According to croberts5…
*I don’t normally do these but in this case I think it’s necessary*
Over the past few days the social media world has been ablaze with the release of the new Quentin Tarantino’s new film Django Unchained. It seems as if everyone has some opinion about this film Some feel that it is the “Roots of this generation” while other argue that it is a poorly done caricature of the peculiar institution of enslavement. Then there is a segment of the population that finds themselves indifferent to the film and have no strong opinion on it one way or another.
My goal with this post is not to rail on the shortcomings of Django Unchained, nor is it to chastise those who after viewing this film felt empowered. If you found Django Unchained inspirational and entertaining I think that is great, I respect and appreciate your thoughts. I’d love to talk and build with you about it. That said, my goal with this post is to share my thoughts, reflections, struggles, and ideas around what Django Unchained evokes, means, represents, what it is, and what it is not.
Speaking on enslavement and the larger African Diasporic experience is something I’ve been doing since I was 16. I don’t know how not to be concerned with representations of my people.I am not writing an ego-driven diarrhetic release of my judgements or self aggrandizing assertions of an out of touch pseudo-intellectual. At least I hope not 😉
I am a poet, a scholar, and an activist. I both create art and deconstruct art. I deeply treasure the right of the artist to create her vision as she sees fit and not bend to the whims of those external of her creative process. To ignore that would betray my artistry. At the same time, I know the power of mainstream media to inform and construct sociohistorical narratives that fuel oppressive understandings of our history, our present, and our future.
To ignore that would betray my scholarship. Furthermore, I know that popular culture can ignite or quell the passions of a population. To ignore that would betray my activism. It is with this understanding of who I am that I write this post. This is not an indictment of what anyone else thinks, or feels. Nor is it an attempt to “ruin” anyone’s movie viewing experience. This is just me… writing my truth as I see it.
(and finally lol) NOW TO DJANGO UNCHAINED:
1. Quentin was born ready on fish and spaghetti…
Before writing, I first wanted to research and discover what Tarantino wanted this film to be and what his objectives were with creating the film. I did not want to make uninformed and misguided critiques of Django Unchained that had no relation to the goals and objectives of the director. So after combing through an array of different interviews and articles there were two that stuck out to me as major objectives for Tarantino with Django Unchained.
The themes I found were that Tarantino very much wanted to make a spaghetti western and he wanted that Western to reflect HIS vision. Not a slave narrative. Not a liberation narrative. Not a treatise on the institution of slavery. Not a film to quote Spike that “respects my ancestors.” These things, however important or unimportant to us, were not his concerns. Rather, he was concerned with making a 21st century spaghetti western. Django Unchained is a remake of one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films, Django (1966). Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Django is a cult-classic in the spaghetti western sub-genre of Westerns [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060315/]. The term spaghetti western came to be used in describing these films because the directors of these films were Italian. This genre is known for having tragic hero characters who are righting some atrocious wrong by blasting away all the evil men in his path, usually for love and/or retribution. The Django film in particular is revered among those who appreciate spaghetti westerns largely because it is regarded as taking the level of violence and aggression in these types of films to another level.
Coupling this with a knowledge of Tarantino’s filmography it is easy to see the appeal for this director. Tarantino, in fact, gives a nod to the original Django, Frank Nero, with a cameo in Django Unchained (Nero is the character who owns the enslaved African fighting against DiCaprio’s enslaved African and briefly speaks with Foxx at the bar). Tarantino’s instillation of Django Unchained is one of over 20 “Django” style films already in existence. There is even a Japanese version of Django directed by Takashi Miike that opened in 2007 entitled Sukiyaki Western Django which features Quentin Tarantino as an actor.
I share this information because I think it adds much needed context to the overall product that is Django Unchained. It helps the viewer to understand that Tarantino is making a Western that happens to take place during slavery in the Deep South, not a movie about slavery in the Deep South that happens to be a Western. Tarantino, in a recent interview with Playboy stated [speaking on Django Unchained] ” I’m just telling my story the way I’m telling it. I’m putting it in a spaghetti Western framework and highlighting the surreal qualities inherent in the material.”
