Django: A Baadassss Film for the Ages?

January 13, 2024
8 mins read

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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