Archive for February, 2013

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Django Unchained

February 28, 2013

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Revenge—best served cold—is not especially a well-suited meal when the table has been to set to accommodate the USA’s torrid affair with slavery.

Do I think Quentin Tarantino is racist? Hardly. Do I think his motivation in creating Django Unchained was a political one, intended to create real, honest discourse and conversation about a terrible blight on human history? Not really. Though his original idea may have been to start a “true dialogue” about the atrocities of a shameful era, Quentin Tarantino is still Quentin Tarantino; his history is rooted more along the lines of the hypermodern, the comic violent, blaxploitation, and razor-wire vengeance. The concept of slavery takes a backseat, factually and thematically, to the revenge plot centered around Django and King Schultz. That this should come to a surprise to anyone is amusing.

  One of the first things I thought about after viewing the film was comparing it to the characterizations from Tarantino’s previous historical effort, Inglorious Basterds—that is, being the way African-American characters are handled, both in the background and in the center. In Basterds, an entire troop of nameless Jews seems to be a focal point of the film. They exist solely as the antithesis to the film’s villainous Nazis. Thusly, it is “justified” that the heroes are those who have been historically victimized. In Tarantino’s world of cinema, the victims of history do not merely wait to be saved; there is hasty, violent rebellion. Vengeance is the name of the game, and it must be slaked without question or even sensible action. Similarly, Django Unchained takes advantage of this trope, casting a black man as the instrument of justice against the trappings of the cruel Southern slave ethos. The treatment of black characters other than the titular character as part of the background differs very little from the way many of the nameless Basterds followed in step with Aldo Raine. There is, however, a disappointing lack of agency with the way certain slaves are written. After literally receiving the keys to freedom in one scene, a group of freedmen take priority in first doling out judgment on their former master, rather than undo the shackles of their containment. Slavery, in Django Unchained, is more of a plot point to move along certain emotions and junctures than an actual, consistent overbearance on humanity. There are gross missteps in who is really able to do what; some slaves are given guns, some are allowed to dine with “the 4th meanest plantation owner in the state,” and yet some are simply cast aside to be ripped apart by hunting dogs.

   Although Django is, after all, the titular character, I did find that a great deal of the story happened to follow Dr. King Schultz, seeking to tell me more about his own personality rather than Django’s. Django is a character who tends to grow and evolve due to Schultz entirely—it is King Schultz who frees Django, trains him to be a bounty hunter, and tells him the crux of his fated heroic journey. Thusly, it is in fact a white man who takes up the titular black hero of the movie, “unchains him,” and brings him to his imprisoned wife, Broomhilda. How then, can we even say Django is strong and independent—or even in direct control of his destiny? How can we shake off the idea of the benevolent white man who, partly out of fascination and partly out of duty to his mercenary contract, takes up arms with the brash Django? King Schultz, though not racially woebegone or entirely ignorant, appears more or less an observant free agent in America’s struggles, espousing “the way of the gun” and his own brand of rogue justice. He is, for all intents and purposes, the Western outlaw with a new spin; a stranger in a strange land who intends to make the most of a dirty business. However, it is also this unfamiliarity with these customs which dooms him entirely. Curiously, Schultz’s inexperience with the flesh trade and the ignoble acts of antagonist Calvin Cande are what drive Schultz towards a pithy, premature death—one which actually hinders more than helps the quest of his protege, Django. In his fiery murder of Candie, Schultz represents a “sudden, shameful white guilt” that this film perhaps might inadvertantly cater to: hasty, self-indulgent sacrifice to wash one’s hands of what one has glossed over, leading to an even bigger mess to clean up. King Schultz realizes too late that his selective sense of justice will not let him ever walk out of Candieland alive.

   The film may have chiefly followed the journey of Schultz, a white man with a wild gun and a general ignorance of the measures of Southern American brutality, but the story still does cast us with at least a parting view from the eyes of Django, as well. There is proof enough of this in how Tarantino wrote the casual branding of “nigger” at every which way Django turns—but it is here that Django Unchained becomes a bit different from Inglorious Basterds. Inglorious Basterds prefers to use other terms to describe the oppressed, and in another role played by Christoph Waltz, the comparison of Jews to “rats and vermin” is made. Jews are characterized as those who must flee, hide, and disguise themselves under false names; in Django Unchained, there is only one, consistent term, and it is universal among every plantation owner because there has been no colossal war (at least, not yet) and thus, no uprising. In the South, the “battle” has already been won and there is little to hunt; men of power already hold the cards and will not let African-American slaves forget it with every utterance of this word. There’s additional umbrage to be taken with the utterance of the casual, modern “nigga” by Django and lead house slave Stephen in the final confrontation. I’d have to say that kind of writing, while absolutely ridiculous, was merely shoehorned in to fit the newfound cadence and cockiness of Django. In fact, it is so blunt a reminder of this film’s “historical fiction merged into snarky revenge fantasy” bullet point that one might feel as though they have been given a concussion.

   I haven’t touched upon the character (or issue) of Stephen yet, but his presence alongside Django is by far one of the more interesting parallels in the film. It is for certain that Stephen is, in fact, the true puppetmaster and caretaker behind Candieland; his regular sass back at Calvin, along with his sagely appropriations about Dr. Schultz’s true intentions, provide enough evidence to that. And yet, even in spite of this power he wields over the general household, it is revealed that his affliction—his crippled leg—has been a facade all along, only just walking normally on two legs as he stares down Django for the last time. Here, we see two starkly different characters: Django, who has been taught how to act, even to a fault (as he silently refuses to protest against Candie killing an escaped slave) but all for a “greater good” to rescue his wife and exact revenge….and Stephen, who has faked his true capacities in the foreground for most of the film. Stephen carries with him not only this secret, but a hatred—of Django, who is allowed to ride horses and talk back to white plantation owners and carry firearms without proper allowance. Django is a complete oddity in Stephen’s existence where there are rules and harsh regulations. For Stephen, his way of life is the only way he knows; though it has rewarded him with a degree of power, it is not without letting others perceive him as frail, weak, and a mere manservant. To see the “one in a million” Django turn this table is inconceivable. The way in which a black man is actually utilized as the penultimate villain for Django to overcome might be explained twofold: One, that Django is effectively killing the symbolic symbol of self-repression and acceptance of one’s life being born into servitude, and Two—casting aside Candie as the true oppressor in order to achieve total neutrality in this last, grand death.

   Earlier this year, Quentin Tarantino posed for a photoshoot in W Magazine with Django Unchained actress, Nicole Galicia. Tarantino is stolid and draped in a handsome robe, hand over the hip of the nude Galicia—who played the role of Calvin Candie’s black concubine. Reading deeply into this photo, one could infer any number of things—not all of which might be necessarily true of either person in the snapshot. However, what we can rightfully infer is that the film carries an overall nature of spectacle and brashness and swagger over a dire need for a historical truth or definitive statement on the backdrop we’re given. Tarantino is the kind of guy who has told people that he loves writing strong, black characters because “black people are cool.” While this notion probably does stem from his experience with old, gritty blaxploitation flicks directed by men such as Gordon Parks and Mario Van Peebles, it does not really offer anything of historical or moral merit to the situation at hand: that of the American Pre-war South, relegated to a shallow grave for the gun of Django. Django Unchained ultimately offers many questions and interesting parallels between characters of both races—it also offers cool, terse dialogue, superb acting, and visceral thrills. It does not, however, offer us any progression in terms of how African-American people view slavery. However much I do actually enjoy this film and the collected works of Quentin Tarantino, it is my sincere hope that he does not lazily use yet another historical minefield of horror and brutality as a plot contrivance in the future.