti western, and the film, written and directed by Tarantino, showcases his wild sensibilities as he imagines America's slaving days through the narrative of a black man.
Let's all agree up front that a film about a newly freed slave enacting revenge on those who abused him and his wife can seem problematic when the director is a white man. There is no way around this. As illustrated by the critics who disagreed with having Steven Spielberg produce and direct Alice Walker's The Color Purple, the white-black dynamic is an odd coupling, and not every filmmaker would be able to correctly capture the characters' speech patterns or have the appropriate racial sensitivity. (Perhaps that's partly why the Dino De Laurentiis-produced Mandingo is so hard to watch. The 1975 film's slavery story is shockingly atrocious.)
And while I thought Tarantino made Django an easy hero, the protagonist wasn't very nuanced. He is the strong and silent type, though Foxx's naturally big presence makes it easy to root for him.
On the other hand, DiCaprio's character has numerous fizzy one-liners, Schultz is hilariously verbose and Jackson's wily house Negro is despicably cunning enough to make viewers really hate him. Elsewhere, Washington's Hildy had, perhaps, a paragraph of dialogue in the entire film. In hindsight, Django doesn't seem to be told from Django's perspective, and somehow I know if another director, like Spike Lee, had made this film, it would have been much different.
Though the slave trade is the backdrop for the film, Tarantino establishes early on that the racist calling cards of the mid-1800s are silly. In the beginning, Waltz's character, after buying Django and freeing his fellow slaves, says that he doesn't agree with slavery, but for the sake of his needs, he's enlisting Django's help to find his bounty marks. There, Tarantino sets the film's tone, which seems to say, "Racism is ridiculous, but just go with me."
In another scene, Django and Schultz are chased by a Ku Klux Klan group, led by Miami Vice veteran Don Johnson, and perched on horses, the members spend 10 minutes fussing that they can't see through their masks because one member's wife is not the best seamstress and didn't cut proper holes. It's hilarious.
In another scene, DiCaprio's plantation owner, Candie, asks for his German-speaking slave, Hildy, and when he's rebuffed because she's busy being punished for trying to run away again, he orders her produced because "What's the point of having a German-speaking n--ger if you can't trot them out when you have guests?" Again, I found this funny, though the language and situation made me cringe.
Tarantino is controversial because of what appears to be his fondness for the shock value of the n-word. Since viewing Pulp Fiction and his "Did you notice a sign in the front of my house that said, 'Dead N--ger Storage'?" zinger, I honestly haven't been a big fan of his. The writer-director's casual use of a word that carries so much history for the sake of ironic flair -- in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino's character's wife is black -- just turned me off. This is why I was surprised that I wasn't offended when the word was liberally used throughout Django, though I'm sure it will anger many other black viewers.
Specifically, there were two scenes in Django during which I wanted to run out of the theater and curse our country's history: during the "Mandingo fight" and later, when one fighter is torn apart by dogs. Since reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, which begins with a gaggle of black males boxing blindly for coins as a drunk white crowd jeers, I hate to see black men pummeling one another, let alone for the pleasure of two white men during slavery.
But in the post-screening interview, Tarantino said that Candie's character was a boy king, born into the cotton money that his forefathers had earned. He was bored with the business and enjoyed such brutal entertainment. When a hopeless brawler claims he's too tired to fight anymore, Candie orders that he be ripped apart by dogs. These scenes were racially charged, heartbreaking and angering, but I understand that Tarantino often features bloody realism as much as possible in his films.
Ultimately, Django featured several cruel traditions that were likely historically correct -- it's not hard to imagine that blacks were branded with an "r" if they ran away, that some were torn apart by animals or that Mandingo fights had black men fighting to the death -- but that doesn't make them any easier to watch.
In the end -- spoiler alert! -- I clapped as Django blows up the house of Hildy's former master, because in the tradition of any good movie, Foxx's character shoots his way through hell and gets his girl. Taking the film at face value, without dipping too far into the visceral hurt of slavery, I enjoyed Django Unchained. I don't know if I'd watch it again. But I loved Django's victory over the American slavery system, as well as his ride into the sunset with his wife, the two now a free black couple.
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