Django Deconstructed: Returning Tarantino’s “Gift”

[SPOILER ALERT and TRIGGER WARNING – I use the N-word when quoting Django and others]

A picture of the manufactured doll of Django

OK so I’ve been thinking about Django Unchained a lot. Search the badlands of the Internet and you will find oceans of online commentary dedicated to Tarantino’s revenge-fantasy-cum-blaxploitation Western flick. Spike Lee condemned it, allegedly he read the script before deciding it was an assault on his ancestors. He and Quentin have a long history but more on that later. After taking a dip in a few reviews and commentary, last week I watched it with friends to decide for myself. One person I watched it with said it was the “best film he had ever seen”. Another thought it was “fantastic”, I had to grudgingly admit that I actually enjoyed it. The film was beautifully shot, with a brilliant soundtrack and I genuinely thought it was a well crafted and subversive homage to the Western genre.

Now I don’t agree with Cecil’s Brown’s “Hollywood’s Nigger Joke” theory; that Tarantino created the film to turn the enslavement of Africans into a joke. It appeared to be a considered and entertaining engagement with one of the most ugly parts of American history. Despite that, I think the film is laden with patriarchal and benevolent white supremacist themes, because of it’s conventional narrative and use of certain “Western” tropes. That obviously doesn’t make those who enjoyed it racist or sexist, but shows rather how embedded and unquestioned these ideas are within mainstream society.

From what I read, the key question debated seemed to be this: Was Django Unchained racist or subverting American racist clichés? Then, by implication, does that make Quentin Tarantino racist or anti-racist? This framing is limited to the popular understanding of racism, as the overt discrimination of an individual or group by another individual based on their perceived ethnicity. What it doesn’t address are the issues related to structural/institutional racism often described as white supremacy, or when viewed in the intersectional context, the kyriarchy. I want to look beyond Tarantino’s personal intentions and analyse the ideas that are actually reflected and reinforced. Anyhoo, the best summary of this debate I read was by Jermaine Spradley at the Huffington Post, on the pro-Tarantino side we have Jamelle Bouie who wrote:
“The most important thing about Django Unchained is that it’s a reaction against, or corrective of, movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. At every turn, it subverts or inverts the racist tropes that have defined Hollywood’s—and our culture’s—treatment of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.

The sympathetic, gentlemanly slaveowner? Inverted in the form of Leonardo DiCaprio’s venal, brutal, and sadistic Calvin Candie.

The pliant, fearful slave? Inverted in the form of Jaime Foxx’s Django, a gifted and confident sharpshooter.”

Though Jermaine’s own view is that Tarantino’s Django Unchained has insensitive imagery and is not without it’s flaws, it is definitely not racist. But what does Quentin Tarantino say about his creation?

Quentin Tarantino on Django

His Channel 4 interview will be remembered most, for the pompous “I’m shutting your butt down” quip. But when Tarantino responded to Krishnan Guru-Murthy’s first two questions, he stated what he thought the purpose of this film was:

  1. To “give black American males a Western hero… that could pay blood for blood”
  2. He saw the Transatlantic Enslavement Trade as a holocaust that hasn’t been “dealt with”

By referencing Auschwitz, he made a direct link to Inglourious Basterds, and that this was a revenge movie with an explicit political motive. It would be easy to think that, like Inglourious, it’s an alternative history that “resolves” a historical injustice, with the “white racist class” replacing the Nazis and Hitler as the antagonists. However Tarantino stated in another interview that it is not held in an alternative universe:

…I don’t really think this is really alternative history at all. Everything that happens in the movie has a really strong historical basis. I’m not following a true story, like “Based on a true story!” I’m not following a slave narrative from the history books, but the world that the movie takes place in – the business of slavery in Mississippi at that time is very true to life.

So this wasn’t a throwaway blaxploitation movie, it was Tarantino’s well researched “gift” to African-Americans. Just because it has a lot of humour that doesn’t make it a comedy or a spoof, it was grounded in a serious realist view of the South with exaggerated characters to emphasize not diminish the reality. Recognising his great white burden, Tarantino declares that no-one has talked about the issue of enslavement in the last 30 years. Presumably Professor Melissa Harris-Perry‘s 20 years of work in academia and in the US national media and many others like her, just does not count.

So all glory to our saviour! For by his benevolence, those poor downtrodden black folk finally have the confidence to talk about the Transatlantic enslavement of Africans. What could be wrong with this issue being rectified by a white guy who has a fetish an affection for black people and blackness? Look at this testimony to his love for the dark ones. Lo, behold, the Lord Quentin declares the holocaust of Native Americans to have been “dealt with”.

Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?

Jelani Cobb noted that, while watching Django Unchained in Harlem, a largely black audience cheered with joy every time Django killed an overseer. Regarding gun reform in America, gun supporters are asking African-Americans “What would Django do?” So perhaps they understandably appreciated Tarantino’s gift more than I could. But as I am an ungrateful African, I’m going to have to ask for the receipt. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the problematic ideas I identified in Django Unchained:

  1. The “one-in-ten-thousand” 
  2. The Damsel In Distress
  3. A white man called “Dr King”
  4. White supremacy only exists because of the bad, the psychotic and the stupid
  5. Capitalism = Freedom
  6. The Epic Trolling of Fred Williamson aka Shaft
  7. bell hooks says Context Matters and the racial homogeneity of Hollywood

This isn’t to condemn the film as the most racist film ever or the most transgressive. There may be many interesting aspects or transgressions that I’ve missed. I’m just saying what I see.

1) I am that one nigger in ten thousand

django-1

This was, by a long shot, the clearest political narrative and for me, the most despicable. Candie is heard in two separate scenes calling Django an exceptional figure, “one in ten thousand”. The rationalisation is that Django is deficient of the submissive and obedient nature of the black. Tarantino creates this to mock Candie, as his argument is based on a then widely held belief, the bogus science that is phrenology. However wrong Candie’s rationale is, Tarantino underlines that Django really is exceptional because he is the sole African that fights back. This goes to the heart of Tarantino’s motivation and why this film, like most conventional Hollywood films, is fundamentally racist. In Tarantino’s “realist” historical setting, the enslaved masses such as D’artagnan only attempt individually to run away. Django is the answer to Candie’s question: “Why don’t they just rise up and kill the whites?”, the subtext is that the enslaved, until that point, did not. This ignores the fact that on the Eastern bank of the Mississippi, in 1811, 47 years before the setting of this film, the largest rebellion of the enslaved took place, the German Coast Uprising. Tarantino’s “realism” erases this history by portraying the enslaved as near uniformly compliant. Gone are the victories of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian revolution which in turn inspired the German Coast Uprising, and other Southern rebellions of the enslaved. A proud history displaced by the myth of the exceptional individual. This is how far we have come, in 2013, we have a “subversive” film maker that perpetuates the shameful and dishonest myth that the enslaved did not, of their own volition, collectively fight to liberate themselves.

2) Them old boys done rode a lot of miles, went through a lot of trouble, just to get that girl

broomhilda

A key part of Tarantino’s career has involved strong female characters, as in Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Jackie Brown. He often subverts the trope of the woman as the victim. Perhaps tellingly, for us poor black males, here he submits to patriarchal convention. The damsel in distress is a classic theme often used by male writers as a key plot device. Essentially she is the trophy, her value is in being young, helpless and most importantly possessing unquestionable physical attractiveness. The leading woman’s role is to cry, be afraid and be dominated. The leading man role is to fight, be fearless, and dominate over. He is the powerful force that the damsel intrinsically cannot be. Broomhilda fulfils this role. She is a one-dimensional character, solely defined by her relationship to Django. Another tell, this film like most Hollywood movies, fails the Bechdel test. Women in this film do not have meaningful conversations with each other, even the exchanges that take place are revolved around men.

3) I’ve never given anybody their freedom before. I feel responsible for you.

dr-king-schultz

A white man called “Dr King” in a film about the enslavement of Africans? Give me a fucking break. The audience are encouraged to like Schultz, he is witty, educated and shrewd. Unlike Django, he is shown to have empathy towards strangers. How can we not like a man, who decides to give Django his freedom? And therein lies the problem. Django, it is hinted at, is the catalyst for the Civil War. This is why it is important that the film is set shortly beforehand. Ultimately this means that the enslaved Africans did not free themselves entirely but instead owe some part of their liberation to the benevolence of a white liberal. Sound familiar?

4) Damn. I can’t see fucking shit out of this thing.

