There is a key scene in Django Unchained that, as my sister Kozi pointed out, most aptly described the experience of sitting there watching this bloody, deliciously witty affair. The main characters are sitting around the dinner table discussing the revolting practice of “mandingo fighting,” or pitting enslaved Black men against each other in a gory fight to the death. In negotiating a sale, they talk about whether one fighter is better or stronger than the other, and the topic of “panache” comes up. Yes, it is impressive to be a strong fighter, but what the audience really wants is panache. A little showmanship.
And that, my friends, is pretty much what I got during the nearly three hours that I sat in a packed theater in Crestwood courtesy of two free movie passes. Show. Man. Ship. Blood, witty, classic Tarantino dialogue, gunfire, retribution and a generous eye full of both Jamie Foxx and Kerri Washington’s sculpted forms… I will admit, despite very deep doubts about ever seeing this film, it was entertaining despite lulls and some distracting cameo performances. But for all those championing it from the rooftops and vowing to see it again and again, let’s be equally vocal about what you don’t get from the experience. Starting with the most important thing:
(1) A Realistic View of Slavery
As my Facebook friends well know, I was not at all excited about seeing “Django,” mainly because—unlike the topic of Holocaust in “Inglorious Basterds,” I believe that the ugly period of American slavery has not received its just due or respect. The lack of education is galling. I, in fact, got into an argument with a college classmate who couldn’t even believe that slaves were beaten. “I mean, seriously,” this fool had the nerve to announce in front of a packed African American history class. “Why would they whip their own property? That makes no sense because they could potentially lose a worker.” **blank stare** (In case you’re wondering, I asked him how he thought you could motivate a “worker” to work for free, other than brutal physical punishment and mental manipulation.) But I digress… Episodes of such jaw-dropping ignorance at a collegiate level made me wary about a “spaghetti western” playing fast and loose with the facts. Director Quentin Tarantino didn’t improve matters recently when, in the lead-up to the film, he took time out from his pressers to announce that part of his inspiration was to deliver an authentic portrayal of the period. But let’s not paraphrase. Here’s his quote: “When you look at Roots, nothing about it rings true in the storytelling, and none of the performances ring true for me either. I didn’t see it when it first came on, but when I did I couldn’t get over how oversimplified they made everything about that time. It didn’t move me because it claimed to be something it wasn’t.” Jigga what? I’m not saying Roots is a sacred cow that cannot be critiqued, but in no way did Tarantino fill that gap. And in fact, I would argue that the caricature that was Samuel L. Jackson’s manipulative, self-loathing “Uncle Ruckus” in the flesh made “Django” far more cartoonish than it had any business being. Furthermore, did Tarantino insult the “Diary of Anne Frank” as a prerequisite for making “Inglorious Basterds?” Methinks not, so the reason Quentin spoke in three parts to esteemed historian and author Henry Louis Gates about this simple action flick with a slavery backdrop…. Nah, I’m not sure we needed all that.
(2) Respite from Quentin’s “N-Word” Overusage
I’ve said the same thing about one of my favorite authors, Stephen King, who slides this word in (as well as mention of lawn jockeys) whether writing about brain-melting aliens or killer clowns. And to be clear, this is no reflection on his intrinsic artistic abilities. But it must be understood that Quentin Tarantino’s Wu-Tang, action-hero obsessed arse also has a love affair with the n-word, though his may be more tied to an ill-formed appreciation of that aspect of hip-hop culture. He has sprinkled it liberally throughout his body of work, even in awkward areas where it has no business. For example, he did not need to have himself utter it (whilst married to a Black woman) during a pivotal scene in “Pulp Fiction.”
All QT’s apologists who believe that he is taking dictation from his “characters” who just happen to like calling people “nigger” need to set (yes, set, not sit) the hell down somewhere. Inspiration comes, at least in part, from your own personal influences, and unless every movie you are making is a sequel to “Birth of a Nation,” at least some instances of that word could be left on the cutting room floor. I happen to know many words used to describe slaves: slaves, darkies, jigaboos, any number of terms. Yet only one was uttered in excess of 100 times, in this flick. And for those who would contend this really was the “right” and “most legitimate” time to use it, clearly,true authenticity of language was not a huge factor elsewhere in the script. I don’t need an etymologist to confirm that Samuel L. Jackson was doing some nakedly contemporary cursing all up and through the film.
(3) Complete Human Beings
Quentin Tarantino creates memorable characters. I’d argue that almost every single human being who crossed the screen in “Kill Bill,” “Pulp Fiction,” or “Reservoir Dogs” was intriguing enough to make you want to follow them for at least half the film. But in this particular joint, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cristoph Waltz, and Jamie Foxx were gifted with richness and pathos, whereas most everyone else was a bumbling, racist hillbilly (cue dude in tin washtub scene), crazily cruel overseer, cringing male slaves or sassy (or sexy) slave female. Stereotypes, including the aforementioned Samuel L. Jackson role, abounded. If you don’t believe me, run the tape back and let’s talk about it later.
(4) Warm Fuzzies
The trailers don’t lie. Django kicked some racist, mess-talking, epithet-spewing, slave-holding, whip-wielding ass. In that order. But there are other ugly moments in the movie that balance, or outweigh, any “hell yeah” bubbling up in your throat when you watch these comeuppances. Some of those are the horrible whip marks born on both Django and his lady love’s backs, a fight-to-the-death mandingo scene that will have your fingers laced over your eyes, a slave being torn asunder by dogs, and just the general look of hopelessness, fear and horror in the other slaves’ eyes in general. I also detected a thread of disgust with the slaves, for much of made of how Django is not one of them. It plays along with Leo’s revolting speech about the so-called brain that keep the docile “black faces” from ever rising up, even though they had the proximity and opportunity to do just that. I couldn’t help but detect a little message of scorn for those who didn’t align with a German bounty hunter, get weapons training, learn to read and take back their freedom by force. And just in case there’s any confusion, that’s pretty much any other Black character in the movie.
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