Many aspects of the marketing for Django Unchained intrigued me. Firstly, I’m sceptical of white people telling black history as it usually results in revisionism and omission, which leads to deceit & mis-education, even with the best of intentions. So I had no reason to expect anything more from Quentin Tarantino who throughout the entirety of his career has demonstrated a Blaxploitation like obsession with black people, garnished with a strange fetish for the word nigger.
The marketing for this film was heavily driven by Jamie Foxx’s “I get to kill all the white people” skit. But after watching the film I couldn’t help but feel this was a ploy used to cover up some more sinister elements. Usually films on slavery feature some standard characters:
- The White Hero (is a must) enter DR. KING Schultz played by Christoph Waltz.
- The Black Side Kick dependent on the White Hero – Django played by Jamie Foxx.
- The White Villain – often conflicted or obscure – Calvin Candie played by Leonardo Di Caprio, and lastly…
- The Black Villain – Stephen masterfully played by Samuel L. Jackson.
Django is supposed to be the main hero, but for much of the story, he maintains an intense onlooker demeanor instead. Tarantino is renowned for his main characters’ engaging dialogue and thought provoking monologues. In Django Unchained, these scenes are reserved primarily for Waltz and DiCaprio, DiCaprio’s “Three Dimples in the Skull” monologue being by far the most intense. Though Jamie Foxx was the star for the promotion of Django, Christoph Waltz & Leonardo DiCaprio are the stars of the film.
Stephen is also a very interesting character. A classic Uncle Tom, exuding all the airs and graces of servitude and contempt of his fellow niggers. However, he is different from the rest of the House Slaves who surround him. This becomes most apparent when Stephen sees through the plot of Schultz, Django and Broomhilda (Django’s love played by Kerry Washington). Suddenly, while addressing his master, the low bent, subservient, shaking Uncle Tom transforms into an assertive, upright, steady, Cognac sipping, mastermind. The obvious – yet subtle – implication here, brings to mind another cliché associated with the Trans-Atlantic Slavery discourse ‘Afrikans sold Afrikans into slavery and are equally culpable in all that was suffered by Afrikan people’. Stephen no longer looks like a slave. He sits with the master as an equal, inflicting slavery on his people.
The Black Villain is always the number one tool of mitigation for the actions of European slavers & colonisers, juxtaposed with the stupidity of most of the oppressors. The humorous, seemingly pointless scene featuring some Ku Klux Klan-esque masked men on their way to hunt down Django & Schultz gave the impression that slave drivers lacked intelligence and were simple citizens going along with the status quo. This is another well used feature of the slavery discourse – mitigation for the actions of white people involved in slavery.
I was also struck by how detached Django was from the rest of the enslaved Afrikans in the film. They seemed to have no relationship. His connection with his wife is a well-established theme of the film and encompasses his primary motivation. Outside of this there seems to be no serious desire for freedom, from Django, Broomhilda or any other enslaved character. As such, the black cast are victims of a storyline that lacked depth. Broomhilda as the strongest female representative of slavery is tragically underdeveloped, as are all the black characters except for Steven. The narrative focused on a personal vendetta of an individual enslaved black man trying to save his wife, shying away from depicting the collective experience slavery was for the Afrikans subjected to it.
Much was made of the violence in Django Unchained, yet in truth, Tarantino has done worse in his other films. But what was noticeable was that all of the most extreme violence in Django was black on black. The Mandingo fighting scene featuring two black men fighting to the death was by far the most violent, gruesome scene in the movie that even Django’s whipping of the white slaver who sold his wife did not compare. Calvin Candie, supposedly the main villain, like most of the white men in the film is simply shot dead; and he is not shot by Django, he is shot by Schultz; a self-sacrificial act, as Schultz is killed soon after, cementing his White Hero status. Anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of Hollywood traditions knows that the hero of the film is supposed to kill the main bad guy, and kill him last.
After the deaths of the two main white characters the film takes a major turn from this point on. The ills of the wicked white slavery enforcers forgotten, as the rest of the film essentially becomes a stand-off between two black men, Django and Stephen. When long standing African American film maker, Spike Lee said “The history of my people is not a spaghetti western, it would be an insult to my ancestors if I watch this movie – My ancestors were slaves stolen from Afrika I will honour them” the response he received astounded me. I watched as he was called a ‘punk’, ‘jealous hater’ and a ‘Bougie Nigger’. It seemed that Tarantino’s self proclaimed intention to “Explore the history of Slavery and ‘give’ Black people a western hero” had become sacred cinematic territory, beyond even personal critique. Even more interesting was the absolute readiness with which black people were willing to rally against a black director of such high esteem. Whatever critiques we may have of Spike Lee, it is undeniable that he has attempted to tell the Black experience through film for decades, whilst Tarantino’s only claim is to have featured a few black actors in his films.
It appears white directors are the only ones who can break ground in telling a black story. Evidently many have forgotten ‘The Posse’ by Melvin Van Peebles or ‘Rosewood’ by John Singleton. Looking at the film from a purely artistic perspective Django Unchained is good, watchable, but it’s not brilliant or ground breaking in any way. Tarantino has made better films. I believe this film needs to be analysed for the messages within it, rather than simply celebrated for supposedly giving black people a ‘hero’.
Unfortunately, Hollywood does not have a very good record of portraying such stories in an accurate, respectful or culturally sensitive way, inevitably making Afrikan history the victim of Eurocentric bias. There are apparently at least 7 films to be released addressing issues of slavery and related themes throughout 2013, at least two of which are being made by black filmmakers. Whatever the chosen method, the responsibility is on Afrikan people to reset the balance and give Black history the dignity it deserves.
Peace & Blessness.