Django, History Unchained, and The Power of Narrative

"I spent my whole life surrounded by black faces!"-this might explain it all.

“I spent my whole life surrounded by black faces!”-this might explain it all.

On Christmas day, while Derrick Rose was not playing the Houston Rockets, I went to go see the widely acclaimed Quentin Tarantino piece, Django Unchained. I did not know what to expect going in; I had been excited by the previews in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and had been tempered as the days got closer. The previews seemed great, and I’ve liked most of Tarantino’s films. However, Spike Lee’s recent words on the movie had me thinking twice about the whole thing. I definitely still planned on seeing it, but I wanted to not just see it for the entertainment value anymore. Lee made me think twice upon the possibility that Tarantino was in fact overstepping his bounds by making a movie about slavery. And I left the theater on Christmas night pretty resolute about how I felt about the film. I have a strong opinion on the movie, and it was not positive. But something in me just wasn’t disgusted-maybe I was just pleasantly surprised that Spike was right-or at least not completely wrong. Either way, with spoiler alerts and all, here’s my opinion on Django.

Different people, of course, will have vastly differing opinions on this depending on their sensitivity to their importance of narrative and the past. But I left the moving siding with Spike in feeling as though the movie was disrespectful to the legacy of black slaves. I have seen and have appreciated QT’s style of making excessively violent and controversial films, but I also feel like there’s no reason to stir up controversy for the sake of controversy. It should rather unearth challenging discussions, bring up the uneasy questions, and take to task the widely held assumptions that inform the film’s context. That being said, Django takes slavery and makes it a convenient plot twist in an antebellum black man’s dry and goofy quest for his lover. Even the copious violence tends to lose its seriousness in the film, and the only connection with reality that begins to be apparent is the completely basic and unchallenged specter of racism in America. This is epitomized in the film by everything from the rampant use of ‘nigger’ to Django’s near castration at the hands of ‘Moonlight’ the white man.

I could go on about it, but my bottom line is that this movie does not uncover any of the challenging elements of slavery’s legacy which still affect us today. The film desensitizes us with profuse and extreme violence and language (you have to let your guard down to it to enjoy the film at all) and softens us with crude humor (the KKK, historically fear mongers and American terrorists, were reduced to melodramatic idiots and comedic relief…hardly perceived as any threat during the film, they outsmarted themselves as Django picked one off with a snipe-shot from a distance). Through this is perhaps my greatest issue: Django gives us an entertaining and digestible film that makes light of the moment it was set in. Then the film proposes to do right by not only giving the protagonist retribution, but also revenge in the face of his newly freed wife and a blazing explosion, furthering the narrative of salvific individualism (Django ultimately outsmarted the ‘bad white men’ and was in control of his own fate) and leaving the average viewer ‘feeling good’ about the ‘good guy’ winning the day.

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I see very few films in which black men and women are portrayed as the protagonists, and much less the ‘good guys’. This is especially true against the backdrop of white antagonists, and almost completely true in the mainstream. Public perception no doubt plays a role in this-people won’t pay for a movie that they can’t relate to, and this holds true even if the movie is going to play off of innate and subconscious fears, desires, and perceptions. Someone recently made the point to me that Django somewhat alleviates the issue of few black heroes in mainstream movies though, because it tells a story that is so often ignored altogether in our national dialogue: The role of race in America today, and slavery’s impact, even in 2012. I don’t want to dwell on counterarguments, but I do want to elaborate on why Django Unchained does not come close to filling the gap for what has been untold, and why I would rather have no one touch the topic at all than for this story to take up that mantle.

The history of slavery is no doubt complex, and schools across America will not teach you anything but the bare minimum in that story, along with so many others. I found myself wondering about where the black people were while our teachers were telling us about Thomas Jefferson signing the Declaration of Independence, for example. Whether truth or not, many of my friends and I took the stance that our people were in the backyard picking cotton while these histories were being written. The teachers never confirmed or disputed. Whatever the case was though, I’ve found huge power in the narrative, and I’ve seen that the one who has the power to tell the story has immense control over the way that future actions play out. Hyperbole, but what pride would we have if we found out that Thomas Jefferson actually got the script for the Declaration of Independence from one of his slaves?

Referring back to QT’s film, I’m optimistsic that most viewers understand that Django Unchained was fiction. Shoot, I hope all viewers not just thought, but knew that there was no way in one thousand hot hells that Django happened like that. But I’m concerned, not because I think many people out there think the movie is fact. I am concerned that we do not know where the fact ends and the fiction begins. In a comment I made to someone about slavery after the movie, he said that he felt I was being too sensitive about something that happened 300 years ago. 300 years ago. Putting aside the fact that slavery legally ended in 1865 (I’m from Alabama so if you count convict leasing, my great-grandparents might have been slaves in fact), slavery presents a complex and convoluted history that Americans have handled by avoidance. We don’t have the tools to properly address that aspect of our history. We don’t know how to reconcile the atrocities of black genocide and an economy based upon at least 200 years of unpaid labor with our professed exceptionalism. Thus, we have a thick shroud of ignorance around the topic, and it won’t go away by telling the story of a pistol toting black bounty hunter getting paid to waste white men as his grandiloquent German puppet master tries to rein him in.