Django_Unchained_Klan

In terms of how racism is dealt with in Django Unchained, I have more of a problem with what Tarantino chooses not to portray than what he does. There are two types of white people in Django, the evil idiotic fools such as those who defend and profit from enslavement and the lone noble cultured liberal who would rather die than acquiesce to a racist intellectual pygmy. Check the binary opposition: we have the good and the evil, the educated, self-made European liberal versus the inbreeding psychopathic Southern idiots. The white audience need to identify with our heroes and so the enslavement of Africans is explained as a system that only the corrupt and stupid could condone. This simplification performs a very powerful function for white liberal audiences, not only can they see themselves and therefore the present/relative future in Dr King (Schultz) but enslavement and it’s racist logic is explained as something only the “bad guys” do. With Steven we have the Uncle Tom to end all Uncle Toms and is revealed to be the real mastermind of the horrors of Candie-land. He much more than Candie, is the real villain.

In Tarantino’s political polemic, white supremacy isn’t a concept that perpetuates itself by and through the good people that make up America’s laws or enforce them. Certainly not by (shock horror!) liberal minded Americans who love black people. This of course is a myth; racism in America is systemic and structural. “Bad people” do not explain why there are more African-Americans imprisoned now than those who were enslaved in 1850. By obscuring structural reasoning, the problem is reduced and personalised to Steven, the KKK, Candie and the “Big Daddy” of the past and absolves the present from its gory past. The white and perhaps black liberal viewer can easily laugh at these archaic creatures and may struggle erroneously to make any link between that world run by racist psychopaths and their world run by a smooth talking, basketball playing, poetry reading and child killing black President.

5) D’Artagnan Motherfuckers!

dartagnan-dogs

In Open Democracy, Matt Cole’s review of Django Unchained perceptively explains how the film reinforces the “bootstrapping” myth, that is, individuals achieve success primarily by “pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps”. He adds:

Django adopts this title of ‘one-in-ten-thousand’, displacing himself from the subaltern class of black slaves…

Django the exceptional, shows no interest in the plight of others. He pays “blood for blood” for D’Artagnan’s death, apparently to ease his and posthumously Schultz’s conscience. But that aside, he conveys no notions of racial subjugation nor unlike Dr King, has any desire to free the enslaved people he encounters. Django is no Nat Turner. He ruthlessly pursues his own individual interest and destroys anyone who gets in his way. This is one of the key morals of Django, there is no collective, no value in abstract ideas like solidarity. The only ethical imperative is that individuals fulfil their self-interest and through that collective liberation is (eventually) achieved. This concept is older than the bootstrapping myth. It is the ethics of Adam Smith and the neo-liberal virtues of F.H.A. Hayek, two of the arguably most influential theorists on Capitalism. The irony being that Tarantino takes the prevailing values of a system which made African enslavement necessary, and applies it to the liberation context. In doing so, he disregards the important opposing and historically-based impetus towards mutual aid. Well fuck you very much.

6)  ..her name is Broomhilda von Shaft?

williamson-boss

Tarantino is the definition of a film geek, he got a break into film-making by impressing a film producer while working at a video rental store. Originality is not an important concept in Tarantino’s most recent films, the yellow tracksuit in Kill Bill, the behind enemy lines trope (read Dirty Dozen) in Inglourious Basterds. In this film we have the name “Django” lovingly ripped off from the original and the actor who played the original Django (Franco Nero) is given a cameo. The idea that a former enslaved African who becomes a bounty hunter, or the one who delivers the righteous “payback”, was a concept originally devised for film by Fred Williamson. He pitched the idea and then made a series of Western blaxploitation films in the 1970s. One such film was Boss Nigger, note in the trailer, the shots carbon copied by Tarantino in Django Unchained:

I have no doubt Quentin “lover of all things black” Tarantino used this as an inspiration. In these films (also directed by white men), Aisha Harris compares the politics of those films with Tarantino’s:

The central plot line of The Soul of Nigger Charley revolves around Charley and Tobey enlisting the help of other ex-slaves to fight against Col. Blanchard and Gen. Hook, men who have vowed to restore the Confederacy to its glory days. “We ain’t never gonna be free so long as black people are slaves,” Charley says to his hesitant compatriots. Such racial solidarity is noticeably absent from Django Unchained

…the blaxploitation movies feel like the more radical films. Charley wins his freedom by killing his master and escaping the plantation. In Tarantino’s movie, by contrast, Django tries and fails to escape and is only liberated, and empowered, by the benevolent bounty hunter Dr. Schultz.

In Quentin’s quest to give African-American males an action hero, he offers no cameo and pays little, if any, tribute to Fred Williamson aka John (von) Shaft, the African-American actor who starred in the films that Harris describes. Quentin even starred with him in From Dusk Til Dawn, and knows that Williamson was in The Inglorious Bastards original movie. He, if anyone, is the first black “Hollywood Western” hero. It is without doubt that he is a huge influence. Once again, Tarantino denies this past and supplants it with his own creation. As it plainly has less radical politics than Williamson’s, this film can only be described as a shitty insult to what went before.

