[SPOILER ALERT and TRIGGER WARNING – I use the N-word when quoting Django and others]
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
“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:
- To “give black American males a Western hero… that could pay blood for blood”
- 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:
- The “one-in-ten-thousand”
- The Damsel In Distress
- A white man called “Dr King”
- White supremacy only exists because of the bad, the psychotic and the stupid
- Capitalism = Freedom
- The Epic Trolling of Fred Williamson aka Shaft
- 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
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
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.