I personally do not want the revisionist history of a black man overcoming town sheriff, incompetent Klansmen, flamboyant faux-French slave owners, and a chargrilled Samuel L. Ruckus to find his wife and save himself. That simplifies the brilliance, overlooks the endurance, and reduces the resilience that it took for all of the 400 years that black people have been here to overcome an existence of antipathy. “What does it mean to be a problem-people in a nation of problem solvers?” It does not give me retribution to say that one black man shot up, blew up, and hit up 60 white men on the quest to his woman, and freed two house slaves along the way (it is unclear whether or not he unlocked the chains of his fellow prisoners on the way to the quarry, so no clue how they ended up doing). It does not give me peace that Django “won”. He escaped by the skin of his nuts (literally), and that simply told an entertaining story. But when I saw people leaving the film, it troubled me that nobody else appeared to be ‘troubled’. People certainly seemed entertained, but not disturbed. Of course, I will never be inside of their minds, but if we look at many online reviews, much of the issue with Django is the use of the word ‘nigger’. Django’s agency is rarely a question. Neither is the depth (or shallowness) of all of the black characters in the movie compared to the white ones. Don’t get me wrong-the use of “nigger” is an issue for me, but it only scratches the surface, and is indicative of my deeper issues with the film. Taken for face value, the movie is just an entertaining story where the black man finally gets the double-u, and gets the girl. But once again, once you get past the violence and language (if you ever took issue with it at all), the final feeling is resolution. I described the film to a few people as a movie that makes America comfortable with something that it should never be comfortable with. Comfort breeds inaction, and inaction is the enemy of progress. If we are where we should be, then progress is not a question. But if we are farther behind than where we say that we are, then progress should be first on the racial agenda.

"I know Spike Lee gon kill me but let me finish"

“I know Spike Lee gon kill me but let me finish!”

I know Spike Lee has a tendency to stir up a lot of controversy, with both his films and his words off the script. And a lot of it is, in my opinion, off base. Or maybe just too extreme for my taste. But something in me was…pleased that he was right. We so often take the “thick-skin” approach to people like Lee, and in effect, we toss aside any sensitivity that we may have to offense. And it’s necessary to have that thick-skin to make it by in this world. But when we turn off our sensors to controversial statements like Spike’s, we begin to blindly accept the subtle offenses that defile us, and commit one of the hallmark crimes of our generation: not thinking. Cultural paradigms do not generally occur by sweeping change, but by individuals pushing the envelope; sometimes it is accepted, other times it’s not. But it all depends on how and how often people think about it. And maybe Tarantino’s film puts us in a place where we have to accept or reject many of the views that are held towards slavery and racism now. “It happened in the past.” “White people today are not responsible.” “We can laugh about it-that shows we’re past it as a society.” If I’m the only one who sees these ideas as problematic though, maybe I alone am just looking too hard. Either way-that’s my opinion on Django Unchained. If you don’t accept my critiques for what they are, then you should go be entertained for yourself. I gave it a thumbs down-but if nothing else, it will spark a conversation.

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7 Responses to “Django, History Unchained, and The Power of Narrative”

  1. J Crayzee December 28, 2012 at 5:44 AM # Reply

    Interesting article, indeed. Everything you said is agreeable and thought provoking, but I came away with different thoughts and feelings. Wish I can extrapolate more, but can’t at this time, probably will later though. I will say that, I feel movies like this are needed in today’s world. Reminders of the past, especially for the youth are needed. Through fact or fiction, anything that promotes dialogue is positive in my book. …to be continued.

  2. hi December 28, 2012 at 3:06 PM # Reply

    My Brilliant Princeton man…

  3. Another black guy December 28, 2012 at 3:36 PM # Reply

    hm. so only black people can write issues about slavery? did precious offend you too? do tyler perry movies offend you too? does the boondocks offend you too? to say that a white man can’t understand our struggle and can’t use the word “nigger” is prejudice. period.

  4. sista December 28, 2012 at 7:01 PM # Reply

    lol @ “another black guy”. obviously he didnt read the article. but on another note, jford, your argument is really interesting and persuasive. the challenge is to get this to a larger readership. please do..seriously. I really think everyday people arent differentiating b/t fact and fiction (plus you’re a great writer). also, they aren’t differentiating between the intentions of QT (however good or “art” related they may seem) with the problematic impact and interpretation of his work..but try to avoid the argument of “what is art?”…one can never win…on either side…ok I’m done rambling. good job and keep on writing brother

  5. Marquis Pullen December 29, 2012 at 8:04 PM # Reply

    I’m liking the commentary on the contrast between fact and fiction. I was reading a review the other day, which argued that one of the reasons that “Django Unchained” was necessary was because it it was “filled” with historically accurate depictions of the more heinous acts of violence that was perpetrated against blacks during the era of slavery. The writer argued that these scenes were important because you rarely get such a direct and honest revelation of the treatment of blacks during slavery. The problem with the review, however, is that although there were a few scenes that revealed historically accurate episodes from the era of slavery, these scenes consumed a relatively small share of the film’s air time. Thus, the facts of the film – the historically accurate portions – were overridden by the fiction, as you point out in your post. The consequence is a revised narrative that disappoints many who went into the film looking for more than simply lots of gun violence and a few episodes of comedic relief.

  6. Michael January 2, 2013 at 6:42 PM # Reply

    When did a nigger become a lead in a spagetti western ? Last time I checked Django was white or at least italian..
    Taratino streached the truth way too much!!

    • Michael January 2, 2013 at 7:02 PM # Reply

      P.S. I said the n-word for dramatical affect..but just rented the original 1970 Django
      “A man called Django/Django and Sartana,s showdown in the west”
      Soooo where does this bounty hunter get tangled with slavery??
      Just confused as fuck honky!!

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