In the film, Jamie Foxx’s Django is the classic spaghetti western hero, singularly focused on his goal and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve it. In the case of Django, his primary goal is to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). He is not overly concerned with the institution of slavery, nor with the death it has caused countless people like him. Though he thinks these things negative, he only addresses them insofar as they affect him saving his wife. The only liberation Django is primarily concerned with, as Tarantino has constructed him, is that of Broomhilda. This is not me passing a judgement on Django’s motives. Like Django, many enslaved Africans rebelled against the institution of slavery to free spouses and loved ones. However, in much of the historical record (Harpers Ferry, Stono Rebellion, etc) the goals of the individual were connected to a collective liberatory effort or group. I am highlighting this to articulate that this character is in no way David Walker, Kunta Kinte, or Nat Turner. Django is not, nor am I saying he “should” be, concerned with leading “his” people to freedom and overthrowing slavery on the macro level. Foxx is Tarantino’s 21st century Black cowboy hero.
For Tarantino, the backdrop of the Deep South during the peculiar institution is just the necessary violent setting of choice. Most spaghetti westerns have a hero who sees atrocities committed against an innocent population (enter enslaved Africans on plantations), normally personified in one uber innocent love interest (enter Broomhilda). In an interview with BET’s 106 and Park, Tarantino stated that he makes his movies for himself, and that if other people like it cool, if not cool.
Like many great artists, which Tarantino undoubtedly is, he is fearlessly devoted to his vision and having that vision manifest on screen. I highlight this point to say that Tarantino was not trying to make a film for Black America, for our ancestors, for the respect of our ancestors, or for the people who are still being oppressed by the legacy of enslavement in the Americas. He wanted to make a cool Western action movie. And in that regard I think Tarantino did a decent job. Nice gunfight scenes (if you dig the gore and all), likeable heroes, witty banter, and a measure of individual justice is served. So in that sense I think that the film does what Tarantino wanted it to do. Django Unchained is a reminder that content does not dictate directorial disposition.
In the previously mentioned interview with Playboy Tarantino elaborates on how he chose to engage slavery stating that “What I was interested in as far as slavery was the business aspect: Humans as chattel—how did that work? How much did they cost? How many slaves did an average person in Mississippi have? How did auction houses work? What were the social strata inside a plantation?” This quote tells us that for Tarantino the interest in slavery was largely related to the structure of the institution, not the spiritual, psychological, and emotional trauma of the institution.
Personally, I don’t think that it is possible to discuss enslavement and stand on such hollowed ground and blood-soaked land and not attempt to address the spiritual, psychological, and emotional history of that place. In select interviews Foxx and Washington both discuss their own transformations and struggles with “going there” in certain scenes in the movie. Additionally, Foxx in particular has spoken on seeing extras overcome with emotion during especially brutal scenes. It is this visceral connection to space and place that I think Tarantino did not capture. The plantation and the spectacle of it became primary, and the people, histories, and lives on it (save Stephen and Candie [Samuel L and DiCaprio]) were ornamental at best. However, as has previously been established, it was not his intention to capture that. I think that choice to not as a point of screenplay and cinematography, emphasize the spiritual, psychological, and emotional trauma/resonance is a shortcoming of the film. And for what it’s worth I do believe that these themes can be addressed in an action-led storytelling of this type of narrative.
