Initially, I had no plans to write about Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. But in the weeks since its release, as so many people have chimed in—both negatively and positively—I regularly find myself being asked my thoughts about the movie, and the controversy that has sprung up around it. Honestly, I don’t know if I have any great new insights to offer into the ongoing dialog; but the lack of anything intelligent or relevant to say in regards to Django Unchained—or even anything interesting—has not kept some people from keeping quiet. So, why shouldn’t I chime in? WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!!!
Let me start by saying that by and large I like Tarantino’s films. Django Unchained is his eighth feature film, and of the other seven, I really like four, find two deeply flawed, and think one is crap. Having only seen Django Unchained once at this point, I am inclined to include it among Tarantino’s best, and though the film has weak moments—as do all but one of his movies—I can honestly say that I enjoyed this movie tremendously. As a student of cinema, with an undergraduate degree in spaghetti westerns and a master’s degree in blaxploitation, I can say that Django Unchained is a remarkable homage to, and entry into, both genres.
But this isn’t really a review of Django Unchained, at least not a review in the tradition of what passes for contemporary film criticism (plot recap, with hyperbolic proclamations of how great or how terrible something is, without any real examination of cinematic content). And then, of course, there is that film criticism that comes from people who haven’t actually seen the movie, which in the case of Django Unchained, includes filmmaker Spike Lee, whose bombastic critique of the movie without having watched it is well documented. This isn’t the first time Lee has mouthed off about a movie he hasn’t seen, and it won’t be the last, though I do think his criticism of Tarantino’s film is a great place to begin.
Without having seen Django Unchained, Lee said in an interview that he would not be seeing it, because, as he claimed it was “disrespectful to my ancestors.” Now, I know that this is relatively old news, but it serves as an entry point for where this discussion needs to go, and that is into a world I like to call “historical context.” From the very beginning of film, motion pictures have been disrespectful of the descendants of African slaves—the ancestors that Spike Lee refers to when criticizing Django Unchained. Lee is fond of citing D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation whenever he talks about the damage film can do to black people, and to his credit, that’s not something he is exaggerating.
The Birth of a Nation, depicting the Ku Klux Klan as heroes.
The Birth of a Nation was based on Thomas Dixon’s novel, The Clansman, and both were glorifications of the Ku Klux Klan, that painted the racist organization as champions of the antebellum south. Both Dixon and Griffith were influenced by the anti-Reconstruction movement, which effectively rewrote the history of slavery, the Civil War, and help lay the groundwork for the ideological mindset that emboldened the myths of black inferiority and white superiority that continue to persist to this day. Anti-Reconstructionist ideology dominated America in the years following the Civil War, and into the 20th century, and it became popularized in the works of people who believed the myths propagated during this time. We can see these myths reflected within our own popular culture, and not just in movies like The Birth of a Nation. Gone with the Wind, though not nearly as hateful as Birth of a Nation, is a work that reflects a more tame version of the anti-Reconstruction view of slavery and the Civil War. In this mythological world, the Southern states were victims, defending their way of life from Northern aggression, while the slaves held in captivity in these southern states were relatively happy-go-lucky.
There is very little truth to be found in most films about the Civil War or slavery. Even the critically acclaimed Lincoln, from director Steven Spielberg, plays fast and loose with the truth, and when push comes to shove, most films dealing with slavery are far from respectful to black people. But the reason for this is not just because these films suffer from varying degrees of inaccuracies, but because few films ever come close to showing slavery in anything that resembles its brutal reality. In fact, with the exception of Halle Gerima’s brilliant Sankofa, and the depraved exploitation sleaze-fest that is Mandingo, I’m hard pressed to think of any film that begins to convey the true brutality of slavery. And this is because slavery is something no one in America—black or white—is willing to deal with.
