By David J. Leonard and Tamura A. Lomax | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Tuesday, January 8, 2013.
There have been so many great discussions on Django Unchained,
so many thoughtful and engaging articles, and even more critical
engagements within social media. We’ve seen everything from harsh
critiques to high praise and of course everything else in between. The
analyses, conversations and comments have all been challenging. Rather
than write a review per se, we thought we’d have a public conversation.
Regardless of how we individually interpret the film, we agree that Django
needs lots of discussion. There’s still a fair amount of unsullied
ground to cover, or perhaps, previously examined ground to rehash.
Whatever the case may be we invite you to join us.
(David J. Leonard): Let me start with this: I am not a fan of Quentin
Tarantino (QT), Westerns, or action films. This is not my wheelhouse so
it is no wonder that I left the movie with both questions and concerns
about its message and representations, and a MEH feeling about the
film. I just didn’t feel it. More importantly, I find QT to be really
arrogant and problematic as a filmmaker and as a PERSONA on a number of
levels. His responses to critics, his self-aggrandizement, his lack of
critical self-reflection, his lack of growth as a filmmaker (the fact
that this film is so much like his past films is not a ringing
endorsement), and the comfort in cashing in on his privileges, trouble
me. My reading of the film is clouded by all of these feelings.
(Tamura A. Lomax): David, let me begin by saying, “I hear you.” I
hate almost all kinds of violence so I never got into QT’s films. I
don’t have any preferences for action films either, and Westerns always
registered as “white” in my mind. However, I loved this film!
To be sure, there are numerous problems with both QT and the film. And
I get your critique of QT’s persona. He absolutely comes across as
self-aggrandizing, and perhaps even unreflective. One thing is for
sure, QT is very much aware of his privilege. That is, he seems to
understand quite well who gets to tell what story in Hollywood, and who
and what’s needed for authentication. That aside, I still loved this
film. I read it as a love story—one marred by both life and death of
Speaking of violence, the violence in the film felt gratuitous at
times. It was often more spectacular than a critique of white
supremacist violence. There were moments where the cinematic gaze was
infused with a pleasure in the violence, and that troubled me. Those
scenes were early in the film – the scene involving the dogs, and slave
fights, and I had to look a way because of the purpose seemed to be
about eliciting pleasure from its (white) viewers. The camera’s gaze
conveys pleasure and joy in in these spectacular images. It didn’t feel
as if there was an interest in conveying outrage and spotlighting
trauma. Rather there seemed to be an effort to bring viewers into this
extreme spectacle of violence. The lack of reflection in the cinematic
gaze angers me. I think about the times I have taught about the
Birmingham church bombing, Emmett Till, and the history of lynching, and
how I have thought long and hard about the pain and trauma. Sometimes
unsuccessful, I have looked inward in these moments, thinking how
whiteness might matter when recounting these histories. I don’t feel
like QT accounted for the trauma or this history.
I concur. There was a lot of violence in the film, more than I could
stand. But slavery was violent. Our current context is violent. But
let me just say this, the continuous cannonades of blood were odious
hands down. Still, I think it’s important to keep in mind that, in a
captive state, death often marks the point of transition between modes
of servitude and inter-subjective states of liberty. Thus, while the
violence in the film was at times overwhelming, and although I really do
detest violence, I was admittedly okay with some of it. I think the
problem with QT, in addition to those you mentioned, are that his gaze
too often waxes and wanes between voyeurism, fetishism, condescension,
and black heroic genius. On one hand we get Django, a hero of sorts who
kills for love and vengeance. And on the other hand, we get everyone
else, a collection of seemingly disposable frozen objects who, among
other things, seem cool on not only their enslavement, but the
routinization of violence against black humanity around them. Along
with some of the images of death, I found this to be deeply problematic.
of the scenes were so gruesome that, in addition to looking away and/or
covering my ears, I had to take a mental moment. As you've stated, QT
delivers violence, perhaps even takes pleasure in it, however he doesn’t
take the time to deal with or allow us to sit with the trauma. He
doesn’t allow us to feel the pain of the characters; he doesn’t
encourage viewers to reflect on the psychic pain of black death or the
countless victimizations of white supremacy. We should problematize all
of this, but perhaps QT’s offering us a mockery on life. Sometimes we
take pleasure in hideous violence (isn’t this why it’s videotaped so
rampant and callously?). Sometimes we find alibis for engaging the
taboo. Sometimes violence is selfish. Sometimes it's unprovoked. And
sometimes it's illiberal. However, sometimes violence may be just.
