Spitting in the Ocean: Django Unchained Considered
Please note: Spoilers Throughout
Toward the end of Quentin Tarantino’s newest, Django Unchained, a genre-mixing film set in the antebellum South and featuring a former slave who becomes a bounty hunter and slays his and his wife’s former tormentors, is a scene of extreme violence, albeit intellectual, emotional violence. Leonardo DiCaprio, in the character of Calvin Candie, a notorious plantation (and slave) owner in Louisiana, wonders aloud to his dinner guests why it is that his and other slaves never rose up against their owners and killed them. His answer — a pseudo-scientific rant that would make a closeted phrenologist swoon with giddiness — is that African Americans, based in part on structural features of their skulls, are biologically predisposed to servitude.
This response is, of course, based in historic truth and reflects the plethora of faux scientific rationales that many whites at that time offered in defense of slavery. But the initial question is one that many have asked throughout the history of America. Why weren’t there more violent uprisings of slaves?
The answer to that question is complex and has varied throughout history depending on the predominant thought of the day. And while Tarantino can’t be said to answer that question in Django, the movie does offer a violent fantasy of revenge and in so doing attempts to claim some agency and justice over a past where, for African Americans in the South, both were quite frequently lacking.
To say that a revenge fantasy depicting American slavery would generate controversy, especially one written and directed by a non-black director, is an understatement. The paranoid on the white right have lambasted the film for its depictions of a black man who seeks vengeance through killing white people, and if we’ve learned anything from Obama’s first term, there is nothing that the white right fears more than a powerful black man with the ability and authority to kill.
The response from African American writers and cultural critics has been just as intense, if varied. Some have praised the movie for its depiction of a slave who is not a victim. Others, have slammed the movie because they don’t feel that a non-black person can accurately depict black life and characters. Some, most notably Spike Lee and Tavis Smiley, have eviscerated the film — without even having seen it — because they feel it makes a cartoonish mockery of slavery and the suffering of slaves, of their ancestors. Still others have praised the movie for challenging and somewhat obliterating the existing boundaries surrounding discussions of race in this country.
All of this — the good, the bad, and the absurd — is to be expected. And very little of it actually deals with the movie that is on the screen. Still, as I left the theater after seeing Django, I felt a sense of unease. Going into the movie, I thought I would be leaving the theater excited and somehow satisfied by the catharsis of seeing slave owners murdered, much as I felt after watching Nazis suffer humiliating deaths at the hands of the Inglorious Basterds.
But why the unease? After all, it’s a good movie. If you like Tarantino, you will more than likely enjoy this film. It includes all of his trademarks, including the righteous violence we have come to expect from him. And it also includes incredibly vicious and, to some extent, historically accurate scenes of violence by slave owners or their overseers toward slaves. In particular, one scene of a runaway slave being torn apart by a pack of dogs was especially brutal. Of course, Tarantino included that and other uncomfortably intense scenes of torture and degradation in order to balance the fantastical and spaghetti Western-styled violence. One argument to justify such depictions is that without some sense of how extreme and whimsical — in the sense that such violence against slaves often occurred at the whimsy of the slave owner — the violence was, the scenes of retributive violence would not work as well. And that begins to get at the unease I felt.
Tarantino did, I thought, a somewhat remarkable job of portraying slavery for what it was — an absurd and dehumanizing institution, one predicated on white delusions and deeply seeded racism, but a system that was also fraught with complexities that defy our contemporary sensibilities. In the movie, we see the social stratification between different classes of slaves on the plantation, from those who work in the big house, to those who work in the fields. In one scene, we see a white master (played by Don Johnson) lead a group of slaves ranging in age from child- to adulthood to confront the main characters. The complexions of the slaves vary from dark brown to light skinned, an unspoken reminder of the frequency by which rape was committed by white owners and which resulted in such diversity of skin color on a plantation. At the beginning of the movie, we see Django as an illiterate and ignorant man, and watch as he becomes literate, worldly and confident. In one brief scene, Django is asked by a white owner to write his name on a document, and he obliges. At that time, in many parts of the South, it would have been illegal and could have been punishable by death for a black person to show that s/he could read or write. This scene is later contrasted with one of Django’s nemesis, Stephen, the head slave in Calvin Candie’s house, “signing” his master’s name to a legal document with a rubber stamp and ink, a sort of antebellum autopen. We observe these and a thousand other small details that speak to the incredibly intricate and intimate violence and degradation that attended slavery in America.
