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By Stephane Dunn | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)


Monday, December 31, 2012.


Quentin Tarantino does not promise his films will go down easy. His latest, Django Unchained, is no exception. The debate and expected criticism started before its current run in theatres. Inevitably, it’s provoked familiar discomfort about black actors playing roles like Django and Uncle Tom  and concern over the legitimacy of a white director taking on black cultural oriented material and/or slavery and of course much criticism about the free use of the N-word . A film set during that era about slavery would hardly escape the appearance of that language whether it’s used once or numerous times. It might evade the word and utilize another – say “darky” but a script that engages a racist system through in part the representation of southern culture is probably going to suffer the use of such offensive language either prevalently or sparingly. Tarantino is unapologetic about his aesthetic. He knows his identity as a filmmaker, and he is a fantastic master sampler befitting a director whose work emerged within an era of worldwide hip hop cultural influence and whose work pays spectacular homage to the cult film genres that he’s been devoted to the most. For a guy who has reached the point in his career when he’s thinking about his legacy, in his words, making films for thirty to forty years down the road, having an affinity for very well-defined iconic genres, one or two of which invoke nostalgia but not critical respect, is a little risky.     


Tarantino says he wanted to avoid making another one of those ‘historical’ films about slavery. Instead he stayed true to his style and a mantra Melvin Van Peebles observed when he created his controversial 1971 film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Sweetback was in part fueled by the political dynamism of Black Power, and the film’s financial success inadvertently opened the door for the explosion of one of Tarantino’s most beloved genre’s, blaxploitation. Van Peebles declared that one has to appeal to, entertain, “Brer” or the masses first. Both Sweetback (a sex show worker) and Django feature a serious underdog, an extremely disempowered every black man up against a racist culture. He evolves into a most unlikely hero who triumphs over the evil whites [the police in Sweetback and the white masters and overseers in Django] whose sole aim is to maintain the racial hierarchy.


While Django Unchained is being marketed as Tarantino’s spin on the western, it’s more accurately a blaxploitationesque western for which Tarantino gleefully borrows signature elements from two favorites, Blaxploitation and Spaghetti Westerns. He makes full use of familiar staples in both - the revenge/payback motif and a number of iconic genre archetypes, including the beautiful damsel in need of rescue, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the fast gun, baadasssss hero Django (Jamie Foxx), and evil antagonists, namely Leonardo DiCapri’s ‘Monsieur’ Calvin Candie, along with, of course, lots of gun slinging and bloody scenes. One key staple of Blaxploitation films is the black hero flipping the script or taking on the whites, kicking butt, and ultimately achieving revenge and/or winning the battle. Tarantino’s Western hinges on setting his film during slavery thus heightening the stakes through the barriers the hero must face to rescue his lady love and one of his stylistic trademarks: that self-conscious playfulness that has somewhat mediated his films’ graphic violence. However, the stakes are different and more risky with Django. Tarantino must simultaneously avoid dismissing or understating the brutal implications of America’s most sinful system while offering the exhibition of extremes that his entertainment for contemporary movie audiences is rooted within.  The film balances this unevenly largely because he stays within the model posed by two genres that privilege very defined plot models and an individualistic value system.


Certainly the flashbacks and images of Django and other enslaved black men and women imprisoned in some of the tortuous irons used on black people – leg shackles, muzzles, and the neck collar invoke the desired effect. They are jarring. There are others, for example, the naked, faceless Broomhilda being pulled from the hot box, screaming, after days of isolation, as her husband looks helplessly on from a distance and ‘Monsieur’ Candie ordering his hounds to literally tear apart the limbs of a poor runaway slave. One of the most disturbing is the ‘Battle Royal’, Candie’s ‘Mandingo’ fight between two enslaved men pitted in a battle to the literal death. But here, Tarantino oversteps unnecessarily indulging too much in that playfulness, his affinity for blood splattering and exploding like geysers, heads being cut off, and eyeballs being pulled from sockets, as if he can’t ever trust that the emotional impact will be spectacular enough without these.  

 

In the case of the ‘Battle Royal’ scene, it’s already extremely discomforting. Two fancily dressed white men excitedly instruct their ‘Mandingos” to kill each other on the floor in front of them before a cozy hearth in a fancy, ‘civilized’ environment while the other black servants are forced to listen to bones breaking and the desperate grunts of the fighting men while appearing emotionless and carrying on with serving Candie and his guests. The incongruity, the barbarism in the midst of the representation of an upper crust civility, effectively speaks to the inhumanity of the system and the keepers of that system and the dehumanization of the men and women enslaved within it.  


Tarantino oversteps similarly in other scenes; his fetishistic devotion to representing graphic violence and gore past b-grade flick style becomes an unwelcome interruption. The copious blood spattering and jutting bones just stop at being cheesy and so does one of the key shoot out scenes; such moments shout at us that this is a film and we shouldn’t take it too seriously even though we are invited to suspend normal reality to embrace as the real the narrative unfolding on the screen.  Subtlety is not a Tarantino trademark, but he should seriously explore using it more. It would be effective even in a Tarantino film, and in particular a film like Django that dares to suggest the cruelty of American slavery while entertaining us with a compelling tough good guy and love wins story.