Cathartic. Some sort of source of power. What happens when, for a
great many of us, our origins as subjects are entangled with what we
refer to as violence? This is a winding conundrum.
The final scene in the film was exhilarating. The sight of Django
blowing away white oppressors, obliterating a white plantation, and
seeking revenge and retribution is most certainly a source of power. In
the context of cinematic that privileges violence, that privileges
individual heroism conquering evil, the prospect of this narrative being
deployed within the context of slavery, is a source of power. Yet, I
also felt my self-thinking about the other freed slaves within the film;
what might have happened to them as they fled Candie’s destroyed
plantation or as they escaped the mining company? Are they unchained?
We don’t know. I thought the same and had similar questions. But,
what of the power of individual fantasy? I imagined that they
effortlessly broke free and gained their freedom. I couldn’t bring
myself to imagine any more violence. But let’s be clear, what’s being
presented here, although in some ways liberating, isn’t a historical
narrative. It’s more so what bell hooks calls “fictive ethnography.”
We want there to be truths,
we want there to be historical connections, and we want the story to be
told in a certain fashion. For some this means disciplining the word,
“nigger,” and for others it means complexifying not only the institution
of slavery, but the enslaved women in the film.
QT defends his use of the “N-Word” by arguing that it is historically
accurate, that it reflects the racial im(morality) and violence of
Texas, Tennessee, and Mississippi in the 1850s. He shrugs off criticism
(dismissing it in fact):
I find [the criticism] ridiculous. Because it would be one thing if
people are out there saying, 'You use it much more excessively in this
movie than it was used in 1858 in Mississippi.' Well, nobody’s saying
that. And if you’re not saying that, you’re simply saying I should be
lying. I should be watering it down. I should be making it easier to
digest. No, I don’t want it to be easy to digest.
have offered a similar defense, although I have a hard time with this
argument for a couple reasons: QT and his defenders simultaneously
invoke history and deny that Django
is a movie based in history. Whereas the endless other historic
omissions, mythologies, and falsehoods (for example where is evident of
the Black Codes) are OK because this is a Spaghetti Western or because
this is a QT production, but the “N Word” makes sense because of
history. I raise this issue not so much to question its usage but
rather to question the hypocrisy from QT who seems to invoke history
when it is convenient. He includes the “B-word,” which was not widely
used until 1920 and “MF,” which wasn’t in common use until World War
II. Historic accuracy doesn’t really seem to be a concern. The
decision not to include scenes of sexual violence (though they were in
one version of the script), which is understandable, also doesn’t seem
to wash with the mandate of making a movie that isn’t easy to digest.
The fact that QT uses the word in virtually every movie should at least give pause that its deployment in Django cannot be chalked up to historic accuracy or the time/space that the film takes place. Joel Randall makes this clear, identifying the pattern of usage (200 times in 6 films) in his entire body of work:
obviously been suffering withdrawal from your beloved n-word, because
you’ve returned to overusing the word seemingly on steroids. You volley
the n-word around in Django Unchained over 110 times, all under the guise of “historical accuracy.” But that’s bullshit. You’re not concerned about being historical or
accurate. You just have some sick obsession with the n-word, and it’s
way more racist than historic. Here, let me show you, as we take a walk
down memory lane through your employment of the n-word like it was the
most privileged extra in Hollywood.
the end, I find QT’s use of the N-Word in this film, and in many others
(not historically contingent) to be part of his fetishizing of
blackness. The ability to say the word, to do what other whites are
purportedly not able to participate in, becomes an instance where he
becomes the embodiment of the exceptional white body. He becomes cool,
he becomes racially progressive, and he becomes the hipster white dude
that can say the N word and get away with it.
TAL: I have different views in terms of the deployment of language with regard to who gets to say what.
DJL: Tell me more; how so?
First, I concur with your assessment of QT’s contradictions and sense
of privilege and entitlement. However, I think I’ve developed certain
callousness to the word. I actually found its deployment quite
I wonder how QT has been part of this normative process, although doing
little to actually foster justice and equality. Say more.
This is layered and I'm actually saying a lot here, but the crux of
what I'm saying really highlights my politics of language and
interpretation of signs, symbols, significations and representations.