7) Now bright boy, I will admit you are pretty clever.

unnamed_african
As I said before, the film is enjoyable due to its craft and humour. But well before this film was made, bell hooks stunningly critiqued the Hollywood spectacle and made a very important point. Watch this video presented by her. In the first two minutes it shows an excerpt of Spike Lee’s film, Girl 6, in the clip Quentin Tarantino plays a version of himself and says:

“[it is going to be] the greatest romantic, African-American film ever made. Directed by me, of course.”

Life imitates Art. No wonder Spike couldn’t watch it, he made a film in 1996 to comment on how Hollywood sees blackness, i.e. an exotic setting or genre, that needs not bear any relation to, or autonomy of, the community from which it is sourced. This is what kyriarchal culture is about, not a sadistic impulse to denigrate women, Africans or their ancestors, but to prevent the oppressed from telling their own story whilst paternally offering them an alternative. Tarantino, as a creature of his time, is continuing in this long-held tradition. Salon asks “Could a black director have made Django?” Who cares? A structural critique would ask: Why isn’t there even a single African-American director with similar resources to explore the enslaved experience? bell hooks sublimely explains why Spike Lee is denied that possibility. Even if London-born director, Steve McQueen is able to in his upcoming film, Twelve Years a Slave, Emancipation is still a long way off and it won’t come from Hollywood.

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23 thoughts on “Django Deconstructed: Returning Tarantino’s “Gift”

  1. […] For a more in depth look at the possible racism in the movie, you should all take a read of JustinStruggles wonderful post on https://justinstruggles.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/django-deconstructed/ […]

  2. BobFromBrockley 02/03/2013 at 11:59 am Reply

    I’ve got a few comments. I’ll do them one by one, as I’ve got things cooking for the kids on the hob, so I might not get to the end.

    First, two general points. The first is probably too big for now, which is that, while I 100% support the structural analysis perspective, I don’t completely go along with the “white supremacy” and “kyrarchy” paradigms. To me, these raise as many problems as they solve. But that’s probably for another time.

    The second is that I think we need to be more careful about distinguishing between three very different orders of critique. There is a critique of the film, and a discussion of whether it is a racist text or not, or probably more productively an exploration of the way in which it generates racist readings and perpetuates racist effects while also allowing considerable space for anti-racist and resistant readings. This sort of critique should stand up or not on its own, and not rely on the more dubious question of whether Tarantino is a racist or had racist intent. Yes, he certainly is a racist, but it is completely possible for someone not really racist to make a racist film and for someone extremely racist to make a non-racist film. In general, I think the inquisition into the soul of the racist is a dead end. (I have the same problem with similar debates about, e.g. Steve Bell’s antisemitic cartoons, which too quickly collapse into accusing him of being “an antisemite” or defending him from the allegation, which seems to me beside the point.) And then there is a third order of critique, which is about the structure of Hollywood, which you get to in part 7 of the post, which is a big and important topic, but way beyond my own competence.

    • Admin_J 03/03/2013 at 10:52 pm Reply

      First of all, really grateful for your engagement with this, very much appreciated. Most people have either liked or said it was “interesting”. Without raising much of a discussion, I like more than a note of interest or agreement so thanks for participating!

      On Kyriarchy which I won’t go into detail here, I strongly disagree that it “raises” more problems than it solves. It is an attempt to portray or describe the varied modes of oppression can occur. I think “white supremacy”, is more useful than “racism”, very much like capitalism is much more descriptive than “exploitation”. It is an attempt to show the origins of these ideas and what the aims of these ideas are. I guess if you doubt that white supremacist thinking dominates political discourse in European cultures then let’s park this conversation for another blog post.

      On Tarantino, I agree that it is besides the point whether Tarantino is a racist or not.

      I wasn’t seeking to prove that he was racist and therefore use this as proof that his film(s) are racist. That would be a facile argument. I was genuinely wanting to examine his motivations as a way of disarming the “you are reading too much into this” argument. Tarantino sees the film as a political (and anti-racist?) statement, therefore it is justified to assess it as such and according to those standards. I am not interested in his soul, just his motivations in order to analyse his film in the context that he himself views it. I think you can appreciate the frustration of being read out-of-context and I am explicitly trying to avoid doing this. This is why it is important to examine motivation and setting. What aggravates me is his perceived benevolence.