Concrete examples of where one may suggest these resonances might have been illuminated are A. How does Django’s reading/understanding of religion and/or spirituality inform his doing of “the Lords work?” This would have flowed well because it would have complemented beautifully Tarantino’s poignant reference to white supremacist readings of the Bible informing the practice of whipping enslaved Africans [the first Biddle/Schaffer brother Django kills has pages from a Bible attached to his shirt]. B. What is it that motivated Django and Broomhilda to run in the first place? The movie starts with us encountering Django in a chain gang that he is in because after he and his wife were captured following a failed runaway attempt they were sold separately. In pragmatic terms, they were together originally on that first plantation, so something external of them being physically together motivated them to escape. Furthermore, when we encountered Broomhilda she had attempted to runaway on her own, why did she attempt to flee? Now had these previous attempts at escape been interrogated more it may have spoken to the emotional toll that slavery took on enslaved Africans, especially husband and wife spouses, and why many wanted to leave. C. What were discussions like among enslaved Africans, what did they think of this Django character and his weird German friend who suddenly appeared in Candieland? Exploring this would have been a great way for Tarantino to, as he hoped to capture the “social strata inside a plantation.” As viewers we know nothing of the enslaved Africans thoughts (again, save Stephen).
3. White Privilege and the “Right” to be Moral
Probably the biggest issue that I had while watching the film is centered around a very particular point. After Candie goes on his tirade about the size of the “Nigger brain” he and Schultz (Waltz) come to an agreement to buy Broomhilda her freedom. The transaction is made, and despite all of the drama and hardship that Django has gone through he finally has his wife back and his efforts to reach his goal are paid off. However, what follows is a scene were Schultz shares with Candie that by naming his former enslaved African d’Artagnan he showed reverence for the intelligence of a Black person.Scultz exposes the argument of inherent inferiority of Blacks as idiotic and innaccurate and this is my issue. I do not feel that the moment of disproving such a massive misconception should be had by the white German. By allowing Schultz to do this Tarantino in my opinion showed that having Schultz as a morally sound character superceded the success of Django’s goal. Django and Broomhilda were good to go, but Schultz need to express his morality trumped their effort. Also, what Schultz’s action in this instance does is that it relieves the white audience of guilt about the institution of slavery. The white audience is able to latch on and identify with Schultz and his disapporval of this peculiar institution while simultaneously distancing themselves from Candie and those like him. In other words, the concept becomes “Oh I’m not like those Candie white people, instead I look at myself and I see Schultz.”
In the context of U.S. enslavement, white men like Scultz were the extreme exception, white men with the beliefs of Candie and “Big Daddy” (Don Johnson) were the norm. When it comes to slavery I think it is problematic when white audiences always have the moral “out” of a Schultz, especially when that character makes the most powerful mental decision about the collective wrong of the entire institution of enslavement (Schultz’s decision to not shake Candie’s hand was that pillar of morality watershed moment for a larger cause connected to African people on a macro level that Django never had).
4. I LIKED (yeah I did like stuff lol)
I think that Django’s interactions with the white workers on the plantation were very powerful and motivating. I think that the way he not only confronted white people who assumed him to be less than, but used guile, wit, and dare I say swagger to achieve his goals. Specifically I remember Django’s scene where he said “and that goes for you too” to one of the white workers after Django addressed one of the Blacks.
Secondly, I think the soundtrack for the film is stellar. I think that the score for the film came off extremely well. The two songs in particular that really stuck out to me were 100 Coffins by Rick Ross and Who Did That to You by John Legend. They both flowed greatly with the film and it was a great way to integrate contemporary African American artist to Django Unchained. Additionally, Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton are featured on song called Freedom on the album that is a gem.
Third, I think that the masks shown in the film conveyed a very strong message symbolically. Though there are plenty more and horrific masks than those I think Django is a very nice beginning to learning more about that sordid part of our history.
Fourth, I think that the scene where the enslaved Africans are preparing the table for the climactic dinner between Schultz, Django, and Candie is powerful. Tarantino here does a great job of capturing the attention to detail, the skill, the refiniement, and the organization of those who made and prepared dinner. The well groomed workers in the house all entering and exiting the table on cue showed to me that in spite of all the strife in their lives these enslaved Africans ad something they were proud of and something they took pride in.
Fifth, I think that Jamie Foxx owns the role of Django Unchained. I think that he slowly grows into this character over time and while watching his season we track that process. The most interesting thing to me is that I think the film for Jamie Foxx, for expample, had a very spiritual, psychological, and emotional connection to becoming the character he became. It was clear that he was undergoing a transformation of understanding, of knowledge, and of this institution and that is something I immensely appreciate.
