Wednesday, April 24, 2013


I placed "Django Unchained" at number 3 on my own list of the best films of 2012 ( reason I did so is that, despite the varied critical reactions the film has gotten, I believe that writer/director Quentin Tarentino has used his particular creative gifts and the clout that he wields in the movie industry to do something brilliant and important. He has altered our collective consciousness about race and American slavery, for the better.
Oppression and wrongdoing do not simply resolve themselves; they reverberate for generations.  Americans, even educated ones, know this in theory but ignore it in practice.To use American slavery as an example (though there are others), we like to act as though it is old news of merely historical interest, and even that it gets too much attention.  It happened a long time ago; it doesn't have anything to do with us today.  To keep dwelling on it--to quote a certain Supreme Court justice--just perpetuates outmoded racial entitlements. Although film is a medium with a singular capacity for telling stories with immediacy, our movies recount the history of slavery from a certain historical remove, and we tend to soften it by, for example, featuring prominent white heroes (as in "Lincoln," which I did admire very much, or "Amazing Grace," about the movement against slavery in England).  As important as these stories are, they don't confront us with the current legacy of past oppression.

With "Django Unchained," Tarentino has used his admiration of and facility with such discounted genres as spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation films to lure multiracial audiences (and in places like Portland, largely white audiences) to invest nearly three hours looking at aspects of our relatively recent past that we have declined or even refused to face.  As he has himself pointed out, one cannot make a film as lurid as slavery was in reality. Our popular media has never given us a depiction this specific or this visceral: slaves are whipped, chewed to death by dogs while bystanders watch, made to walk, chained, on bare bloody feet for days; kept in burning holes to die of thirst. Watching the film, I found myself reflecting on where I might have fit into the diabolical social hierarchies enforced among slaves based on their physical attributes.  Would I have been one of an army of house slaves, working above all else to blend into the machinery?  Would I have been a virtual farm implement, toiling in the fields but subject to sexual exploitation at a moment's whim?  Would I have lived in relative comfort and been dressed as an elaborate sexual toy, only to have children ripped from me and later to be cast off when my beauty faded?  This is what humans being treated as property led to a mere 150 years ago, and it's brutal.

Also, in giving us a black hero who provokes audiences to cheer as he mows down white oppressors (who are the ancestors of many of us), Tarentino may well have subliminally provoked us to notice that no such vengeance ever occurred and given us the experience of wishing for it.

Further, his film not only depicts something never before imagined on screen; it conveys some things about how oppression works. A lurking question that troubles many people about slavery is why the black slaves didn't simply rise up and kill the whites; Tarentino puts that question (stated ironically) in the mouth of a vicious slaveholder and then devises a freedman superhero to do just that.  But the film also demonstrates the real answer to the slaveholder's ironic question: that the system of oppression functioned so as to ensure that such a freedman superhero (or even a modest uprising) would never happen.  The mechanics of that system are depicted with uncommon insight; a hierarchy of white enforcers maintained and benefitted from the system in varying degrees.  Even more remarkably, we also see a player who has not been portrayed with this kind of perspicuity:the head house Negro Stephen, played by Samuel L. Jackson.  The white vileness in "Django Unchained" is more familiar, and is certainly chilling--but Jackson's character is a revelation.  Far from a sympathetic Uncle Tom, his ruthless collaborator can also be an essential ingredient of oppression. He is terrifying; he also rings true.

I disagree with those who see in King Schultz (the character for which Christoph Waltz won his second Academy Award) just another version of the necessary white hero in a story about black oppression.Schultz is a German and he is not out to fight slavery. This is not his fight; he is out to make money.He winces at slavery's brutality because it is not his brutality; he is not part of this system in the way an American necessarily would be.His motivation to collaborate is less heroic, more practical and more believable.  He is not a stand-in for white Americans.  He is necessary to the plot (he buys and then frees Django), but the essential fight belongs to Django.

As Tarentino has matured as a filmmaker, he has begun to turn his penchant for filming violent revenge stories to more ambitious purposes.  In "Inglorious Bastards," he created a clearly fictional revenge fantasy against the Nazis, which was dangerous enough--but that story is not our American story in the same way this is  .Here we are the subject of the vengeance, we root for that vengeance.  In this movie, we--that is, Americans who benefit from our history of brutal slavery--are the bad guys.

The first time I saw, "Django Unchained," I was profoundly shaken by what I had seen.That seems to me an appropriate response to American slavery, and I am glad to have experienced it, and glad to have sat in a theater of mostly white Americans who experienced it too, even if they didn't reflect on it as deeply as I did. It's that much harder to dismiss this history as old news.One hundred and fifty years ago, the worst and most unacceptable parts of this story actually happened.It's now harder to pretend that it didn't.
[A version of this review also appeared today in the Portland Observer,]

No comments: