* Review contains plot spoilers and/or details.
“The idea isn’t just “slavery was bad.” The overarching point is that old ideas of inferiority linger despite the fact that we all think we know better.” – Stephanie Zacharek, NPR
This is a not a nice movie and it is certainly not for your entertainment. You cannot walk away feeling accomplished or redeemed after watching it. No one “wins.” No one is free because we are still locked in a world that cannot deconstruct or discuss social justice. This movie scratches the surface of human rights issues that have been left to be edited by text-books, storytellers, memories and Hollywood. At least the dialogue is not as repressed as it used to be.
Like many, I’ve been hearing about the the controversy surrounding Django Unchained from before it even hit theaters. Although it opened on Christmas Day, I finally saw it last night. To some extent, I knew what I was in for. Friends had told me it was a “white guilt” movie, made to make Caucasians cringe in their seats and hang their heads low. Others said it was a “black redemption” film for all the African-Americans and blacks that really wanted to see the innards of white people fly high in the sky. I hate the idea of white guilt, as I hate any stereotype that negatively portrays or affects a group of people. Just because I am white does not mean I have to answer for crimes against humanity performed and encouraged by people who share my same skin color. Conversely, if someone had been aware enough to tell me that Django is a political allegory (and a damn good one at that) and a discussion of social privilege, I would have been less cynical of my peers who had previously seen the film.
I had really hoped that the audiences of Django would be able to see past Quentin Tarantino’s name and Jamie Foxx’s fame and especially all the gory action, but alas, even the friends I went to see the movie with did little more than yawn as we left the theater. Sadly, I think Django is lost on many because of the glamor surrounding its making and release, let alone the…um…lack of education American students receive about slavery, race relations and critical media consumption.
Women as Accessible Accessory
The women in this movie are merely objects. Whether black or white, the men of Django move around “their” women and, apparently, in and out of them as well. They are either sexualized props or supporting aids who are so domesticated that they are simply there to make the lives of men easier. None of these women are aggressive players in their own story, because they do not have one.
Women are currency for trade (literally and figuratively), physical manifestations of male ego or trophies to be won, if nothing else. Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Django’s long-lost, slave-traded and German-speaking wife, is a perfect example. The character has almost no lines, never defends herself from the grasp or gaze of men and is simply a token of a job well done. Although Washington explains that the role “allows the black woman to embrace a fantasy that historically wasn’t available to her,” it still caters to the unfortunate ideal of a damsel in distress. “I know it’s not the most feminist idea to be a woman in a tower wanting to be rescued, but for a woman of color in this country, we’ve never been afforded that fairy tale because of how the black family was ripped apart [during slavery],” Washington said. “I really saw the value of having a story that empowers the African American man to do something chivalrous for the African American woman, because that hasn’t been an idea that has held women back in the culture — it’s something we’ve never been allowed to dream about” (Nicole Sperling, LA Times).
Django’s (Jamie Foxx) actions may be chivalrous, but they also highlight that our social gender structure still isolates and negates many other types of story-telling or stories that are otherwise considered to be sub-cultural narratives. What if Django was a woman trying to save her man? Or her woman? It would make the movie even more unbelievable than it already is, relational to historical context. And more so, why do we only understand romantic relationships as hetero-normative and possessive?
Even in death, women are not treated equals to men in Django. The pretty, ignorant, white sister of Calvin Candie, the slave master who owns Django’s wife, is picked off by Django in the final battle after Calvin has died. Django tells her maids to say goodbye to her as he shots the woman in the chest sending her flying out of the frame, which causes an obvious uproar of laughter from the audience. Maybe this moment serves to lighten the mood before Django blows up the plantation’s estate, but I think it represents that women are not the owners of their own glory, nor are deserving of it in a man’s world. The sister does not die like the other men killed throughout the film. As least they die screaming and fighting, whether or not they deserve to live. The only way that a woman seems to carry honor is if she is being protected by a man, such as Broomhilda, and since Calvin’s sister no longer has a brother to look after her, her honor is stripped and she can be used as a slap-stick prop.
Additionally, what does it say about our backward culture that Jamie Foxx speaks our about racism, but not sexism? How can he embody a character like Django and then participate in collaborating with Kayne West on “Gold Digger?” These contradictions infuriate me. In this capacity, Jamie need not worry about any of the other “-isms” because he has male privilege and therefore does not have to care about insensitivity regarding women. Although he is black, he is still a man and a man still has more leverage if he so chooses to use it.
Violence as a Foundational Catalyst for Racial Sensitivity
“Amid real violence, ‘Django’ premiere cancelled” – Examiner
After seeing the film, one of my friends and I drove to a 24/7 diner and searched the menu desperately for comfort food. I was in between the feeling of nausea at seeing so much death on screen for over two and a half hours and the need to block out the memory with pancakes. I suspect he was just really hungry at 11:30 pm. We sat in silence for a little while, uncommon for the two of us, while I scribbled down notes about how I was feeling and thoughts for this analysis on napkins. When I finally looked up to see his impatient expression, waiting for me to order, I in turn asked how he felt about the movie. Since I was so overwhelmed, I was surprised to hear that all he really had to say was that “there was too much unnecessary violence.” “Anything else?” I replied. “Nah, except that I felt a little awkward seeing it.” Trying to pull thoughts out of him, I asked if that was maybe because he was white. He agreed that was part of his discomfort.
Here we see two levels of sensitivity and non-critical consumption at play: violence and race. Apparently my friend felt something of “white guilt” or close to it. Was it the mass murdering of white folks throughout the flick that did it or the mere mention of race-based discussion? And the other point is forked: how Tarantino’s brand violence perhaps hides the issue while at the same time reduces the audience to a quivering pool of sensitive viewers that are now emotionally invested and therefore open to receiving the political barrage that is Django. By this I mean, maybe Tarantino cleverly uses obscene brutality as a foundational catalyst for the sensitive topics of gender, race and class that are poked, prodded and pondered over the course of the movie to sway emotions over the edge.
My friend went on to comment that he was used to the bloody, almost comical scenes where the hero confronts a whole slue of bad guys at once. We’ve seen this so many times in so many of Tarantino’s films such as Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2, Inglorious Bastards, Sin City and, now, in the closing scene of Django. My buddy added though that the scene where a slave is torn to pieces by dogs on screen, with careful editing, was too much for him and that it was perhaps unnecessary. I quickly argued that this was not the case and that that moment in the film was of terrific importance since it was one of the most realistic. While Django looks cool twirling pistols and picking off his slimy foils, what Tarantino seems to be mocking is just a show of might and power and the idea that redemption is the purpose of freedom.
The whole film is a parody of our understanding of our own history, of how we lack the lens to understand our past and therefore realize how we create and live our present. The movie is a mirror held up to society, saying that the only way we can relive our own bloody holocaust is to treat it as a Vaudevillian circus. With its thin facade, it really does seem to be another one of Tarantino’s formulaic flicks, but its political necessity is so much deeper. Django symbolizes our dismissal of our past and the shame of slavery. Merely seeing the film represents how skewed our understanding of race relations still is — this topic is not entertaining and should not be.
We are still scared to talk openly about race, gender and class relations, but we can sit through two hours of gore and blood and absolute terror without blinking an eye. What does this say about our emotional sensitivities. What does this say about our media consumption habits?
Masculinity as a Translatable Narrative
The idea of conquering and claiming, a masculine fantasy indeed, is present not only in the narrative of Django’s journey, but in the retelling and revitalization of the past. With both humor and seriousness, I refer to this as story-telling masturbation; a trend that been popular since the beginning of Hollywood’s desensitized culture.
Someone once told me that every American tale is about a boy and his story. Understanding Django’s is so easy with this paradigm. He is the hero every man wants to be and the “1 in 10,000 nigger” that makes his fictional slave story so sad. The story serves the purpose of glorifying the power and intensity of a man with a plan. Django, although nontraditional by standard action movie characterization, still applies in that he “is a male’s ideal. …the quintessential modern action heroes are men who speak to the problems, insecurities and longings of men. …[It is the fantasy of wanting] to go into a theater for an hour and a half and get a vicarious thrill out of seeing someone who can talk back to authority, who makes his own rules, who lives by his own code of conduct and ethics, because the real world will seldom give anyone the opportunity to do that” (p. 140, Blood, Guns and Testosterone, Barna William Donovan).
Using masculinity and the identifiable American masculine agenda, Tarantino has a narrative pre-structured that he can build off of without diverging far from the standard “hero.” In this way, he can translate a sense on empathy onto men, particularly those that are masculine, whether or not they are black, a slave or in desperate need of a better wardrobe. Additionally, Tarantino had the option of using this manly man character to dismiss the need for further characterization so that he could focus on race relations.
“Hipster-Racism” and Black Caricature
“A Complete Guide to ‘Hipster Racism'” – Jezebel
I’ll let Lindy West of Jezebel define “Hipster Racism (and Sexism)” real quick: “There’s been a lot of talk these last couple of weeks about “hipster racism” or “ironic racism”—or, as I like to call it, racism. It’s, you know, introducing your black friend as “my black friend”—as a joke!!!—to show everybody how totally not preoccupied you are with your black friend’s blackness. It’s the gentler, more clueless, and more insidious cousin of a hick in a hood; the domain of educated, middle-class white people (like me—to be clear, I am one of those) who believe that not wanting to be racist makes it okay for them to be totally racist. “But I went to college — I can’t be racist!” Turns out, you can.”
Great, now we’re on the same page about that hipster -ism business. What concerns me about Django is that lots of white people will go to and see the film and feel better about themselves because they sat through the whole movie and still rooted for the black guy to shoot ’em up. In this way, they may think that they are better people or maybe that because this film was released by a major distributor, made by a major director and stars major stars that we are finally a post-racist society since a slavery movie is now a 21st Century block-buster. No, that is not how that works.
On top of all that, Django is not a character we often see – a quiet, naturally smart, independent and patience black man ready to save the love of his life by possibly sacrificing the life he never had. While he may be the brooding, calculated and courageous hero we glorify him to be, his base is partially that of one of the infamous black caricatures. Django is, at least somewhat, based off the “Nat,” a caricature that “portrays African and African American males as angry, crazed, revengeful brutes with a bloodthirsty hatred for whites” (Jim Crow Museum, Ferris State University). We do not encounter the “Nat” regularly because white people are still afraid of angry black people, because, wait for it….the world is still racist even though we like to pretend it’s not by watching movies about minorities seeking redemption (how’s that for a new genre?!)
The movie is neither a rite nor reason. It is not the final word on slavery nor is it the most revolutionary to date. It is a shocking and sensitive portrayal of a reality we’ve long forgotten in the public eye.
*For the record, I really, really liked this movie. You should go see it (and be critical of it too!).
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