The overzealous exhibition of blood is not the only aspect Tarantino sometimes overplays. He’s channeling western cinema with splashes of blaxploitation and it’s a Tarantino film so of course we get an array of traditional archetypes and with them the underlying gender and racial implications. He has a lot of fun with writing rednecks and bad guys and so forth according to the typical inscriptions. However, archetypical characters in really smart contemporary films and especially in those by serious students of film and film loving directors like Tarantino, should get upset too - innovatively revised so they surprise or disturb us or they must at least be played so astutely and sincerely by the actors that imbibe then that they are utterly convincing and also hopefully provoke thoughtful interrogation.


Neither is adequately achieved enough with a very important supporting character, Candie’s head slave servant Stephen, the film’s Uncle Tom, played by one of Tarantino’s favorite actors, Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson is always attention getting in whatever guise he appears on camera, and we know that playing a rascal with glee is something that suits him. His physical impersonation of the popular historical image of Uncle Tom – the almost demonic glare, white hair, prominent eyebrows, stooped shuffle, and that rascally persona, would certainly cause little children to shrink from his offer of candy. The mythic Uncle Tom has rarely been granted complex portraiture in popular culture it’s true. In Django, he’s played with an underlying comic exaggeration that’s also a familiar Tarantino character trademark. Unfortunately, Tarantino has Jackson’s ‘Uncle Tom’ swagger and ‘motherfucka’ Stephen one too many into sounding like a Blaxploitation hustler or Jackson’s Jackie Brown alter ego Ordell.


Django certainly showcases some of the filmmaking brilliance and quintessential style of Tarantino. There is beautiful cinematography as well as entertaining, strong performances by Christopher Waltz [brilliant as German bounty hunter Dr. Shultz], Foxx, DiCaprio, and even Don Johnson (Big Daddy). Yet, the film shouldn’t be constructed as one about slavery. It’s not; it is merely set against that historical backdrop and as such Tarantino invites scrutiny about how seriously he treats and represents it, and how he entertains us. For Tarantino, it is a successful film about slavery or rather western set in slavery that can stand the test of time and perhaps go down as a classic. This may prove to be true. According to him, the payback element is part of its fresh, unique cinematic treatment of slavery and one of the achievements of his story – an element that certainly added to the psychic pleasures of western and Blaxploitation flicks.


Yet, there is too much Tarantino playfulness undercutting the seriousness of a film that presumes and dares to go into historical “hell” [Tarantino’s word] and aspires to be for thirty or forty years down the road. If Django really was a white cowboy or unlikely guy, black or white, outside of the slavery setting, who mastered gun slinging then slayed a hundred dragons or bad guys to rescue his imprisoned beloved, then that might be all the expectation to fulfill. Yes, we want the hero to win, save his lady love, and live – free. Yes, it’s cool that Django gets to be a bounty hunter and thus by the authority of the law get to kill some crooked ‘crackers’ and enact payback to the slavers who’ve scarred his back and that of his woman’s. That’s the ‘entertainment’ and the psychic relief that Tarantino offers his viewers and a device that helps to keep the film from the dreaded historical with a capital “H” syndrome that previous motion pictures about slavery have fallen into according to him.


It is not enough that Django is allowed to get “dirty” in order to rescue his lady. Django has more responsibility because his is an epic situation and there are other slaves, indeed a whole system of slavery. Quite frankly, Django needs to do more than get payback on ‘Monsieur Candie and his cohorts. He also needs to care about the other slaves and whether others are left behind and function as a call to revolution. Whether he can save or free them all is beside the point. He has to care and he has to try or what’s the point of a fertile, creative mind like Tarantino that thrives on the fantastical? How could he fail to strike a blow at the system itself and dare to show Django exercise more compassion for a white boy witnessing his killer father get murdered than he does another branded, humiliated black man get torn by blood hounds?


At the very least, there should be action or emotional responses that viewers get to witness outside the gaze of the white slavers Django must fool. Instead, Django’s mentor, bounty hunter-dentist Dr. Shultz gets to have that humanity and dash of character complexity but not the hero who has the “r” branded on his cheek and the scarred back. Tarantino unfortunately stays within the extreme individualism that is a mark of the heroic tough guy within the western and blaxploitation canons. Copious blood and guts, shootouts, explosions, and triumphant jig aside, a movie that’s intended to stand beyond it’s time and perhaps in the canon of the greats of all time, could’ve actually aspired to do more than venture into hell as others have done. It could have disturbed the hell out of it.


***


Stephane Dunn, PhD, is a writer and Co-Director of the Film, Television, & Emerging Media Studies program at Morehouse College. She is the author of the 2008 book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas : Black Power Action Films (U of Illinois Press), which explores the representation of race, gender, and sexuality in the Black Power and feminist influenced explosion of black action films in the early 1970s, including, Sweetback Sweetback’s Baad Assssss Song, Cleopatra Jones, and Foxy Brown. Her writings have appeared in Ms., The Chronicle of Higher Education, TheRoot.com, AJC, CNN.com, and Best African American Essays, among others. Her most recent work includes articles about contemporary black film representation and Tyler Perry films.

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