Creative Interpretation or Cultural Appropriation? Thoughts on “Django Unchained”

(Originally written December 27th, Updated like an hour ago)
Oh Django where do we start…I enjoyed myself so I guess I could start there and end there but…

django“Django Unchained” is more pop art than social document but I don’t think it was Tarantino’s intentions to make anything more than what it is. Hence the apprehension from most black folk (including me) when approaching the film. The idea that someone would turn a historical tragedy which still has lingering effects today into a piece of entertainment for popular consumption seems at first disgusting and exploitative. (I’ll get this out of the way now though the word “nigger” is the least interesting discussion point of the film. We’ll come back to this later. )

But I believe the reason why Spike said he wouldn’t see it as well as other blacks was due to the idea this director would not & could not treat the subject with the reverence it deserves. However, after seeing it, “Django” in it’s best moments it provides a safe entry point to view the horrors of slavery & indeed offers some subversive commentary even I wasn’t expecting, but at it’s worst and most problematic it undercuts the severity of its material due to Tarantino’s stylized narrative form becoming more of a caricature of his earlier films.

At times (particularly the 1st third of the the film) it felt as if I were watching a live action cartoon nearly prompting me to walk out. After Jackie Brown, the way Tarantino treats violence, even racial naked black ass whipping violence, has been so stylized to the point it removes you from the reality or severity of what’s actually happening. This distancing exonerates the audience (black,white, etc.) of the historical weightiness of slavery.

I didn’t find it disrespectful but more so annoying. Also it must be noted the formal break in Tarantino’s aesthetic from “Jackie Brow”n to” Kill Bill” signified a change in how he treats his “villains”. Ever noticed how they’re almost all comically polite? (Bill, Kurt Russel in “Death Proof”, and now Calvin Candy)  Save for maybe Bill they never seem quite real.

Frank Embree 1899

Frank Embree 1899

Here, I find this problematic because every slave owner depicted, from their costuming and even their naming, separates them from the historical reality making them seem more cartoonish and less human thus the audience is able to distance themselves and simply laugh off these corny forghorn leghorn esque motherfuckers. Only in a Tarantino film would a slave owner be named “Calvin Candy” or Big Daddy” and have his “nigger girls” call him that repeatedly.

The word nigger occurs roughly 110 times. I only had a problem with this about 5 times when it seemed to be spoken out of character or context within a scene.

But on to the good and surprisingly profound stuff. I read my girl  @DeolaCola  (follow her on Twitter for funny insight on the music industry and such)  referred to Django as a bildungsroman which is really a supped of word for “coming of age” tale. I see how one could come to that conclusion but I’d have to disagree. Django is an epic like the Iliad or Odyssey in which Jamie is an archetype. He doesn’t develop morally or psychologically past the first hour of the nearly 3 hr long film. It’s pretty trill seeing a black face in habit an Eastwood “Man with No Name” esque role. That’s really dope considering the fact that historically westerns have ignored not only slavery but black people in general, save for Native Americans standing in as “savages”.

Where the film really shines is when it plays upon the spaghetti western genre’s tropes while finding a dialectical synthesis with its setting’s historical brutality. Specifically i’m recalling the Mandingo fighting scene. It’s not hyped up with music or stylized camera moves. And, for me, this moment is probably the most harrowing depiction of the pre war south I’ve ever seen on screen. When Tarantino stops trying so got damn hard to be hip or thrill you, Django really weighs in heavy.

Outside of the “love” story which is truly motivated by revenge, I found the thesis of the film has more to do with emergence or announcement of a black hero.  (Consider the reoccurring line from Candy and Django predicting Jamie as a “1 in 10,000 nigger”). A hero who dons and uses his “blackness” as a threat to a white patriarchal power structure That’s some shit people of all races really need to see.

Still from the 2009 film "A Prophet". Director Jacques Audiard employed the same narrative device in his prison gangster drama providing young  Arab males with a cinematic hero

Still from the 2009 film “A Prophet”. Director Jacques Audiard employed the same narrative device in his prison gangster drama providing young Arab males with a cinematic “hero”

What’s more impressive is that this is done without pushing Django into the “buck” stereotype like Shaft or other blaxploitation pics in which Django also has roots. And this heroic blackness is heightened by the use of surprising yet well placed rap songs. Honestly one of my favorite cinematic moments of this year was provided when Pac is heard rapping “Hard to kill a nigga cause I’m comin back like Jesus” while Jamie shoots the fuck out of slave owners. Sidebar: Jamie said he listened to Biggie’s “Dead Wrong” on set before they did the action scenes. It shows.

But this admiration of the black hero is echoed in what is probably the most humane moment I’ve seen in a Tarantino film since Beatrix Kiddo hugged her daughter’s stuffed animal in the bathroom weeping in joy. Early on Jamie’s character has to pretend to be a black slave trader. While in this role a slave looks upon him with disarming disgust. This same slave is shown again in the 3rd act after Django kills their captors and frees a few horses from their reins (a little subtle symbolism and shit). The slave’s eyes water in pride watching this black man, once a slave, ride off as a hero. Whoever played that fucking slave deserves a nomination of some sorts cause that moment was on the level of Denzel’s single tear in “Glory” trickling down his cheek. Moving.

One more thing though. Something that may have went unnoticed by those who’ve seen it and certainly surprised the fuck out of me…in a good way. This is not a spoiler so don’t worry. There’s a moment in the 3rd act when Django is about to be castrated (last side bar I promise but it’s amazing Tarantino can get away with showing a dick in a western but Steve Mcqueen gets an NC-17 Rating when showing the true horrors of sex addiction in Shame and you don’t even really see a dick in it)…so Jamie’s hanging upside down and Sam Jackson delivers a subversively profound monologue abouta fate worst than death for a slave. He says the emasculation via castration is not a suitable punishment for a black man who’s caused this much trouble. He then proceeds to speak on the oncoming new form of slavery, the prison industrial complex. He tells Django we’re not gonna kill you but “strip away your name, give you a serial number and a sledgehammer” and get you to work in a mine and forgotten about until the day you die. It’s even more harrowing considering this is THE ONLY MOMENT in the film the 4th wall is broken. It appears Sam is speaking to Jamie but he’s staring directly into the camera telling us about this new punishment for black men. Literally gave me chills. Not sure if Tarantino knew exactly what he was intimating but considering the shot selection/camera placement, it played like an omen.

I had apprehensions going into “Django Unchaind” and it confirmed some of my expectations and subverted others. In it’s best moments it provides a new vision for a black hero and in its worse succumbs to vapid pop art sentiments. I fucks with 2/3rds of it though. One final note tho I’m curious why he took out the rape scene that was in the script and actually filmed. Not that I lust for it but it would’ve alleviated some of that cartoonish shit in the beginning and grounded the narrative in the horrible reality of its context.

If anyone else asks about “Django Unchained ”  just tell em it’s a prequel to “Wild Wild West”. And for those who still don’t want to see the film, it’s all good. Just wait for “Twelve Years A Slave” coming Fall 2013.

django calvin candy

Update: Golden Globes 2013: Quentin Tarantino Says N-Word Backstage, Calls Prison System Modern Slavery

From Savage, with love 
This entry was published on March 4, 2013 at 2:56 pm and is filed under Discourse, Informal Film Criticism, naked black ass whipping. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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