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. 



Barbara said...

What an amazing review. Thank you. What Blaxpoitation films besides the ones you mentioned would you recommend watching?

Jett Texas said...

It was like you were in my head,couldn't have said it better myself,i must say so very extraordinarily entertaining!!!! THE D is silent

DP said...


I appreciated reading your interesting and mostly on point review. However, the principal contention that I have with the film and your positive review is that Tarantino has turned (structurally & thematically) Sam Jackson's Stephen/"the house nigger" into the main villain of our black hero/Django played by Jamie Foxx.

This is very problematic in a supposedly new style black "Southern" being that the White Power Structure of slavery symbolized by Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) should be the clear villain. And Stephen/S.J. merely a side playa of this villainy.

Additionally, our hero does not dispatch Candie as most western heroes would be allowed to do in a classic film. To me, this is very telling on many levels, especially having seen this representation before. Which I believe makes the film fall short of the mark.

I understood and appreciated Tarantino's Hip Hop/Blaxploitation/Spaghetti Western mash up sensibility. And I found most of it enjoyable in a guilty pleasure sort of way.

That said, I usually find that even the best and most talented white filmmakers often get tripped up when dealing with history, slavery, racism, and the portrayal of black heroism (and socio-political themes) on screen. And so with most of QT's films (and other filmmakers) in this area, I found it a mixed bag.

All the best to you,

John Brannen said...

In agreement. The critics will loudly compress their views into a short statement of condemnation, this is a important film that makes you want to turn away from the horror of human treatment, the underlying story that, love will conquer all, rings loudly as the hero endures to achieve his goal.

Anonymous said...

In a pivotal scene, Schultz (Christoph Waltz) refers to a Frenchman of African descent as "black", when at that point in history, even a not-racist person would have said "negro," so Tarantino does make use of anachronistic political correctness when he feels it necessary. That said, this is a great look at a very impressive film.

DP said...



Also, it would have been great to see a memorable love scene between Django and Broomhilda. I believe that it would have made that hero's journey/his winning all the more powerful and compelling in the end.

Additionally, to see the two of them as kick ass partners riding off ready to take on whatever the next challenges are...(while still sticking to/yet improving upon the revisionist rules of the genres QT's playing with of course).

I guess it is still more of a revolutionary act (even in the 21st century) to show a beautiful love scene between a black man & black woman, than to have that black man killing up a bunch of bad white folks.

Another sad commentary for our "post-racial" times. Guess the folks that want to see that kinda stuff (the gangsta and the loving) on the big silver screen have to do it for themselves...

But that's cool, I'm down with that.


Anonymous said...

Once again, good Dr., you hit the nail square on the head with this post. People these days have forgotten how to consume entertainment. A Hollywood movie is not and should not be seen as a historical document.

Jango Junkie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jango Junkie said...

(darn typos - w/ correction, pls delete previous post)
Goodness, thank you for your encompassing analysis of this genius film. After seeing the film before it's release, I'd read critiques offered by today's black intelligentsia of a film they'd yet to see. Arguments being boldly staked and justified by the 'Spike said don't see this' stamp of rejection.

I've begun likening this current cacophonous cultural campaign to one other passionately argued taboo - sex. The common thread being that while many will indulge in ways unrevealed, a convoluted fear overwhelms of admitting their own liking of it's raw, visceral, liberating pleasures.

There's one popular statement circulating that borders on truth. Tarantino may be the only one who could have made this film. But I'd suggest it's due to the fact that this particular creative came embedded with just enough wile and wholly owns artistic his voice. (read Rebels on the Lot)

You went to straight to Nat Turner's imagined posthumous two thumbs up for Django. I have actually been smiling as I muse at the thought of Denmark Vesey and John Brown exchanging a gentleman's nod as they tipped their glass at the end of the producer's screening. They also know, it's only a movie.

Lisa Bolekaja said...

Thank you. I knew you got it good Dr.!

Anonymous said...

Dr. Boyd, what is your take on so many black academics hating this film?

Tama Irie said...

Dope review Dr. Boyd! This is why you are my favorite professor and I'm so juiced to read your insightful review! I've seen the film 3 times already, In the theater! LoL I loved every second, especially the scene where the white folks was making a big fuss about the bags over their heads. Bwahahaha!