The School has lately requisitioned my presence for long stretches at a time – and my sanity for much longer than that (how dare they expect me to meet the requirements of the contract to which I willingly signed my name!) – so I’ve been away for a while.
I have a few things banging around this crotchety old head, though, and I figured I’d start with this post about Django Unchained from my friend Dave, whose blog should now be linked in the sidebar. You really should check it out.) As I told Dave a while ago, his post stirred up a few thoughts in me, and I wanted – well, not to respond, but to offer my own perspective. I think he brings up some excellent points in his post.
Before I start in on the whole thing, I should point out that Dave and I have something in common. Neither of us has seen Django Unchained, at least not when we’re writing our posts. If you read Dave’s post (which you should), you know why he hasn’t seen it. In my case, while I’m not a Tarantino fan per se, I have liked quite a bit of his work (except maybe Death Proof), so my excuse is that I simply haven’t had time.
This is to say that neither Dave nor I are talking about the film qua film: we’re not critiquing Django Unchained as a piece of cinematic art or narration or anything along those lines. What we are both talking about is the program of the film: what is its role? To take both parts of Ebert’s Law, what is the movie about, and how is it about it? Here’s what Dave had to say about it. To his credit, he’s only offering his own opinion on why he thinks the movie is not worth seeing, and he makes that clear in the title.
I have to say, though, that I’m more conflicted than usual about Tarantino’s latest release, Django Unchained. On the one hand, I understand the base impulse behind films like Django and his last film, Inglorious Basterds: Sometimes you just want to see bad people, like Nazis and/or slave owners, get their Nazi and/or slave owner asses kicked. Repeatedly. And, you know, with extreme prejudice.
On the other hand, the idea of yet another White director making a film about race (and not just about race; about the most racially charged subject of all – slavery in America) makes me uncomfortable. I don’t doubt that Tarantino means well, but there’s so much more to race in America than wanting to kick the asses of racists and slave owners, however understandable the impulse to kick their asses may be.
All of this makes sense to me. Films about slavery – perhaps films about race in general – have a tendency to oversimplify. (Even the already-venerable Lincoln has been accused of this.) This is probably partly fitting a narrative to cinematic constraints, partly good business so you don’t alienate a particular demographic, and just generally ensuring that your film is a piece of entertainment that audiences can enjoy and then go home and discuss.
These problems are exacerbated in Tarantino’s case because his films are meant to be the distillation of the word “epic.” The characters are exaggerated (but by no means flat or one-dimensional), the dialogue is over-the-top half the time, the violence often cartoonish. (Another friend of mine has argued that this last bullet point is premeditated to help the viewer retain suspension of disbelief.) Those issues, for many people, are already problematic. Add historical oversimplification to the mix and things just boil over.
Dave offers us an alternative take on the view of slavery presented in Django Unchained, from Prof. Blair L.M. Kelley, of North Carolina State University. (I’m quoting the second part here. I keep telling you, go read the post. Or at least the link in this graf.)
The men and women who owned slaves were not bizarre cartoon villains or the bumbling proto-Klansmen depicted in Django Unchained. They were educated. They attended churches. And they used their education and religion to try to justify the horror that the majority of their wealth was not in land or livestock, but based in their ownership of other human beings. When we think about slavery in these terms, it isn’t as easy to laugh.
But, see, that doesn’t sell movie tickets. It doesn’t win Golden Globe Awards or Oscars. It’s kind of dry and heavily factual. And, worse, instead of making us feel good about the asses of slave owners and racists being kicked and kicked hard, it makes us – especially us White folks – think about the lingering effects of slavery. I mean, really think about them. And not just about the lingering negative effects of slavery on the African American community, but the lingering benefits that many of us enjoy because of the color of our skin, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.
Agreed – Prof. Kelley’s take on the matter is highly important because it shows the reality behind slavery, a reality that Django Unchained doesn’t, and it brings up a much more uncomfortable question than Django Unchained. Certainly, if it had brought up that question, I don’t think my students would find the movie so awesome.
At the same time, as something of an amateur lover of grand guignol-type extravaganzas, and basing myself on what I know of Tarantino, I wonder if he didn’t intend to play that discomfort out for all it’s worth. I loved Inglourious Basterds, but I found it incredibly hard to watch, not just because Tarantino is a master at catch-and-release dramatic tension, but also because he seemed to be going out of his way to make his viewers uncomfortable. (Needless to say, he succeeded.) The over-the-top violence that occasionally breaks into the film was almost a welcome relief from the drawn-out build-up.
Furthermore, I think Tarantino’s approach, if anything, is exactly the right one to inure Django Unchained against programmatic criticisms. QT isn’t known for his realistic, down-to-earth approach to his subjects, and anyone expecting that from him is going to be sorely disappointed. I’d imagine that a film trying to tackle the issues of slavery from a more serious, realistic viewpoint, written and directed by a white man as idiosyncratic as Tarantino, would likewise cause discomfort. In Tarantino’s case, though, he’s flouting realism in service of his favorite narrative trope, the revenge quest. I don’t think that belittles the bigger issue of slavery. Basterds certainly didn’t belittle the Holocaust. (Then again, slavery as an issue is – rightly – much touchier in America.)
This still leaves some questions open. Is Django ultimately a negative force in that it substitutes a more complex narrative in the minds of its audience? Is Tarantino’s unique style enough to separate the narrative in Django cleanly from a more realistic story about slavery? Was there a way for Tarantino to nod in the direction of the issues Prof. Kelley raises without sacrificing his narrative?
That all will have to wait until I actually watch the damn thing. In the meantime, check out Dave’s blog and enjoy.