‘Django Unchained’: Race Is On

Leonardo di Caprio Django Unchained

Remember Mississippi Burning? White people loooove that film. Sure, the villains look like us, and the damsel in distress (i.e., the black population of Mississippi) doesn’t. But the heroes are simply the best. Movie viewers need to identify with our heroes, and who better for that than two enlightened white knights, played wonderfully by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, who ride in to save the helpless black people while teaching those racist bastards a hard lesson? That’s what I call a feel-good movie.

Such films are psychologically important for us Caucasians. It’s something we can point to and say, “See, we hate white racists as much as you do.” The violence perpetrated against blacks in Mississippi Burning is deftly portrayed by the filmmakers to inspire righteous outrage rather than discomfort. It’s a long way from Al Jolson doing  blackface in The Jazz Singer (God, why did that embarrassing moment have to be immortalized?) or the squirm-inducing depiction of slaves in Gone with the Wind.

Oh, slavery.

To the white reader: Have you ever presented your heritage as proof you had nothing to do with slavery? I’m sure I have. German missionaries from the north on my dad’s side? Check! 1920s British immigrants on my mom’s side? Check!

Nope. No slavery on my ledger. In fact, putting aside the continuing persecution of gays, the Holocaust, and centuries of brutal colonialism all over the world, my bloodline’s history is polished as sterling silver.

So here is the deal with being an enlightened, straight white guy of western European descent: I have to accept that people of color and other minorities aren’t going to run up and tell me how awesome I am for not being a racist. Or an anti-Semite or homophobe for that matter. The best I can hope for is, “I appreciate you’re moving in the right direction, but you can never understand my experience or relate to the suffering your kind has caused mine, so I’m sure you will excuse me if I remain wary.”

sweet sweetbackHere’s another film about racism, not quite as well known as the first one I mentioned: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. It’s a black-revenge fantasy from 1971 directed by and starring Melvin Van Peebles that concludes, after the black hero has killed the bastards who wronged him, with surely the best end-title card/warning in the history of cinema. I quote: A baadasssss nigger is coming back to collect some dues…

Obviously, the film was not made for a white audience, so the final message is not there to cause discomfort. It’s there to be cathartic for its intended viewer. If you want squirm these days, you’re going to have to go see Django Unchained.

Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Quentin Tarantino has some of the biggest balls in the movie biz. The audacity of a white guy making a black-revenge fantasy in which almost every white character is a disgusting, racist pig, from a script with more racial epithets than a dozen NWA albums, for mainstream audiences. Mainstream being be a euphemism for white.

The plot of Django Unchained involves a bounty hunter King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) acquiring a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx), the only man able to identify the three criminals Shultz is tracking. In the course of their adventure, Shultz discovers that Django is not only a natural-born gunslinger but is also married to a slave named Hildy (Kerry Washington) who has been sold off to a plantation owner in another state.

Kerry Washington

Kerry Washington

Let us step away from all this profundity for a moment to admire the hotness of Ms. Kerry Washington. Mmmmmm. If there’s one thing you can count on with me, it’s my willingness to grind an article to a halt and implode my carefully crafted sensitive-guy image in favor of lecherous perversion toward a sexy actress.


So anyway, Django and Shultz decide to use their tracking and killing skills for the far nobler cause of rescuing Hildy from the wicked Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), which requires a great deal of shooting and scenery chewing. The biggest battle of the film may be the charisma war between Waltz and DiCaprio, both quite larger than life, as one expects from a Tarantino film. Waltz steals the show from Foxx for most of the film, mostly because Foxx is playing Clint Eastwood’s laconic Man With No Name – Django Unchained is a spaghetti western, after all – and Eastwood never had such a dynamic co-star in the Sergio Leone films that inspired this movie.

That said, Foxx’s every shot, even when he is in shackles and being marched across a desert, is a hero shot. When we, as viewers, feel angry, it is Foxx who provides the violent catharsis. Whether you are black, white, Asian, or an Antarctic penguin, he is unquestionably the audience surrogate. Can it be that Tarantino has made the first post-racial film about race? Time will tell.

Plenty of people criticize Tarantino for his liberal use of the n-word, and Spike Lee has made it a public point to boycott the film. I’m not sure why, though I’m guessing Lee believes Tarantino uses racial epithets as a way to titillate teenage white boys. A three-hour western might not be the shortest path to reaching such an audience, but I admire Lee for not being afraid to speak his mind, just as I admire Tarantino for that reason. May I suggest that he make his own western in response, instead of calling for a boycott? More artistry and less bitching, in other words.

Aside from a few indulgent flourishes, such as the randomly changing title-card sizes and lettering, Django is Tarantino’s most mature film since Jackie Brown. Yes, he can’t resist anachronistic music, like setting gunfights to hip hop, and what’s with Foxx’s Bobby Womack sunglasses? But for the most part, he stays honest to the genre, abandoning his usual non-linear, multi-story complexities in favor of the ambling, leisurely pace associated with classic westerns, even employing a number of John Ford touches like the traveling montage to show passage of time.

Jamie Foxx Django Unchained

Jamie Foxx as “The fastest gun in the South.”