  3. BobFromBrockley 02/03/2013 at 12:04 pm Reply

    1) I am that one nigger in ten thousand

    I completely agree with you on this one, and this was my main thought while I was watching it.

    2) Them old boys done rode a lot of miles, went through a lot of trouble, just to get that girl

    And I completely agree with you one this one.

  4. BobFromBrockley 02/03/2013 at 12:15 pm Reply

    3) I’ve never given anybody their freedom before. I feel responsible for you.

    On this one, I’m not so sure. First, does Dr Schultz mean Dr King? I don’t think it does. I think it is also significant that he is not American. The only semi-good white guy is a German, and kind of a smart-arse, so it slightly blocks the liberal American identification with him.

    Ultimately this means that the enslaved Africans did not free themselves entirely but instead owe some part of their liberation to the benevolence of a white liberal. Sound familiar?. But, ultimately, African-Americans did not free themselves entirely from slavery. There were of course a huge number of incidents of resistance and rebellion; there were black soldiers fighting in the Union army; and African-American radicalism was a force pushing white Abolitionism forward, but the emancipation of slaves historically did come about partly through white people’s action, both the political will (however ambivalent) of part of the elite (Lincoln etc*) and through the sacrifice of enormous number of white Northern servicemen and civilians.

    (*I appreciate that the Abolitionism of Lincoln himself was far less straightforward than the recent Lincoln blockbuster makes out, and don’t want to overly heroicise him, but nonetheless his role is undeniable.)

    Inglorious Basterds, which I haven’t seen, is good food for thought here. It is important to honour the resistance of Jewish partisans (such as the Bielkski Brothers, as in the Daniel Craig film Defiance), of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, etc. But ultimately, the camps would not have been liberated if it were not for Soviet, British, American and other non-Jewish military sacrifice and political will, however ambivalently this was delivered.

    • Admin_J 03/03/2013 at 11:09 pm Reply

      Do you honestly think that a constructed film about enslavement and US racism could have a character called Dr King and that be a complete coincedence?

      I didn’t put you down as being naive, Tarantino is a meticulous character, he makes knowing references throughout all his movies and you can look at this and think… nah. He just chose Dr King because it sounded nice?

      Anyways I agree that it is significant that Schultz isn’t American, the outsider can ally with Django, and also not yet desensitised to the brutality of enslavement. This is key to Schultz getting upset in Candie’s mansion and being tormented to the extent where he commits suicide through killing Candie. Does him being German, block liberal US audiences… I don’t think they are that xenophobic. Dr Martin Luther King was black but he could identify with white liberals because he shared their values, spoke and came from an educated middle class background. I wouldn’t make such a crude equation that Schultz being German means that white US audiences can’t identify with him as their surrogate/representative. Django undoubtedly is the surrogate for primarily African-American audiences.

      but the emancipation of slaves historically did come about partly through white people’s action, both the political will (however ambivalent) of part of the elite (Lincoln etc*) and through the sacrifice of enormous number of white Northern servicemen and civilians.

      Though it is formally true that enslavement was abolished, I wouldn’t really call this emancipation as legal discrimination and segregation took another 100 years to be revoked, plus the ideas, legacy and effects of institutional white supremacy are still with us today. However yes, the elite did allow more freedom than before, this political freedom however isn’t something to be celebrated when the social and economic freedoms of the oppressed are still yet to be realised. Should I be grateful for the benevolence of the ruling class in accepting that these forms of political subjugation were untenable and economically unsustainable due to revolt from below? Come on “Bob”.

      • bobfrombrockley 05/03/2013 at 11:56 am

        I managed to watch the film while completely missing the fact that Schulz’s first name is King! I thought you were saying Schulz means King. Sorry!

        On his German-ness, I don’t mean straightforwardly that white Americans are utterly unable to think themselves into his position. What I mean (I think) is that his positioning in the film is not just as White Person but (also) as Not American. His Germanness, his European culture (Beethoven, Wagner), his intellectuality etc, all position him as radically outside the American and specifically Southern plantation system. That is, there is no redemption within the system, and no American in the film not culpable for it. I think this makes it more sophisticated than the liberal fantasy of the benevolent white redeemer.

        On emancipation, well, I’m not asking you or anyone to be “grateful” but… Are you really saying that what we have now is no better than planation slavery? Of course the abolition of slavery is not full human emancipation, but I think the term emancipation, referring basically to the Emancipation Proclamation and its legal confirmation in the 13th amendment, is a good enough shorthand for the abolition of chattel slavery. It was of course not the end of the struggle, and a century more of formal discrimination and civil exclusion and the continuing racial injustice weren’t conjured away. But surely that freedom is something to celebrate? Are you saying we don’t have any victories until the final victory when all oppression is abolished?