Sixth, Samuel Jackson was easily the character that evoked the most emotion out of me in the film. Samuel L created an Uncle Tom/Ruckus character that was so easy to hate.What in my opinion (blackface aside) made this an astounding role was they way that Samuel L tapped into the self-hate, inherent inferiority, yet mental acumen that was the life of the overseer/rider who was Black. By creating an Uncle Tom/Ruckus character that was so insidious and so invested in the preservation of white supremacy at all costs I think that Samuel L channeled much of the psyche of the rider/overseer(s)of that era.
5. Women: Trophies and Ornaments in Django Unchained
Throughout almost the entire film we encounter Broomhilda mostly in the flashbacks of the hero Django. Many may wonder why an actress who has become known for her independence and self-determination would take a role that on the surface appears to be that of a trophy wife. I am of the belief that Washington’s representation of Broomhilda is more than just a trophy to be claimed by Django. I agree with Washington, when in her interviews she states that Django is above all, in her opinion, a love story and showing the power of love to overcome obstacles. I also agree that this is a very powerful and necessary message. However, I also believe that Broomhilda, as Tarantino constructed her, is an archetype of the spaghetti western genre and therefore she (for Tarantino’s western slave fantasy to be the way he wants) can only be but so independent, but so self-determined. She has to be enough of a damsel to be rescued by her man. Hence, if people are critical of Washington’s character Broomhilda, those critiques should be levied at the director who chose spaghetti-western as the primary cinematic tool.
Had the construction of this film been more on the side of blaxploitation, a genre not without its own faults, one could then have expected more of a commanding and self-determined portrayal of the primary female character in the film. But since Tarantino wanted to make a spaghetti western, Washington’s character had to fit a certain mold. If the history tells us, like it does, that Black women led many resistance movements (Queen Nanny, Harriet Tubman, etc) Tarantino was not concerned. If history tells us that the social strata of the plantation for enslaved Africans was often matrilineal and women were the spiritual and socioeconomic leaders of these communities Tarantino was not concerned. The director wanted to create his damsel, to be saved by his hero, and that’s what he did.
Even with the other female characters they are seen as ornaments. The lead cook in the house was a character that had so much potential for being a gateway into what life on Candieland was like for people not named Candie or Stephen. Had her character been more than just ornamental maybe Tarantino’s construction of the Deep South would seem to exist beyond the heteronormative male fantasy we saw. Again, not saying that Tarantino’s representation is not powerful and emotional, just saying that it reduces kaleidoscope realites to telescopic representations. Sheba (the woman who oft accompanied Candie to dinner, the Cleopatra Club, etc) is a character that had potential for immense exploration on the experience of objectification coupled with dehumanization in regards to her relationship with Candie. Candie’s rant about “nigger love” would have actually been a lot more powerful if Tarantino had spent more time contextualizing the relationship between Sheba and Candie. Instead, he made her so ornamental, so ancillary, that the audience has little connection to her nor her sexual objectification at the hands of the racist Candie. I really believe this film could have gained much in the areas of humanizing enslavement and the atrocities it inflicted by building out other characters, but especially these three women.
6. Other enslaved Africans condiments to Django’s hot dog
One of the things about spaghetti westerns is that they are, by nature, very focused on only a few characters. The internal and external struggle of those few. We learn what makes them laugh, what makes them cry, and what makes them tick. We come to view the heores as flawed, but ultimately good. And we come to view the villans as charasmatic, but ultimately evil. This was the vehicle of choice for Tarantino and with “Big Daddy”, Schultz, Django, and Candie he achieved this goal well.