Perhaps the most uncomfortable element is the depiction of plantation slaves, with their childlike speech patterns and the way the pretty ones are costumed up and made to behave like living toys for the amusement of their white captors. Unlike Gone with the Wind, though, these portrayals aren’t lazy stereotypes. They are absolutely meant to disturb. For all the shocking violence elsewhere in the movie, the most chilling shot of the entire film, for me, occurs during the “mandingo” fight in Candie’s parlor: Candie commands one blood-soaked gladiator, at the conclusion of a rather graphic brawl, to finish off the loser. As the exhausted slave complies (to the off-screen sounds of crunching bone), the camera cuts to a slave girl, all gussied up to look like a human doll, trying desperately to hide the abject horror, lest her master decide to perpetrate his next act of brutality on her for breaking character.

Much later in the film, when Django finally unleashes his fury, we are grateful to him for making all the horror go away. At last, the Man With No Name has one: Django.

The D is silent.


Eric J Baker

Comments: 6

  • jkillough December 30, 201212:29 pm

    Well done, Mr. Baker. You are keeping us profoundly esoteric and relevant at the same time. Thanks.
    Although I appreciated this film far more than the circus shitshow that was Inglourious Basterds, my problem with all Tarantino product is the same: why dilute the impact with mockudrama and those B-movie references? My mind just shuts down over that, for some reason, and refuses to budge, like a petulant child whose game of pretend has been usurped by someone whose own brand of pretend the petulant child loathes, and what makes it worse is the usurper’s brand is so popular with the other kids.
    For instance, I get how Les Miz references early 19th-century painting.  It’s germane to the piece.  Why make such an important film, which is admittedly shot through with streaks of brilliance, as a spoof on a spaghetti western?  And, no, ‘spoof of a spaghetti western’ isn’t redundant because, as someone who grew up in Italy with those films, I don’t remember them being so weighted with comedy or irony, i.e., being spoofs of “real” westerns.
    When they call Tarantino ‘cool,’ I hear myself replying, “He’s not.  He’s just a geek with a record collection.”  AO Scott said that QT has successfully argued over the years that B movies are relevant.  I disagree because I’m not convinced, and doubt I ever shall be.

    • ericjbaker December 31, 201211:19 am

      jkillough I don’t know if I view this movie as a spoof of spaghetti westerns. I think it just IS one. It’s pretty true to the genre, with some heavy doses of The Searchers (maybe the greatest of all westerns, albiet with some troublesome views on race) stirred in. I could have done without the the Johah Hill scene, which was the only bit that truck me as spoofy.
      To me, Tarantino’s biggest problem is trying to throw every idea he has into each film, to the point of creating jarring tonal shifts. This was especially evident in Inglourious Basterds. But I believe with Django he has kept that to a minimum. Hell, my mom saw it and called it “riveting.” And my mom is never wrong. 
      When it comes down to it, I’m just a geek with a record collection too, so I’m a little biased. Tarantino makes the movies I would make and uses the songs I would use.

      • jkillough December 31, 201211:44 am

        ericjbaker jkillough I think the whole first half was a spoof. It’s not a spaghetti western because it’s not shot in Italy with Italian actors, despite Franco Nero’s appearance.  Why shoot it as another dead genre?  That’s my point.  He should pay homage to the era, not a style of B-movie.  I went to see it with a filmmaker who doesn’t speak English very well. Afterwards, he said, “Maybe I need to see this again with subtitles.” 
        “You didn’t miss anything,” I replied.

        • ericjbaker December 31, 201212:19 pm

          jkillough ericjbaker You and I watch movies through a different lens (no pun intended)… You as a filmmaker and I as a film enthusiast. You’re looking for things I wouldn’t notice or consider and perhaps evaluate movies from a “peer review” perspective. My brain is trained on music, and musicians revere “homage” above almost anything, even if the inspiration is considered base.
          Thanks for mentioning Franco Nero. There was no way for me to work him into the story without being too tangential. Anway, there’s my musician brain at work. When I see a cameo from Franco Nero, I see homage, while you may sit there thinking, “Oh, come on!” To me, that’s the same thing as stealing a lick from Rush during a guitar solo: paying tribute.

        • jkillough December 31, 20122:34 pm

          ericjbaker jkillough This filmmaker v cinephile thing has been on my mind a lot lately.  Since I started reviewing, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to read the “professional” critics; for instance, I am outraged that A.O. Scott has made the comparison between Beasts of the Southern Wilds and Lincoln, calling the former “Spielbergian” and basically assuring that it gets a Best Picture nom.  It’s influence peddling of the worst kind, and also grossly inaccurate and unfair from a filmmaker’s point of view: Beasts is so amateurish it’s almost unwatchable.  It’s like a long short film that was a darling of the festival circuit, nothing more. And the performances are the worst thing about it. They might get noms, too.
          Franco Nero was an early crush of mine. We knew him as Terrence Hill.  His sidekick was a bearish guy named Bud Spencer, but as a kid I assumed they were Americans dubbed into Italian—Italians dub everything, masterfully.  I remember when I found out they were really Italian, it was like finding out Santa Claus didn’t exist.  But that didn’t take the pleasure out of watching their films, not to mention their shtick, just as knowing about the Great Santa Fraud didn’t diminish Christmas.
          All of which is to say, you would think I would have appreciated Django more.

  • jkillough December 30, 20121:09 pm

    But I must thank Tarantino for educating me about Alexandre Dumas’ blackness. Maybe I already knew it, but time had eroded that bit of trivia.

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