Dec 27, 2012

God Forgives, I Don't

Django Unchained, the latest offering from celebrated auteur Quentin Tarantino was sure to incite controversy.  Like all of Tarantino's films, Django is what one might call a built environment.  The world constructed in the film is one drawn from the filmmaker's expansive imagination and his encyclopedic knowledge of pop genres like Spaghetti Westerns and Blaxploitation.  Set below the Mason-Dixon line in the years immediately prior to the start of the Civil War, employing elements of both the western and the slave narrative, this unique construction is one Tarantino calls a "Southern."  At issue of course is the central role that the "peculiar institution" otherwise known as slavery plays in the film.

Slavery is that thing that America would rather forget.  For all those who love to talk about American Exceptionalism, slavery punches a gaping hole in this self-serving thesis.   The horrors of slavery and the reality that this nation was built upon the backs of those enslaved has created a situation riff with explosive possibilities.  Some cringe at the inconvenient mention of slavery, while others recoil at the deafening silence surrounding its articulation.  Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey have both made movies about slavery.  Neither Amistad (1997) nor Beloved (1998) were very successful though, in spite of the uber popularity of both of the figures behind these respective films.  In other words, if Spielberg and Oprah can't sell slavery chances are it can't be sold.

The problem with well-meaning representations like those seen in Amistad and Beloved is the earnest, self-righteous tone, a tone dripping with morally indignant sentimentality at every conceivable turn. While Roots may serve as the blueprint for representations of slavery in American popular culture, Tarantino rejects this model, instead drawing inspiration from another 70s cultural form, Blaxploitation, referencing a film like The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972)

and Mandingo (1975)

both of which predated Roots by a few years.  One could even argue that the popularity of Blaxploitation films in the theaters during the early 70s helped create a climate for the eventual airing of the more mainstream Roots mini-series on television in 1977. As groundbreaking a cultural moment as Roots was, it had more to do with black suffering than it did black empowerment.

In Mandingo, Ken Norton's character Meade, the film's resident Mandingo, dies in a pot of boiling water, while the plantation's Uncle Tom character, Agamemnon, surprisingly shoots his beloved Master Hammond Maxwell in response.  Though the film allows for the cathartic killing of Master Hammond at the hands of one of his slaves, Meade dies, while Uncle Tom lives. In the years since Mandingo, America has seen the rise of a newly empowered class of real life characters whose resemblance to the old Uncle Tom archetype makes it difficult to discern whether one is looking at a fictional character or the real thing? The fabled Uncle Ruckus from the Boondooks series is fictional, though one need not look far to find real life versions of the same thing scattered amongst us.    Recognizing this, Django realizes that for the film to be relevant in contemporary society, Uncle Tom deserves a fate similar to that of his Master in order for good to truly triumph over evil.  Thus it is fitting that Django saves his last act of retribution for Samuel L. Jackson's vile "house nigger" character Stephen, who after being shot in both knees, dies a horrific death as the Master's mansion explodes with him in it, thanks to Django setting off a dynamite blast.  

Django's mind may be immersed in the Spaghetti Western's of Corbucci or the choreographed mayhem of a Sam Peckinpah, for example, but the film's heart remains in Blaxploitation.  Back in 1971 Melvin Van Peebles promised that there was a "baad asssss nigger" who was "coming back to collect some dues," at the end of his groundbreaking classic Sweetsweetback's Baadasssss Song.  Some forty-one years later, Jamie Foxx's Django has fulfilled this prophecy.  The brilliance of Blaxploitation as a genre was its ability to rewrite common narratives so that black characters triumph over white oppression and do so in high style.  There was a life affirming message of what Obama calls "old testament justice" combined with an extravagance of style that made these films so popular.  Coming in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights movement and informed by the politics of Black Power, the films recognized, in spite of budgetary limitations, that James Brown's notion of "payback" was real indeed in the minds of its audience members.  Django modernizes this mythology in an age when super heroes now dominate the box office and such is fitting as Foxx's Django becomes the super hero of the slave era.

Blaxploitation, of course, would eventually have a strong influence on hip hop.   As the genre experienced a re-birth in the late 80s, thanks to the rise of gangsta rap, films once dismissed as shlock began to experience a second life.  In the 90s, Tarantino forged an aesthetic that finally took Blaxploitation seriously as an influence.  The filmmaker's mash up of various styles, mixing both the sacred and the profane, without regard to time and place, has become the epitome of postmodern cinematic expression. Yet the aesthetic itself owes a lot to hip hop as Tarantino recently discussed in his appearance on The Charlie Rose Show.

The art of the remix, creative sampling of pop cultural ephemera, a love of retro as aesthetic, and the overall ability to give old forms new meaning, pitched to just the right in-crowd, defines a style of cinematic hipness that Tarantino has now perfected.  Make no mistake about it though, Django Unchained is hip hop cinema at its finest.  There is no place else in the world where Wagner, Alexandre Dumas, Ennio Morricone, Jim Croce, Tupac, and Rick Ross can co-exist with Sergio Leone and Fred Williamson other than in hip hop and a Tarantino movie. 

In spite of Tarantino's achievement, many, aided by the ubiquitous echo chamber of social media, have quickly lodged their complaints.  This is not surprising.  Tarantino is a popular filmmaker who often prompts an equally critical response from his numerous detractors.  Though popular, Tarantino's films are quite studious as well.  His approach to cinema is often over the heads of those who want their film going experience to be a moral affirmation of their own tightly held beliefs.  Tarantino is abstract, but these erstwhile critics only want the literal.  His overt embrace of style strikes the detractors as not severely entrenched enough in victimization for their taste.

Some have complained about what they see as the film's excessive violence, failing however to recognize the utter violence that was slavery.  Further the repeated use of the word "nigger" in the film gives haters an easy excuse to discredit the effort.  For a film set in 1858, what else would you expect the characters to say, African American?!  Where do these self righteous saints think the contested word came from in the first place?  The repeated utterance of this word in the film is in keeping with the era that the film is set.  Django, again like both Blaxploitation and hip hop, deploys the word in a most effective manner, liberating the word from the bondage of disingenuous social censorship in the process. In spite of what others may say, the use of the word is both humorous and appropriate given the context.

Simply stated, Django Unchained is an instant classic.  In an era when movie experiences often resemble an amusement park ride, where comic books, sequels, and the expanses of digital technology often determine what gets made and what does not, Tarantino has consistently crafted a cinema where story and dialogue still reign supreme.  This is very old school, but old school in the best possible way.  On the other hand, Tarantino's ability to make traditional concepts like story and dialogue relevant in a contemporary context through modern practices like cut and paste, remix, and mash-up demonstrates that old school inevitably informs the creation of the new school.  To do all of this while rewriting the slave narrative as one where ethical vengeance trumps saintly victimization is something that Nat Turner would have most certainly been proud of.