However, using enslavement even primarily as a backdrop, one of the things that presents itself is well… the enslaved Africans. Who will they be? Who won’t they be? How will they speak? Will they speak? Do they laugh? Do they cry? etc. Much of what we see from the enslaved Africans, the extras so to speak, in Django Unchained is that they are just that. Extra. They are condiments used to show us the world that Django sees and that he wants for his wife and he to get away from. Also they are spices tossed on to show us the moral dilemmas and ultimately white moral and humanity savior complex in Schultz (and by default Tarantino). Or they are icing, applied to give Candieland all the bells and whistles of “authentic plantation life.” We are never told by the enslaved Africans of their hopes, their dreams, their day to day struggles. What does freedom mean to them? Do they want to help Django? Do they despise Django (some feelings are hinted at but never vocalized)?
Given the tool of spaghetti western that Tarantino has chosen one should not expect much more from the other enslaved African characters in the film. The argument for humanity of African descent is made only insofar as Django, Broomhilda, and Dumas (Schultz sharing of the racial identity of the author of The Three Musketeers). Therefore, the question still begs itself, of who and what are the other enslaved Africans besides property?
7. Don’t like Django? Go make a movie
Reflecting back on it all seeing Django was a decent experience. As previously articulated it does have the moments of killing plenty of white men and showing the power of resistance and love which are powerful things. I am appreciative that Tarantino presented people with an opportunity to engage in such dialogue and spark very much needed conversation. I also am very encouraged by the actors in the film. Across the board it is clear that the people involved took the responsibility of being in a film of this subject matter seriously and for that I am thankful. That being said, I leave Django Unchained more determined than ever to see Black people create our own narratives, our own stories, our own histories, and stop waiting on Hollywood to do it for us, because it won’t. I am a fervent believer in Audre Lorde’s statement, “The masters tools will never dismantle the masters house.” And the tool in this case is a spaghetti western with a white film director. It will re arrange some furniture, it will install new floor tiles, heck, it may even buy new bedsheets. And that is nice, to be valued, and something that’s cool. But dismantling the house, no, spaghetti westerns by white directors will never do that, nor should they. That is not what they were designed to do. That responsibility lies with those of us who create art and cultivate culture. If we don’t think what we see captures what we believe to be the story of us, then our choice is quite simple. Make a better one.
I will not tell people who absolutely loved this film that they were wrong. Because there is no emotionally right or wrong, correct or incorrect with regards to that as far as I am concerned. The movie had it’s moments with actors who gave in some cases Oscar-worthy performances. What I will ask though is that the same people who saw Django and loved it, also support up and coming artists and independent filmmakers of African descent who are attempting to tell our stories as they see it. I will close with these thoughts from iconic Black filmmaker Haile Gerima, director of Sankofa (arguably the most powerful film about the experience of enslavement on African people ever made). When asked about Tarantino’s Django Unchained Gerima said:
“Had there been a black power I would’ve made 10 Sankofas by now… Very few films are made by black people about slavery. That itself is a crime because slavery is a very important historical event that has held our people hostage. Forget white people’s role in it. In the end what’s important is black people remain and live with the scars and psychological issues. It’s our task to find whatever budget we have to make movies, because the more we make movies, the more we release our people from the psychologically incarcerating historical legacy. It’s nobody else’s business but to ours to do it. The more we do it, the more we heal ourselves. The more somebody does it for us, the more it becomes as cumbersome as Lincoln freeing a black person. Because if you never did anything for your own freedom, you’re not worth a human being in my view.
So it would be like honoring racist people to go into their agenda when they feel like doing a film on slavery. I just say, you can do anything you want – you have the money, you have the banks, you have everything. You can make a movie about my mother. I have no right to my own mother’s story. But with everything I have, I’m going to make a film and show you who my mother is to me. So I really do not care what the white world is doing. I care about black people building the monument on slavery, so the artist overcomes something deeper and the people, collectively through the artist, overcome.”
A powerful reminder by Gerima for us to step up to the plate and stop complaining, and simply do the work… build the monuments. It is no one’s responsibility for us to heal, empower, and liberate ourselves but ourselves. So now now I say to you, let’s make a movie 🙂