And that’s it for me, that sense of being overwhelmed. Because you can’t just talk about slavery. If you are a thinking, feeling, cognizant human being, you must also do the math and connect what you are witnessing on the screen to the chapters about black life this movie does not include, the viciousness of the Civil War, the brief hope of Reconstruction and the return to something akin to slavery through Jim Crow; the triumph of the civil rights movement and the racist wink and nod of the Reagan revolution. You must feel the contemporary reverberations of slavery, from the similarities between the race-based attacks Lincoln endured as president and those that Obama endures now, to the slow return of “separate but equal” that we are seeing in the education policies of present day Florida and Virginia.
Perhaps you think I am overreaching, holding up a standard and yoke that no movie could ever carry. And perhaps I am. But I would argue that where Inglorious Basterds worked as a film, Django Unchained fell short. Why?
Though the Holocaust was every bit as complex and tragic as was slavery, they are, in my understanding of both, very different in some ways that lend one to being a candidate for a successful revenge fantasy and the other not. Primarily, the Holocaust was a relatively contained event, by which I mean that it has a general beginning and end date. Likewise, we know and can name the individuals who were the primary architects of this atrocity. Though it took a nation (or at least a majority) of people to empower and appease the Nazis, its authors are well known to history. Thus, when the theater containing Hitler, Goebbels, and a multitude of other fascists burns, when Shoshanna’s face is projected on the screen, laughing and mocking the panic and screams emanating from within the theater, we feel some sense of deep satisfaction because we are claiming power over a piece of history so tragic that its full meaning has yet to be completely comprehended. At a more base level, we know that Hitler got off easy by killing himself in a bunker. We feel that he and his cohorts deserved justice that would match their crimes. The fantasy of bringing Hitler to justice while alive is a common one, whether it is expressed as a righteous killing by Jews (as in Basterds), or as a trial by judge and jury (as in George Steiner’s The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.). Where history has denied us meaning and justice, this fiction lets us claim both.
But this tactic does not work for slavery. It does not work because slavery was too big. There are no names we can point to and say, “These are the individuals who created slavery,” no room full of people that we could fictionally kill and collectively feel we had earned some sense of justice or vindication. By most accounts, the first African slaves in what became the continental US were brought to Virginia by Dutch traders in 1619. From that time until the end of the Civil War, slavery became a codified, legal institution, a social fact. Slavery had thousands of authors, a whole nation of architects, and we live with its ramifications today, with the behavioral and cultural beliefs, patterns, and myths that were established during its life. When the Nazis burn in Inglorious Basterds, it’s in the name of the 6 million who died. At the movie’s end, when Django blows up the plantation big house and rides off with his wife, you are left with the sense that he has avenged only his own tormentors and those of his wife. It is a far more limited victory, one seemingly made smaller because of the magnitude of the institution it’s meant to address. Afterwards, as (you have to assume) Django rides out of the South, he will pass numerous other plantations with thousands of souls still enslaved on them. He will then take his place in an America that will continue to deny him and his kin the same basic rights and dignities his white counterparts enjoy for at least another 100 years. Some would say longer.
As the lights came up that day, I looked about and saw a diverse audience of men and women, old and young, black and white. As we walked out of the theater, back into a social reality that has been largely defined by the history we saw on the screen, I could not help but feel how utterly inadequate the movie and Django’s actions in the movie were. A fleeting moment of victory and satisfaction. Like spitting in the ocean with all your might only to have the waves immediately wash over your feet.