Just saw “Django Unchained.”
Actually, I’m surprised I liked it. I liked it very much.
I’m sure I had Spike’s concerns, if I understand what those concerns actually are. But I think they have something to do with a white filmmaker not being able to handle such a serious topic like black slavery—you know, his maybe undermining the cruelty of the institution by having a slave seemingly pleased with his status. I’m sure Spike, for whom I have great respect, can reel off a list of happy darkie stereotypes (or their variants) given birth in Hollywood.
Frankly, I feared the Quentin Tarantino factor.
Some time ago, I saw his “Inglourious Basterds.” I liked that movie too. The beginning has to rank among the most powerful beginnings in American cinema. But as that movie also showed, Tarantino can be too jokey even while dealing with such a serious subject as Nazi oppression of Jews.
Let me be clear, to use an Obama phrase.
I don’t expect a movie to save the world. I know there has to be an entertainment factor. There has to be a, as they say, story there. It’s a freakin’, well, movie.
I remember the sixties. “Shaft” had come out. (Uh, scratch that. It wasn’t the 60s. As a tweeter reminded us earlier today, “Shaft” débuted in the early seventies, 1971 to be exact. Now, where was I?)Some black people called for a boycott. I think it was because the movie depicted a black guy as a superman type. He wasn’t real. Something like that. Of course, before that movie came out, the complaint was about too many movies depicting blacks as too jivey or too happy or too criminal. They, in other words, weren’t real. Truth be told, it’s hard to find any real character in any movie. I don’t know. Heck, it was a private dick flick. That was the genre. The hero this time was black.
“Django” falls into the genre of a Western. An Italian Spaghetti-Western at that. Against the backdrop of American slavery. In Mississippi. The hero is like the hero of all Westerns, a kick-ass stalwart for good—even though Django has his lapses on his way to freeing his wife from a life of slavery. But most modern movies go beyond the older counterparts in their elusive attempt to make characters more fully formed or more, well, real. Hey, we’re good and we’re bad too, aren’t we?
Tarantino, thank goodness, often gets out of the way of this flick—-or, more important, doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling with artsy interruptions (at least not many). He lets the characters tell the story principally: Jamie Foxx as Django and his bounty hunter-slash- dentist sidekick, played by Christoph Waltz. Yes, there was the concern that the great white father would save the day, but Django’s growth as the main man almost seemed organic. Let’s give Tarantino props for being so enlightened.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Django’s wife’s massa, brought up a point you don’t hear in American cultural works involving slavery: You know what we as whites wonder, Leo’s character says. We wonder why they (that would be blacks) haven’t killed us. Using as a prop the skull of a former Uncle Tom servant, Leo’s character posits some reactionary theory about blacks not having the intellectual wherewithal to muster such an attack, but it also appears that he hasn’t really convinced himself. I think that many whites still fearfully await that Great Day of Retribution. That’s one reason why some of those nutcases in Idaho have so many guns. They’re always talking about the impending race war. I think many whites are saying hey, if I was treated the way we treat them, I’d be head hunting. In other words, Clarence Thomas is just too good to be true.
Speak of the devil, Clarence and his cohorts like my 2102 Collaborator of the Year Bo Snerdley (hey, we’re gonna have to pick a new one in a few days with the coming of a new year) are well represented by the Uncle Tom servant Sam Jackson plays (maybe with a little too much relish). His name is Stephen and Stephen says “nigga” more than the white racists throw around the word. He’s also as hard on the brothers and the sisters the massa has allowed him to control. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear he was Thomas Sowell. I sat with a packed mainly black audience and I could tell Stephen made more than a few squirm. Many tried to snicker away their discomfort. I understood. It is uncomfy seeing what too many of us have become trudging through this wilderness but, hey, sometimes folks need reminders about how they appear, especially if they’ve convinced themselves they’ve appeared otherwise.
We had to be Uncle Toms or suffer the dire consequences is usually the defense for this group. But as an old friend of mine—a Harvard trained chemist— put it once: “But we could have also died.”
Kerry Washington is a babe with great eyes. It’s disappointing she, as Django’s wife, didn’t do much in the movie—but suffer. It was interesting seeing her talk in German to the bounty hunter. It was great seeing her and Django riding off together in the sunset. But was there nothing of depth for her to say to him while we watched?
I was also aware of Tarantino’s reputation of gratuitous and especially graphic violence. Wasn’t there a scalping or two in “Inglourious”? The man does nothing to hurt his rep in “Django,” trust me. But it was good seeing Foxx get all that sweet revenge on his—and his peeps’—tormentors. When have we seen that in America cinema? It doesn’t necessarily have to be fiction, you know. There were several actual rebellions, a few that mirrored Tarantino’s make-believe depiction. We, in other words, fought. Maybe Spike can do a bio on Nat Turner. I think he’d do a great job.