Thoughts on Django Unchained * spoiler alert*

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Last night, like many people around the country, I went to go see Django Unchained. According to the description for the film, it’s an American western, which is directed and written by Quentin Tarantino, the filmmaker who brought us Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill to name just two. Django, the lead character played by Jamie Fox along with his German mentor, Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) set out to rescue Django’s wife, played by the lovely Kerry Washington, from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner. In signature Tarantino style like film as many like to say, this film too has a lot of violence and shooting in it.

This post is not a film critique nor am I a film critic. I leave that to the professionals. Particularly those with a keen eye on how film influences culture and attitudes.

Before watching the movie, I did come across some criticisms, most notably by Spike Lee, who said:

“American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.”

Spike boycotted the film, but didn’t elaborate on the reasons beyond what I just quoted.

Others took issue with the excessive use of the N-word in the film, while others applauded the storyline of “finally” having a leading black man “go through hell” to rescue his black wife. That’s the summary of what I came across regarding the film. I did go with an open mind and thought I share some of the observations that I had after watching the film.

Before I do that, I would like to make a distinction between individual artists, and their art and the industry of Hollywood. To me there is a huge distinction.

Not long ago, I was reading criticism of the HBO show “Girls”. Lena Dunham is the creator of that show and she was criticized for the lack of diversity in her characters, all whom are white from a certain socioeconomic background. Though I can sympathize with where the critics are coming from, certainly American TV lacks diversity, I believe it is wrongly directed when the artist is asked to repackage their art. I don’t think Lena Dunham should write for black or brown characters, anymore than I think K’naan should repackage the soul of his music in order to reach “mainstream” audiences. Artists are shaped by their world. Lena Dunham comes from a certain world and those characters she writes will reflect that world, same goes for K’naan, and Mr. Tarantino.

I don’t think artists have an obligation to fulfill the “diversity quota” in their art if that makes sense. Their role as artists is just telling stories, authentically for the characters in those stories. I think that is when an artist feels most free and their soul is at peace with their creation. So that’s how I view Mr. Tarantino. He is an artist, first.

This is not to say, individual artists can’t be bigoted, sexist, or racist. They certainly can and some are, and what they create and pass as their art can be very offensive and degrading to certain groups. This has happened and continues to happen. It’s up to people ie audiences to be alert to what they are consuming, boycott, and protest peacefully if need be. The point I am making here is that individual artists as the examples above should not have the burden to tell multiple and diverse human narratives, that obligation I think befalls the industry, in this case Hollywood to provide a platform that shares diverse human narratives.

So rather than criticizing creators of “Girls” or the show “Friends” for lacking diversity, Hollywood is the problem, not the individual artists. At the times it does engage, Hollywood continues to miss the mark in telling the narratives of Non-European communities. Consider the repeated images and narratives of Native Americans in the history of Hollywood or African Americans, or Africans, or Asians, or Russians, or Arabs and Muslims. What’s the dominate or subtle messages in those films when depicting those communities?

One would be hard pressed to say films don’t influence the average film goer in how they view the world, themselves, and people unlike themselves. Of course the same can be said of the educational system as well, we are indoctrinated in viewing the non-European world as inferior and at times inhumane.

I believe this is what has led filmmaker Ava DuVernay to form the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AAFFRM), to help release films that explore many narratives, which continue to be ignored by the Hollywood establishment. Bravo.

Now onto Django.

The film was entertaining and funny on several accounts. If the film was a western, revenge type film no issues would have arisen for me. But the subject matter was slavery and that changes everything. I don’t have quarrels with the usage of derogatory language, like the N-word in a film or in literature. In fact, given the context I think it is censorship and being unauthentic not to portray history as ugly as it was. So the issue was not the excessive usage of the N-word, but rather, the cartoonish, detached, Borat like way the word was thrown around in the film. Particularly when Samuel Jackson’s character, the Uncle Tom character, used the word. The audience laughed in various parts of the film when that derogatory, hateful word was being used to dehumanize a black man especially when it was being done by another black man.

Now, I may be able to see how it could be remotely funny if say the film was designed to be a parody like Borat or like David Chappelle comedy shows, but it wasn’t and this film was a serious story line. Consider the Bosnian genocide or the Holocaust, or any other human tragedy, a ugly history you can think of. I am sure the Serbs had derogatory, dehumanizing language for the Bosnians as did the Nazis for the Jews. Do you think if those derogatory words were used in a film similar to Django to refer to Bosnian Muslims or European Jews by their oppressors, do you think the audience would laugh as they did when the N-word was used? I find that very hard to imagine. Consider homophobes in a film, a bigot who upon saying gay people uses derogatory language in order to dehumanize, do you think the audience would laugh? I find that very hard to imagine. So why then did people, including black people laugh so hard when black people were being dehumanized by that ugly word? I don’t understand. You may ponder on that.

Another aspect of the film I found interesting, was the German folktale behind the name Broomhilda, which is the name for Django’s wife. It is the German dentist, the friend of Django, Dr. Schultz who tells Django about a man who risks everything, ie “goes through hell” to safe his wife. Django replies, he knows the feeling of that man in the story. However before this point, I am unsure, perhaps I missed it, if Django from the beginning was on a quest to safe his beloved or did the story the German tells inspire him to take that path. Whatever the case maybe, the black hero in the movie is helpless on his own and it is the German who sets the freedom of his wife into motion. You may ponder on why this is a repeated Hollywood narrative, ie Invictus, Avatar, natives (aka not white) being unable to safe themselves.

A crucial moment of the film in my opinion was when DiCaprio’s character, the slave master, brings out the skull of a dead black man, who was a slave of his father. He uses the black man’s skull to demonstrate “scientifically” the skull of the African is different than that of the European, and thus why the black man is fit for slavery due to his submissive nature.

Historically there hasn’t been a shortage of European scientists who have reasoned the intellectual inferiority of the black race. There is no doubt this racist viewpoint is not isolated to just a few people. It was not long ago when a Nobel Prize geneticist said just that. So when DiCarprio’s character made those charges, it was a missed opportunity to challenge those theories, instead it was just left to hang in the air. Django’s character for example challenged Dr. Shultz, a bounty hunter by trade, when Django questioned the morality of a man who would not bat an eye for killing a father in front of his young son. The morality of slavers, the inhumanity, beastliness of the slavery system was not similarly questioned and condemned intellectually in the film.

I did like the love story a lot. I wish that was the main focus. I can’t understand how one can have a leading lady like Kerry Washington and not utilize her talent. I wanted more out of the love story. I understand, Tarantino has a certain style (shoot em up is his thing I hear) but it could have been an epic love story. It could have been an epic tale about honor, fighting the good fight, Braveheart style.

In the end, the audience laughed mostly. I don’t think it stirred any emotional depth that a movie like Braveheart did nor make people feel outraged at the horrors of slavery.

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