Words and images have power. Moreover, they signify the various
meanings that we give to them. And, meanings, no matter how hard we
try, can neither be buried
nor frozen in time. Nor can they be possessed. We can't control them
once they're uttered into the atmosphere, and we cannot regulate their
various appropriations. QT's deployment and meaning differs from Fox's
and others. And I'm in no way diminishing the power and problematic of
the word. I'm just saying there's a linguistic complexity here that we
rarely deal with. In short, words, whether it's nigger, niggaz, nigga,
or n-word, are signs made up of symbols (a, b, #, ^) with their very own
cosmic space and histories. They're all very different...and out of
our control. So, as much as we'd like, we can't put them to rest or
regulate their deployment or meanings. We can try. However, it hasn't
worked. We can, however, continue to call out and interrogate the
circulating archives of racial knowledge and cultural practices that
continue to attach injurious signifiers to living bodies.
I see. I want to come back to this if we have time, or perhaps
revisit offline. This is truly a discussion within a discussion, or
maybe even a discussion unto itself. There's a lot here. In the
meantime, let's talk more about the film.
Foxx was powerful as Django. He offered cinematic disdain to the
tenets and history of white supremacy. Sitting on top of a horse,
looking down upon white oppression, Django refused and resisted the
violence and dehumanization of white supremacy throughout the film.
Yet, at times his character felt like QT's fantasy, a racial
cross-dressing fantasy for himself; the centrality of cool, the camera’s
gaze upon his body, particularly his penis, and the importance of
violence, leaves me questioning how Django embodies QT’s racial fantasy,
a longing to embody those qualities that he sees and locates within
Honestly, I almost fell out of my seat when Django appeared in his
royal blue and cream peacock aesthetics. This is an undeniable aspect
of black culture. When given the means and opportunity, black folks are
known to take style to not only the next, but the next, next
level—sometimes to levels of [what is deemed as] absurdity. I’m willing
to bet that that costume was Fox’s idea. I thought it was comedic
genius. This reading doesn’t negate the possibility of fantasy,
however. Strong, naked, black male bodies were interestingly in
abundance in the film while naked black female bodies were not. And I’m
quite honestly thankful for the latter. I also appreciated the fact
that QT gave us black sexuality without the visual
of rape as its normal mode of deployment. There were several moments
in the film where black women could have been taken as conquests by
Django and others. We didn’t even get a lovemaking scene between Django
and Broomhilda. I’m on the fence in terms of my feelings there. I
have no idea what QT’s overall intentions were. Still, I appreciate
some of them.
What about QT's gender politics? I think they’re awful; I don’t think
Kerry Washington could have been less utilized. As a huge fan of her
work, especially in Scandal, I was truly frustrated by her character. She deserved more in the film.
fact, the failure to offer any female characters of depth is not
surprising given his body of work. The conventional “man saves women”
also gives me pause in part of because of the media narrative as to how
unconventional and challenging QT is within the national landscape, yet
when it comes to gender, when it comes to his recycling of patriarchal
fantasies, Django gives viewers more of the same.
I want to deal with the gender issue first. I’ll move to the male
savior figure after. I’ve seen numerous critiques of QT’s gender
politics re: this film.
I actually do not agree with half of them. Was Washington’s talent
underused? Perhaps. Could the women characters in the film exhibit
more complexity, at least a complexity that aligned with the male
characters? Certainly. However, was Broomhilda's character flat? Not
in the least.
have reduced Broomhilda to a damsel in distress foil for QT’s knight
and shining armor trope. I totally disagree with this. Sure, she
doesn’t say much. Yet, to my mind, Broomhilda’s silence is absolutely
speaks. Of course we never gain access to Broomhilda’s entire story.
Nevertheless, her screams, shrieks, trembles, posture, lacerations, and
tears say so much. They tell us, if nothing else, that Broomhilda is
more than a beautiful woman trapped in the middle of a violent love
story and cinematic dream sequences. And she’s certainly more than what
Hortense Spillers once coined as "captive flesh."
is human. Not only is she resistant, her unbridled quest for freedom
suggests that she’s also keenly aware of her self-worth. In addition,
she has an opportunity to not only love deeply, but to have that same
sort of love designated just for her in the universe through Django.
Who doesn’t want that, and when's the last time that we've seen this in
pop culture? I know there’ve been a lot of Spike Lee/QT comparisons
with this film, but truthfully, do we get this sort of inter-subjective
density from Colleen Royale, the mother from Red Hook Summer, who
dispatches her son to the city to live with his grandfather for the
summer, a fire and brimstone preacher and known paedophile?
are moments in life where the rhetoric and/or reality of protection are
needed, I think. When thinking about the rhetoric of protection and
the male savior trope in this film, it’s imperative to think about each
in terms of the experiences of captive flesh within patriarchal
structures. And I get the whole exceptionalism argument.
However, it’s also historically appropriate to suggest the desire or
need for a savior figure or hero in this instance. The quest for male
(and sometimes female) savior figures weren’t uncommon to the enslaved.
