#60Movies – Day 3: Why I Can’t Sign Off On Django…

5 01 2013

Sorry. This review is more than a blurb. I got a lot to say…

The past couple weeks I’ve been wrestling with how to write my review of this film that has been getting so much buzz ever since it was initially leaked that Quentin Tarantino was going to make a film that dealt with slavery. I first heard about the film maybe a year ago, and I have to admit, I was not very excited about it. The idea of Tarantino, making a movie about a topic that America as a whole still hasn’t even dealt with adequately bothered me.

Don’t get me wrong. Generally speaking, I love Tarantino’s work. I think for all of the violence and frivolty that he portrays in all of his films, he is an important voice in the world of filmmaking and in many regards, his films like “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” changed the game. On the other hand, I am aware of Tarantino’s surface fascination with black culture. I don’t know how else to explain Jackie Brown and his incessant use of the n-word. So when I heard about Django Unchained, I immediately thought “Uh-oh. He may have crossed the line on this one.”

But I read the reviews, and they were all singing the film’s praises. They said it wasn’t supposed to be a historical film about slavery, but rather a love story. A story where the slave is the hero at the end, the slave wins rather than be objectified as a victim subject to a white slave owner, as is usually the case.

I thought I would be able to watch this movie with a suspension of disbelief, to just go with it and accept it on the basis of the story alone. But this movie was just a bit too much for me to handle. One of many things that bothered me about this movie was the reactions from the audience, the places where they chose to laugh, and where they chose to be silent. A small example is when Django (Jamie Foxx) tells Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) that his wife’s name is Broomhilda Von Shaft and that she speaks German, the audience laughs. Why? Is it ridiculous that a black woman would have a German name? Or is it the reality that several black people in this country have slave names that were handed to them by a slave master many, many years ago?

When Django is on his way to Candieland to save his wife Broomhilda, they come across a slave hiding from dogs in a tree because he doesn’t want to be a “mandingo fighter” anymore (um, yeah, I’m not even going to go there with the mandingo fighting. For another post…for another post…), Django tells Candie, a slave master played by Leonardo diCaprio, that he has “no use for that pickaninny.” Of course Django is playing a role to get Candie to trust him so that he can carry out his ploy of rescuing his wife Broomhilda (played by Kerri Washington), who has been sold to the Candieland plantation. But the audience laughs. Is it because he called the man a pickaninny? Or is it because he had no use for him? Help me out because I was confused. Maybe people don’t understand the historical significance of that word pickaninny. Well, here’s a little video to break it down in case you didn’t know…

Sorry, but I just can’t find humor in that word at all.

What also bothered me about this movie is the idea of Django being an “Exceptional Negro,” which is yet another stereotypical black caricature for anyone who knows anything about black stereotypes. The slaves in this movie had no voice at all. Jamie Foxx as Django had little to say, yet his presence was endearing. In the end, Django shoots up everybody at the plantation, including Candie, and all his cronies. He is then re-sold into slavery to three Australians, only to concoct a scheme to go back to the Candieland plantation and blow it and anyone remaining to smitherenes. Great. But Django is still a character without a voice. To sum it up best, I quote from my good friend and writer Angela Harvey:

Through many twists and turns and massacres, Django [gives] three captive men the opportunity to toss off their proverbial burlap capes. Only this time, without Dr. Schultz, Django becomes the liberator. After besting a group of Australian slave traders—yeah, I said Australian—there are three slaves left in the cage who are about to go free. But there’s no eloquent speech this time. Django has no words for them. He has no wisdom to offer, no lessons learned in freedom. It feels like Django has nothing to say here because Tarantino has no idea what he should say. He can’t write those words because he can’t be sure what a man in that position might want to say. So here at the end of Django Unchained, the slave still has no voice.

Even earlier in the film as Django watches a slave kill another slave with a hammer, Django has little reaction. I have a hard time believing that a slave could watch a fellow slave be slaughtered in this manner and not flinch–even someone dead set on saving their wife at any cost.

Throughout the film, Django is referred to as the “one in 10,000” who would revolt against the powers that be. And so what does that say about the rest of the slaves? Oh I got it. They’re lazy, shiftless cowards. Or at least that’s a conclusion I was lead to draw from  slaves who sit around looking like they don’t know what to do with themselves even after Django kills the Australian slave owners, subsequently setting the prisoners free. Even then the men are silent and only look off into the distance watching as Django rides away on a horse. After all, he’s Django, the “Exceptional Negro”.

The only other slave who talks more than Django is the Stepin Fetchit character of Stephen (played by Samuel L. Jackson), who was Candie’s right hand man, his road dog, i.e. his house slave. I had a problem with his level of loyalty to Candie that reduced Stephen to a mere caricature. Stephen doted on Candie even until his final breath. A slave was still a slave whether they were in the house or in the field. If Tarantino really wanted to make a statement, why didn’t Stephen and Django join forces at the end? But I guess that would’ve been too much.

I went to see this film last week, and I was so flustered after seeing it that I couldn’t get my thoughts together to have a decent conversation about it. I actually subjected myself to sit through it again this past weekend so that I could take it all in and really understand why I hated the film so much. It was at the point of the second to last killing spree (and there are a lot of killing sprees in this movie) that I realized that Django Unchained, from the eyes of Quentin Tarantino, is nothing more than a young boy’s shoot-em-up fantasy where “good” triumphs over evil. It is a spaghetti western that happens to take place in slavery times instead of an old western saloon. I don’t think Tarantino set out to make a historical film or a film that would make people think about the atrocities of slavery.

Ok, fine. But therein lies the problem with the film. In the words of Spike Lee, “slavery was not a spaghetti western, it was a holocaust”. America as a whole still has not dealt with the atrocities of slavery. And whenever African Americans talk about said atrocities we come across as being angry black people who play the race card (see Spike Lee). Maybe I do need to lighten up. But I’ll lighten up when people start to have real conversations about race in this country. Every time I watch a film that remotely has to do with slavery, I reflect on the fact that some people really used to think this was ok, to own another human being as property. The psychological affects of slavery still permeate our culture whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. I’m not saying we have to dwell on the horrors of slavery for the rest of our lives, but we do have to have healing conversations about it before we can start making jokes about it. Perhaps I would have had a different reaction to the film if I had watched it with a different audience, or if America had more of a clue about it’s own sordid past, or if the characters had been more dimensional.

But the black guy wins at the end, right, so I should be happy? Sorry Quentin, this “Exceptional Negro” is a little too edu-ma-cated to go on this journey with you. The cost of the reward is a bit too much for me on this one… 1 1/2 Stars for the intended story.




One response

27 04 2013
Why I Can’t Sign Off on Django… | kriteek

[…] (Repost from Convergence blog: myconvergence.wordpress.com) […]

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