Long before Django Unchained was released on Christmas day, there was a lot of buzz about this movie. Spike Lee called Django Unchained an insult to his ancestors and swore that he would not see it. On just about every major Black blog and Facebook page, there has been a discussion about how this movie deals with slavery, whether or not Tarantino is a racist and what this film says about the media in general.
Leonardo Di Caprio has publicly stated his difficulty with having to repeatedly use the word nigger in the film, Samuel Jackson has refused to answer any questions regarding the usage of the word unless the journalist actually says nigger instead of the “N word” and Kerry Washington has spoken about the difficulty of her role and the staged whipping. This movie was difficult for the actors, for the viewers and the critics. In term of race, I cannot remember the last time we had a movie become so much a part of the social discussion.
I am going to preface this review with the fact that I am not in the least bit a fan of Quentin Tarantino. I think he is far too comfortable using the word nigger in his work and much of the time, it adds nothing to the plot or development of the character. A White man can never understand how deeply casual usage of this slur hurts Blacks and Tarantino’s treatment of the pain itself, has a history of being cavalier at best.
Without doubt, the usage of nigger was ubiquitous throughout Django Unchained but unlike other Tarantino movies, a setting of two years before the civil war absolutely justified its usage. It would have been ahistorical for White plantation owners to use any other word to refer to Blacks, let alone their slaves. It is wrong to apply 21st century standards and moral sensibilities to this time and would have made slavery itself seem like a benign institution. The problem is that given Tarantino’s comfort with the slur, it makes acceptance of its inclusion in Django Unchained, feels like giving him permission to continue to litter his work with it.
I find it interesting that there was so much fixation on the word nigger considering the context, but no one had anything to say about grown men being forced to fight to death, a slave being eaten alive by a dog, whippings and brandings. The very idea that Quentin Tarantino reduced the barbarity of slavery by his usage of slurs, when these violent events were a part of the movie is ridiculous. As a viewer, I had no doubt that Black life was viewed as cheap and that slavery itself was beyond dehumanizing. In fact, the brutality of the violence itself, made the moments of brevity absolutely necessary to give the viewer a form of relief.
Django Unchained is like no other western I have ever seen because of it’s theme and of course Black protagonist. Watching it, I could not help but realise that no Black director could have made this film because it would have been difficult to get the financial backing. Even George Lucas had to fund Red Tails himself because studios refuse to believe that movies about Black history, or which have a largely Black cast, can possibly be successful outside of the coonery produced by Tyler Perry.
The suffering of black people is not reducible to revenge and
retribution. The black tradition has taught the nation what it means to
love. Put it another way: black people have learned to love America in spite of, not because
of, so if the justification for the film in the end is, as Jamie Foxx’s
Django says, “What, kill white people and get paid for it? What’s wrong
with that?” well again, black suffering is not reducible to revenge
It’s true that the Black experience is not solely reducible to revenge; however, the turn the other cheek doctrine of Dr. King is also not the definition of the Black experience. Yes, Blacks have resisted oppression and we have done so both forcefully and violently. Does Smiley believe that there was never a slave uprising or that Haitians peacefully asked the French for their freedom? Does he think that Blacks always slept fearfully waiting for the Klan to ride, or can he understand that some stood on their porches with shotguns determined to meet a threat to their lives with one in kind? Not all resistance was, or is, non-violent, nor should we necessarily demonize people who respond to the violence that Whiteness has perpetrated on Black people with violence. Anger, rage and a desire for retribution are a part of the Black experience; we have simply been taught not to validate it, or see it as a viable response. Because one of the fears of Whiteness is a reckoning for the great evil of slavery and Jim Crow, revenge has solidly been discouraged.
Quentin Tarantino tapped into this emotion, which is why it has resonated so strongly. Black rage is a real phenomenon and it is justified, I am just not sure that Quentin Tarantino is the one to tell this story because it is so far outside of his lived experience. Take for instance the character of the house slave Stephen, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Stephen was clearly painted as evil and was directly responsible for Django, Dr. Shultz and Broomhilda being unable to leave the plantation peacefully. When Calvin Candie was shot dead by Shultz, it was Stephen who fell to the floor ravaged by grief. There has long been a problematic binary of house slaves equal sell out/ field slaves pro black. To be clear, both groups were slaves and there is no such thing as a benign form of slavery. The relationship between house slaves and their White owners was far more complex than Django Unchained could even hope to portray.
Django Unchained is a movie worth seeing. Far too many people are willing to form an opinion on the movie based on what they have read or their discomfort with Quentin Tarantino. It adds to the dialogue about race and slavery even if Quentin Tarantino is so high on himself that he now sees himself as the sole arbiter of Black history in film. Despite his Whiteness and out of control arrogance, he has made a contribution worth watching and thinking about. Even a broken clock is right twice a day and Django Unchained is most certainly Quentin Tarantino’s moment.