Truth be told, they’re not uncommon now. This is why Tyler Perry is so
popular. He’s mastered the whole Christian-Christ-male-savior concept,
however you read it. Patriarchal, heterosexist problems aside, heroes
are sometimes needed, especially when surrounded by a sea of villains.
Why not the love of Broomhilda’s life? The fact that Django risks
everything to free his beloved is nothing short of intoxicating. And
the moment where he, instead of a rapist-murderer, enters the cabin to
take Broomhilda away is beyond potent, and not because she wasn't a
fighter, but because she needed help making an exit route. Survivors of
violence can only wish for such a moment—for love to arrive before
violence takes hold.
also important to note that Broomhilda is an ex-slave woman who’s been
violated, and faces the threat of continued violation, not a woman born
into a context of choice, rights and privilege. We typically understand
and problematize the rhetoric of protection, chivalry, etc., in light
of the latter, where savior tropes function more so as middle class
patriarchal controls. However, Broomhilda’s captivity, and that of
others, pushes us to reimagine Django not as a knight in shining armor
male savior trope, but a representation of fugitive justice. This is a
source of hope for the racialized, both captive and post-captive.
Tamura, this is brilliant. You have given me a lot more to think about
and I have actually thought about the film a lot, which is interesting
given how much I didn’t feel the film.
fact, I have thought long and hard about how my ambivalent reaction to
the film (at some level my dislike of the film) is conditioned by my own
whiteness; that white privilege infects my gaze so much so that the
emotionality, the appeal, and the power of a black hero, a hero like
Django whose swagger, aesthetic, and refusal to take any shit from white
America means something different to me. In a society, in a cinematic
landscape, where white masculinity is validated, celebrated, and
elevated, I recognize that my reaction to the film is clouded by the
privileges of whiteness.
Absolutely. My reading is certainly coloured by my position as a black
woman. I think it’s good to stop for a moment and acknowledge that.
All of our readings are ‘positioned.’
DJL: Final thoughts?
TAL: I loved how the film turned slavery on its head. I know that Ishmael Reed critiqued this film, but QT presented his “slavery” in the spirit of Reed’s Flight to Canada (perhaps
QT is more of a mixture between Harriet Beecher Stow and Reed). Django
isn’t a revolutionary figure in the way we might imagine Nat Turner or
Denmark Vesey. Still, QT’s protagonist and “slavery” are iconoclastic.
Everybody gets to be a nigger, that is, flesh for cash. Moreover,
regardless of what we may think of QT’s racial politics, his parodies of
whiteness, the Klan, master-class incest, white brilliance, etc., are
disruptive. They provide a different kind of narrative, further
revealing the human-made character of racism, thus allowing us to find
humor in the demonic. The presence of the comedic in no way diminishes
the cruelty of history. We’re too clever for that. Black folks have
long used jokes to lessen the racial yoke. We don’t always have to (or
want to) relive the tragic. Sometimes comedic rage works just fine.
And rest assured, meaning is never limited to the producer. We’re
always rearranging signs and symbols in order to make the most sense out
of them. What are your final thoughts?
People often lament or dismiss social media as an echo chamber, where
the same voices and opinions get circulated over and over again. The
discussions and debates, the myriad of amazing articles dealing with Django,
points to the critical discussions and expansive horizons postulated in
these spaces. As much as I walked out of the theater frustrated,
angered, and full of questions, I find myself wanting to watch the film
again, to digest each and every POV about the film. I just hope QT and
those viewers, who may have laughed in inappropriate moments, find their
way into these spaces to join in these conversations.
Tamura A. Lomax is
the Assistant Chair and an Assistant Professor of African American
Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. She teaches, writes, and
researches in the following areas: American Religion, African American
Religion, African American and Diaspora Studies, Gender and Sexuality
Studies, and Black British and U.S. Black Cultural Studies. She is the
author of several essays and is currently at work on two projects: An
edited volume entitled Womanist/Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Cultural Productions, co-authored with Rhon S. Manigault-Bryant and Carol B. Duncan, and her first single authored monograph, Womanist Thought, Black Feminism, and Black Cultural Production. She is co-founder, along with Hortense Spillers, of The Feminist Wire.
David J. Leonard
is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender
and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the
author of the just released After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press) as
well as several other works. Leonard is a regular contributor to
NewBlackMan, layupline, Feminist Wire, and Urban Cusp. He is frequent
contributor to Ebony, Slam, and Racialicious as well as a past
contributor to Loop21, The Nation and The Starting Five. He blogs @No Tsuris.