        Obviously, we must harshly criticise any account that only includes the benevolence of the rulers in these incremental and much-resisted steps towards equality. But a claim that the abolition of slavery was effected without the involvement of a coalition that included bourgeois white liberals (as well as white radicals like John Brown) is historically dishonest.

  5. BobFromBrockley 02/03/2013 at 12:28 pm Reply

    4) Damn. I can’t see fucking shit out of this thing.

    This is an interesting set of points, and I sort of agree. In particular, the lower class Southern whites are portrayed as beyond any moral reason. But I have several reservations. First, it’s very hard to portray the structural stuff in a compelling film narrative. Second, Candie is more complex than a straightforward bad guy. He is a psychopath, and DiCaprio hams him up appallingly in a way that reduces his complexity, but his attitudes towards black people (including his consort) is more complex than racist attitude, and in fact specifically it is racist ideology (crude biological theory) rather than bad guy nature is shown as underwriting his commitment to racist structure.

    Most importantly, Steven, as head house negro, has an important role in showing that structure does actually matter: his stake in perpetuating white supremacy is enormous, and this is the case with all structures of oppression, which cannot rely on force alone.

    However, what the film is brilliant at presenting is precisely the significant role that force did have in keep alive this particular manifestation of racist structure (and which survived in the post-Emancipation era in the Jim Crow South). A more liberal film-maker would have flinched from showing the extremity of violence and especially terror that sustained the system and stopped the 10,000 from killing the masters.

    Because – and this is part of my problem with the white supremacy paradigm – not all racist structures are the same as each other. As DuBois shows so powerfully, the plantation system in both the slave period and the Jim Crow period relied on raw terror to survive, whereas the structures of oppression that mark America today (especially, as you note, under a black president) do include forms of violence in the hyper-ghetto/carceral archipelago but largely work through ideology and manufactured consent. To collapse all racisms together is wrong, and Tarantino should not be critcised for making a film set in 1858 which isn’t about 2013.

    Critical time in the kitchen. Will resume later.

    • Admin_J 03/03/2013 at 11:51 pm Reply

      I agree with your points on Candie and Steven though I think I should clarify a few points. It is entirely indicative of male white supremacist thinking, that there is a dissonance between sexual attraction and racial hatred. Oppressions of sex and race can and do overlap even in contradictory ways, this is often how kyriarchal oppression works. It is also uncontroversial to show that enslavers often had sex and of course fathered children with enslaved women.

      The “Uncle Tom” reference, is from the famous abolitionist novel “Uncle Tom’s cabin”, the character Uncle Tom is created to show the child-like innocence of the enslaved African, how non-threatening and kind he is to the white population. African-Americans use the phrase Uncle Tom to refer to the self-hating and complicit thinking that Steven portrays.

      I think structural ideology is quite well portrayed in this part of the film and mocked but the message… I’ve made my point on this.

      When I criticised Tarantino in rarefying the past, I did not mean that he should have made a statement about racial politics in 2013, though I don’t think that is unreasonable to attempt. Neither do I think white supremacy is a uniform constant which manifests itself in the same brutal fashion throughout history. I am a bit offended you would think I am that ignorant or simplistic. Capitalism has matured, evolved and adapted to social changes throughout history and I would expect the same with other forms of oppression.

      My criticism was this, white supremacy has been essentialised by Tarantino as this brutal system that can be avenged by in-kind brutality. By limiting structural racism to this brutal form, you could think that the ideas of white supremacy died with abolition. My point is that is far from the truth. This isn’t collapsing all racisms into one form, it is highlighting the exact opposite, structural racism is not only brutal enslavement, it can be indirect and dehumanise in less obvious ways. Hence incarceration rates, unemployment statistics, educational opportunities etc. White supremacy is not a single form that existed in pre-abolition America.

      • bobfrombrockley 05/03/2013 at 12:57 pm

        It is entirely indicative of male white supremacist thinking, that there is a dissonance between sexual attraction and racial hatred. Yes, I completely agree. But I think (and I’m thinking aloud now, not writing up my firm convictions) that Candie’s relationship with the appallingly named Sheba is more than sexual, and that intimacy and sexual desire are related but not the same thing. Candie’s racism is not visceral in the way that e.g. his friend Leonard’s is, hence his need for the racialist ideology to sustain it.

        Re “Uncle Tom” I got the reference. (In the book, Tom was servile, but he refused to give up the locations of the runaways, who were women; his character was very different from Steven’s, although that’s not how his name is used any more.)

        I don’t think you’re ignorant or simplistic, and forgive me if I gave that impression. I think understanding racism is important, and that’s it’s worth teasing out our analysis carefully.

        My guides in these matters are Barbara Fields and Colette Guillaumin. If you’ve not read them, I’d strongly recommend them, especially Fields, whose key texts are on the web and directly relevant to Django: http://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/essays/fieldsideolandrace.html and the links from her Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_J._Fields
        Guillaumin’s main book is on line: http://pds23.egloos.com/pds/201211/22/71/Colette-Guillaumin-Racism__Sexism__Power_and_Ideology.pdf

        OK, I think that’s me done for now.

    • Pran Patel 09/03/2013 at 9:47 pm Reply

      1) Dr King Schultz …. This was definitely no accident – no way! (By the way Schultz is Deutsch for village leader)

      2)The one in ten thousand quip is particularly striking -the whole film reinforces this point over an over. Just a blatant disregard of the Slave revolutionaries and freedom fighters throughout the time. After watching the film you’d be forgiven in forgetting the struggles of Zumbi dos Palmares and his predecessors in Brasil.

      Is this a racist film? Or is it a lazy attempt at ripping of a blaxploitation western? Mmm naivety is no excuse either….

  6. bobfrombrockley 05/03/2013 at 11:13 am Reply

    I’ll just quickly explain my views on the concepts of “white supremacy” and “kyrarchy”, then I’ll resume where I left off at the weekend, then later I’ll try to actually respond to your comments.

    My problem with the concept of “white supremacy” is that (a) it flattens history and (b) it naturalises race in general and whiteness in particular. As a description of ideology, I believe its descriptive power is limited to the historical period of biological racism, and its purchase reduced in an age when Benetton multiculturalism, colour-blindness and the fiction of post-racialism are among neo-liberalism’s dominant ideological themes, and when more straightforwardly racist ideological narratives are more likely to assert white victimhood than superiority. And as description of structure, I think it simplifies more than it captures.

    Although I strongly buy into intersectionalist analysis of different structures of oppression, my problem with the concept of “kyriarchy” (apart from I have trouble spelling it) is that it seems to me to have limited descriptive or explanatory purchase on the concrete and historically contingent ways in which different structures of domination and exclusion intersect with each other while remaining relatively autonomous – but it may be that I simply don’t understand the theory well enough. While the concept is right in refusing any originary role to one particular structure of oppression, it seems to me this misses the historical specificity of different structures of oppression e.g. that racism is historically pretty modern while patriarchy is ancient, that class relations are of a fundamentally different order etc etc.

    That’s where I am at the moment anyway, open to changing my mind, and not disrespecting those with different views.

    6) ..her name is Broomhilda von Shaft?

    This is really interesting stuff. The direct quotation from Boss Nigger is really striking, and it is a very good point that the Blaxploitation black westerns of that era were much more politically radical than this film (mainly because of not falling into points no. 1 (that one nigger in 10,000) and 5 (D’Artagnan motherfuckers)). However, I don’t think I go along with the idea that he dis-honours Fred Williamson by not being more explicit. There are an enormous number of un-cited quotations from other films, mainly European spaghetti westerns. He’s given one cameo to a white European (and, again, I think the fact he’s non-American is significant) actor, who played the original Django. I suspect there are other cameos from cult actors I didn’t notice. But most viewers wouldn’t have even realised Franco Nero was in it. The un-cited quotation is standard fare for the postmodern geek film-making that Tarantino exemplifies, which gives the cinematic pleasure of recognition to the in-the-know viewer. The nearly final scene in which Django rides the horse in a circle is one such moment, I think. It is both a direct quotation from a 1950s Western, but also a reference to the type of ponies the Southern plantation masters rode. As with the Boss Nigger quotes, both references, the romantic and the radically subversive, are only present for those in the know. This is politically and ethically problematic, perhaps, but not as straightforwardly, I think, as you suggest.

    7) Now bright boy, I will admit you are pretty clever.

    You’re right that Tarantino’s arrogance in offering a gift to “black American males” is disgusting, but your final criticism is apt in shifting the finger of blame to Hollywood as a whole (or, rather, the culture it reflects and sustains), and not at Tarantino or of Django. I guess, though, it raises a dilemma for all white film-makers. Should they avoid “black” topics until black film-makers have equal access to Hollywood’s resources?

