[Wasn't it roughly this time last year when I said I was going to be better about blogging in 2012? Oh, yeah. It was. Hmm. Well, let's try this again. Maybe it'll stick this time.]
I rang out the old year yesterday by taking in Django Unchained, the latest from ultra-violence-loving director Quentin Tarantino. I’m still processing the experience, so these are merely some quick, fragmentary reflections. Ask me again tomorrow, and maybe they’ll have shifted. Also, there may be a few spoilers below. If you haven’t seen the film, and you want to do so without knowing too much more, then you may not want to read past the first bullet point.
- Spike Lee has done a curious two-step around the film. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to talk about it publicly. On the other hand, he’s made very public statements claiming that film is “disrespectful to [his] ancestors.” More problematically, he’s done so while also saying that he has no intention of seeing the film. Lee, of course, isn’t obligated to see any film he doesn’t want to see. Nor is he obligated to like (or respect) either Tarantino or his films. At the same time, it’s a bit disheartening to see him condemn the film so thoroughly without having seen it — not the least because Lee’s been on the receiving end of plenty of that sort of blind, knee-jerk condemnation himself. And Lee has wandered into some exceptionally murky waters himself with respect to ugly representations of black people on the big screen (cf. Bamboozled — which, to be clear, is a pretty brilliant piece of work . . . but Lee’s deliberately over-the-top depiction of blackface minstrelsy produced its own fair share of squirming audiences.) To be sure, I can respect Lee’s desire not to see the film. But there’s a big difference between saying, “I don’t really like Tarantino’s films, so I have no need to see this one” and slapping this particular film down unseen because of its content and tone.
- Now if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like Tarantino’s movies because they’re too violent, too bloody, or too gruesome, then you won’t like Django any better. The body count here is high (and not just because, at 165 minutes, there’s lots of time to pile up the corpses), and few (if any) of the deaths are exactly “clean.” That said, the film dives deep into the heart of chattel slavery in the US . . . and that was an extraordinarily violent practice. Enough so that, even though Tarantino could have ramped the violence up without being historically inaccurate, he toned it down so that audiences could not be too traumatized to cheer the movie’s final denouement. Let that sink in for a second. A Quentin Tarantino movie (of all things!) is softer than the actual historical violence associated with slavery in this country. If you haven’t seen the movie, you might be tempted to think that this “kinder, gentler” vision of slavery only justifies Lee’s refusal to see the film. But since I have seen the film, I can assure you that it does absolutely nothing to make slavery look like a benevolent institution.
- I’ve seen a handful of bloggers and critics who’ve criticized the movie for what it doesn’t do in terms of portraying racial solidarity between blacks or in terms of presenting even some tiny gesture towards collective rebellion. And there’s some truth to be found there. Django is not a selfless martyr, abandoning the path to freedom and wandering into certain death because he can’t bear to leave his brothers and sisters behind him in chains. Nor is he a new Nat Turner, helping to lead the fieldhands into open rebellion against white supremacy. His mission is purely personal (though not entirely selfish), and he is never distracted from it by even a moment of sympathetic solidarity for the obvious suffering of other black folk around him. But, you know, that’s okay by me. At least for now. Hollywood isn’t exactly overflowing with movies where the central characters are black and where pervasive, systemic, institutional racism is the primary target that must be destroyed. Of course, Django doesn’t take down the entire system, but Tarantino also doesn’t let us get away with thinking that that system was fundamentally a Good Thing that happened to be ruined by a tiny handful of wicked souls. What Django gives us is a vision of racism as a cancer that permeates the entirety of US society, top to bottom, and that’s an extraordinarily rare thing for Hollywood to do, even in an historical setting. I can live with Django, the fictional man, getting to live out his personal revenge fantasy and ride off into the night with his one true love . . . because Django, the movie, doesn’t let audiences pretend that slavery was really just some sort of pleasant Gone With the Wind costume drama after all.