For better or worse—despite historical inaccuracies that may be found—Django Unchained is the work of someone willing to talk about slavery. That in and of itself is pretty damn bold, and for that alone, my hat is off to Tarantino. He’s made a film that makes people uncomfortable, as they should be when discussing slavery. But too many people are lost and confused about what they should be discussing. The number of times the word “nigger” is used in Django Unchained, or whether or not Tarantino as a white writer has the right to use the word, is irrelevant. What matters is the visceral reaction people have to hearing nigger said aloud, and the raging debate of whether or not it should be used and by whom; all of which are evading the much bigger reality, which is that what we are avoiding is the necessary dialog surrounding nigger. The word and its meaning come attached with an incredibly complex history that no one wants to discuss. Nigger is the symptom of a disease called racism, which is the byproduct of slavery, which we as a nation have yet to fully comprehend or deal with. So, instead, some people chose to attack a film like Django Unchained, as if it is the problem, as opposed to a shadow of the problem. It isn’t even a reflection of the problem, but it is a much easier target than talking about what really needs to be discussed.
If we are going to talk about what Django Unchained is or is not as it relates to slavery, we must first discuss what slavery was, because only then can we have any intelligent discourse about Tarantino’s film. That said, Django Unchained is, for those that understand cinematic history, an extension of the blaxploitation movement of the 1970s, which created a cinematic mythology for black people, which was steeped in revenge. Blaxploitation was the cinematic manifestation of revenge fantasies that were the result of the violent opposition to the decades-long struggle for equality in America. Civil Rights legislation and desegregation provided black people with the first steps to a better way of life in America, while blaxploitation gave them cathartic revenge.
Fred Williamson and D’Urville Martin in Boss Nigger.
Within blaxploitation, there were several westerns, most of which only touch upon slavery in passing. The Legend of Nigger Charley starred Fred Williamson as a runaway slave who killed his sadistic overseer, and Boss Nigger—also starring Williamson, but not connected to Nigger Charley—featured an ex-slave turned bounty hunter, after the Civil War. And, or course, there is the short-lived, and largely forgotten television series, The Outcasts, which co-starred Otis Young as an ex-slave turned bounty hunter. But with these movies and the slave characters that turned up in episodes of television westerns, none of this ever came close to touching upon the raw, brutal honesty of slavery. And because of this, the revenge fantasy afforded by blaxploitation never extended beyond the indignities endured during the 20th century struggle for Civil Rights. In other words, blaxploitation never gave black folks the revenge they needed for slavery. Django Unchained delivers that revenge. It is not a movie that claims to be the most honest and realistic portrayal of slavery, but it does set out to convey a greater sense of that reality than any other made, if for no other reason than it makes the revenge inflicted by Django that much more sweet.
What is most interesting about Django Unchained, and something I have yet to read about, is that as much as it is a revenge film for black people, it is just as much a revenge film for white people. For all the attention given to Jaime Foxx’s portrayal of Django, and the vengeance he seeks, most people seem to be missing the bigger picture. In the pivotal scene where Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) kills Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), we are seeing the ultimate expression of white guilt over slavery. This, I believe, is the heart and soul of Django Unchained, it is the moment where one white character takes on the responsibility for what the other white character has done, and makes him pay for his actions. It is a brilliant moment, in which Schultz violently proclaims that something must be done about slavery, which is a metaphor for what Tarantino has done with the film, which is proclaim that sooner or later we need to deal with this, and it isn’t going to be pretty.
Schultz’s killing of Candie is a crucial cinematic moment, which requires an understanding of spaghetti westerns to be fully appreciated. Waltz’s character is cut from the same cloth as the morally suspect characters that appeared in politicized westerns like Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General and Sergio Corbucci’s Compañeros. Schultz is very much like the mercenary characters played by Franco Nero (star of the original Django) in Compañeros and The Mercenary. Nero’s characters—along with characters in other keys films—trade in human lives, without thinking too much about the bigger picture of what they’re doing. But as the stories progress, and the men develop a greater consciousness, they develop into heroic figures within the construct of leftist takes on colonialism. Ultimately, many of the politically-charged spaghetti westerns—which were all infused with populist, leftist, and Marxist ideologies—were attempts by filmmakers like Damiani and Corbucci to address deeper issues. This is why their films resonated with working class Italian audiences, and it is why Django Unchained is resonating with certain audiences—the film masks its deeper meaning in a frenzy of bloody violence, where it may be missed by those not paying close attention.
Still, to be distracted by the violence, or the number of times someone says nigger, is to lose sight of what Django Unchained is, and the multiple levels in which it exists. It is a blaxploitation flick, a spaghetti western, a revenge fantasy for black audiences who understand slavery, and a reconciliation for white audiences looking to make an apology. But beyond all of that, it is a really entertaining movie.