    8) Mandingo fighting

    Finally, as well as your seven points, the thing that really disturbed me in the film were the moments of pure exploitation, in which the degradation of black flesh was graphically portrayed as spectacle of white pleasure rather than black terror: in particular the Mandingo fight scene, but perhaps also the scene of the naked Broomhilda taken from the box. Of course, historically, this type of spectacle was very much a part of the plantation system, but its staging in this way was one of the most ethically shaky things about the film.

    Back later to respond to your earlier comments.

  7. bobfrombrockley 05/03/2013 at 12:23 pm Reply

    Quick footnote on no.6: The title song to the original Django is sung by Rocky Roberts, an African-American boxer turned musician who became a naturalised Italian citizen. Thus although Fred Williamson is not honoured, there is an explicit recovery of a black history (indeed black voice) within the Western genre. If you were even more of a geek than I am, I suspect you might find other examples.

  8. Beth 11/03/2013 at 12:49 pm Reply

    For me the problem is more that it’s packaged as an _anti_-racist film, so white people can go to the cinema to enjoy the usual spectacle of voyeuristic violence and feel virtuous about it afterward, even though because it’s based on the usual hierarchies and stereotypes (in the ways that you say) it does reinforce racism. Agree with all the stuff in your blog post except that Tarantino often ‘subverts’ woman as victim and has strong female characters – I don’t think switching roles over is subversive. And to me it looks like Django does the same thing – puts the victim of a crime in the role of the perpetrator of it. Real-life violence often is passed on in that way when it’s person-to-person violence, and when it’s whole group oppression then a special person is occasionally allowed to join in so it just doesn’t seem subversive to me in either case. I think realistic portrayals of extreme violence are so normalised as something we’re supposed to enjoy watching that that gets left out of lots of analyses of if his films are racist or sexist. And I think it’s pretty central. Making violence ok and entertaining and unexceptional makes real violence a lot less visible, or less serious, and that violence isn’t being done to slave-owners and rapists.
    about an hour ago ·

    Afterthought – Not seen it but I’d put money on it containing more scenes of black people and women of any colour being tortured or beaten or whatever than of that happening to white men.

    • bobfrombrockley 11/03/2013 at 4:36 pm Reply

      Afterthought – Not seen it but I’d put money on it containing more scenes of black people and women of any colour being tortured or beaten or whatever than of that happening to white men.

      Yes, it certainly does! That’s a fair point, but in the plantation world there was constant everyday violence, often extreme, by white people against people of colour.

  9. darkdrummer1 12/07/2013 at 1:30 am Reply

    I feel like you are not giving tarintino enough credit with schultz. I think that tarintino is VERY cleverly and sneakily portraying both kinds of racists. The outright vulgar, and the likeable, but still structurally racist. Shultz being the latter. Never does he consider DJano an equal, he only gives him a 1/3 of the bounty, he calls him boy throughout the film, and he potentially gets django and djangos wife killed over his own pride when he wont shake candies hand. I think Shultz is the benevolent white. Likeable, believes he is doing the right thing, but still under it all, places himself above the africans

    • Admin_J 12/07/2013 at 12:28 pm Reply

      I prefer your reading though I’m not convinced if that is what Tarantino intended.

  10. […] Django Deconstructed: Returning Tarantino’s “Gift” […]

  11. […] Django Deconstructed: Returning Tarantino’s “Gift” […]

  12. mazhughes 18/08/2013 at 6:26 pm Reply

    Interesting analysis. Some of the problems you raise I find myself having to agree with, now they’ve been brought to my attention, such as the brutal individualism Django displays, and Doctor King’s name.

    Other stuff I’m not so sure about. Schultz clearly has the classic white liberal flaws – says he feels ‘guilty’ but takes advantage of system anyway, patronises shit out of Django, imposes unequal share of reward, and more – and this can’t be an accident. He’s being mocked (cf ridiculous language and bouncy tooth).

    Also, something makes me feel the silencing of the female characters is also deliberately making some sort of point.

    It’s a very difficult film though.

  13. Bloop 07/06/2014 at 8:12 am Reply

    “A white man called “Dr King” in a film about the enslavement of Africans? Give me a fucking break.”
    Actually I thought the name “King” was a reference to the Spaghetti Western film, ‘His Name was King’ by Giancarlo Romitelli. The song ‘His Name was King’ was even used in the soundtrack.

    • Admin_J 07/06/2014 at 8:45 am Reply

      Wasn’t Dr King though was it?

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